Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.
We know that the brain can be greatly influenced by what we eat, and researchers are beginning to figure out why. The very makeup of brain cells depends on the presence of specific nutrients. Omega-3 fatty acids, for example, are an integral part of the cell membranes. Neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that regulate our thoughts, actions, and moods, are made from amino acids, using vitamin and mineral co-factors. Lack of some of these nutrients can then lead to various emotional and mental disorders.
Diets high in refined foods, sugars,
and unhealthy fats can also interfere
with normal brain chemistry, leading to
depression, as can nutritional deficiencies.
People with depression are commonly
found to have low levels of zinc,
magnesium, B vitamins, essential fatty
acids, and amino acids. Indeed, the last
few years have seen increasing numbers
of studies finding that specific nutrients
can successfully treat depression, anxiety,
ADD/ADHD, schizophrenia, and
even bipolar (manic-depressive) illness.
A groundbreaking study from Harvard
found that omega-3 fatty acids, used
both in conjunction with medication,
and alone, worked so powerfully on bipolar
illness that the study was interrupted
so all the subjects could take them.1
Psychiatry, for the most part,
still focuses on symptom reduction
with medication, rather than looking
at the biochemical underpinnings of
depression for a more organic solution.
Seeing the shortcomings of standard
psychiatry early on, I developed my
own approach, which is to start by
evaluating the patient in a number of
ways— emotionally, physically, and
biochemically. Then I supply specific
natural prescriptions, which include
dietary supplements and foods, often in
tandem with exercise, natural hormones,
and mind-body techniques. Here is a
fairly typical case:
At 45, Angela felt like she was falling
apart. Sitting across from me in my
office, she recounted a familiar story:
“I’m totally exhausted, depressed, and
cranky. Just moving through my day is
a challenge. I’m not sleeping well, and
I have headaches and no sex drive at
all. I’m not as sharp as I was, and my
memory is foggy, too. I’m a mess!”
A clinical social worker by
profession, Angela recognized that some
of her symptoms pointed to depression.
As any psychiatrist would, I asked Angela
how she was feeling emotionally, but my
questioning took a broader view. Angela
soon found herself detailing what she
ate, how and when her energy and moods
shifted throughout the day, and how well
she slept. This was in addition to the
questionnaire that I have all new patients
fill out in advance. I ordered a battery of
blood, urine, and saliva tests, including
screenings for anemia, low blood sugar,
and thyroid dysfunction, all factors that
can contribute to depression. I also
checked her levels of various hormones,
as well as minerals, including toxic ones
like mercury, lead, and cadmium.
After analyzing the results, I prescribed a regimen of supplements, including chromium to maintain blood sugar
levels, magnesium to relax her nerves and muscles as well as regulate
her heart rate, and B vitamins for neurotransmitter (mood) support.
For hormonal balance, I prescribed herbs to raise her low progesterone
and testosterone levels, and adaptogenic, or stress-fighting, herbs to
help restore adrenal function. Well-researched herbs such as rhodiola
and Eleutherococcus senticosis, and reishi mushroom extract support
the adrenal glands without overstimulating. Later, I added bio-identical
progesterone—not synthetic progestin, which can have serious side
effects, such as water retention, depression, migraines, and blood clots.
Within a week or two of following this program, she was feeling
much better, since nutrients don’t generally have the time delay that
medications do. By six weeks, her mood swings and anxiety were
basically gone. Two years later, she remains depression free and
is still taking supplements to control her moods and maintain her
energy. We adjust them every six months or so, with the core being
two daily packets that provide the following: specific amino acids for
brain neurotransmitter support (phenylalanine, tyrosine, glutamine,
5-HTP, L-theanine), a multivitamin, fish oil, antioxidants (vitamins A,
C, and E; N-acetyl cysteine; alpha lipoic acid, or ALA), liver support
nutrients (ALA, milk thistle), and nutrients for blood sugar balance
(glutamine, chromium, ALA). She also takes specific nutrients for
memory—ginkgo biloba, acetyl-L-carnitine, phosphatidyl choline, and
phosphatidyl serine—as well as adaptogenic herbs for her adrenals,
and bio-identical hormones. I’m happy to say that she continues to
do well, consults with me periodically, and expects to stay on some of
the supplements indefinitely. We all have our unique biochemistry with
specific requirements, even if we are eating a healthy diet.
For those accustomed to the notion that therapy means talking
through problems and/or getting a prescription for antidepressants,
this may seem an unusual approach. But as a board-certified
psychiatrist and an expert in nutritional medicine, I long ago became
convinced that no form of psychotherapy can be fully effective if the
brain isn’t functioning properly. And to do that, the brain needs optimal
nourishment, something that is increasingly hard to come by with the
standard American diet (SAD, for short).
Often, people suffering from depression—particularly tired,
overweight women—are told they need antidepressant medication.
In fact, what they may really need is a steady supply of real food and
supplements—not a drug that causes side effects such as weight gain,
low libido, nausea, anxiety, and more depression.
There are dozens of books on the topic; along with increasing
acceptance in recent years that nutritional intervention can treat many
behavioral and mental conditions that we use to think were untreatable.
Why so much interest? Experts say nutritional therapy is catching on, in
part due to growing disillusionment with antidepressants. Physicians
are realizing these are not as effective long-term as was once hoped,
and they often have difficult side effects, leading many to simply quit
Interestingly, a recent study published in the Journal of the American
Medical Association found that the majority of mild to moderately
depressed people did just as well on a placebo as on antidepressants—
without the negative side effects.2 I’d say, let’s invest in studying this
amazing ability of the body to heal itself. Then, adding healthful foods
and supplements can provide the substrate for building a healthy body
If you are experiencing depression that is still unexplained after nutritional
intervention, consult a medical professional, since it might be
the result of a medical issue, from hypothyroidism to a heart problem
or even cancer. I check all of this in my own patients, since many people
on antidepressants, even in psychiatric hospitals, are suffering from
medically caused and treatable depression.
Specific Nutrients to Treat Depression
To maintain adequate levels of natural antidepressant chemicals in the
brain, I recommend eating plenty of vegetables and fruits, whole grains,
and lean protein. Drink lots of water, get adequate sleep, and exercise
regularly. Research shows that exercise can work as well as medication
for mild to moderate depression.3 Instead of negative side effects, all of
these solutions offer side benefits!
People often find the natural approach can ultimately be more
effective and satisfying than medication. Even small changes—like
cutting out processed foods or adding daily fish oil capsules—can
make a big difference. And once started, the process can develop
its own momentum. When people start eating better or taking a few
supplements, they often feel better. Without much effort, they find
themselves eliminating sugar, caffeine, alcohol, or whatever they were
using for mood control. A balanced brain is a happy, non-craving one!
For more information on natural approaches to brain and mood imbalances, as
well as scientific references on the use of individual nutrients, see the following
- Natural Highs by Hyla Cass and Patrick Holford (Avery/Penguin Putnam, 2002)
- 8 Weeks to Vibrant Health by Hyla Cass and Kathleen Barnes (McGraw-Hill, 2005)
- The UltraMind Solution by Mark Hyman (Scribner, reprinted 2010)
- Optimum Nutrition for the Mind by Patrick Holford (Basic Health Publications, 2004)
- Stoll AL, Severus WE, Freeman MP, et al. Omega 3 fatty acids in bipolar disorder: a preliminary double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1999; 56:407-12.
- Fournier JC, DeRubeis RJ, Hollon SD, et al. Antidepressant drug effects and depression severity: a patient-level meta-analysis. JAMA. 2010; 303(1):47-53.
- Dunn AL, Trivedi MH, Kampert JB, et al. Exercise treatment for depression: efficacy and dose response. Am J Prev Med. 2005 Jan; 28(1):1-8.