The right food is not only good for your body, but can act as medicine for the brain. Nutritional Psychiatrist, Drew Ramsey, MD, tells us more in this Q&A with the WAM Weekly. 

WAM: When people think of a psychiatrist, they tend to think of talk therapy and medications. What is a nutritional psychiatrist and how is the field of nutritional psychiatry still evolving?

Dr. Ramsey: Nutritional psychiatry is an emerging field in mental health that considers the implications of nutrition in the prevention and treatment of mental health and brain health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and dementia. Imagine a mental health experience that includes all of what you mentioned…talk therapy, maybe medications or supplements, and alongside an assessment of what, why and when you are eating. That’s nutritional psychiatry. 

WAM: Is there a difference between eating for brain health versus eating for depression and anxiety? What are the differences?

Dr. Ramsey: There certainly is a lot of overlap because there is overlap in the causes behind these conditions themselves. Lowering inflammation and increasing gut health can help improve both. With anxiety, there is often more focus on the timing of meals and evaluating stimulants in foods and sources of simple sugars. With depression there is often more of a struggle with motivation and concerns like craving carbohydrates.

WAM: Are you suggesting people replace medications through your diet—or augment them?

Dr. Ramsey: I’m suggesting that everyone with a brain pay attention to nourishing it. The best current evidence for food as a means of treating depression, is as the the food is a powerful source in augmenting traditional medications and psychotherapy. Recent trials show that adding a Mediterranean style diet into a treatment setting can lead to up to thirty percent more people achieving full remission. I’ve been treating patients with depression and anxiety for twenty years and it is increasingly important to me that nutrition be recognized for the healing powers it has and be used responsibly and appropriately in clinical settings. All to say, some people need medication. A lot of us benefit from and need talk therapy. And every brain deserves and benefits from proper nourishment.

WAM: You and Dr. Laura LaChance created something called the Antidepressant Food Scale. What is this and how can it help someone achieve optimal brain health through food?

Dr. Ramsey: At issue here is whether you can provide the brain with more of the nutrients it needs for fewer calories. The answer is yes, but only if you focus on nutrient density, which is the amount of nutrients you get per calorie. Dr. LaChance and I created the The Antidepressant Food Scale by first identifying the twelve nutrients that most impact depression and then finding which foods contain the most of these nutrients per calorie. These foods are the most efficient and effective ones for the human brain as they have more of the nutrient we know the brain needs. They are also the foods rich in nutrients that are missing in most processed foods.

WAM: There is a lot of debate about whether or not to take supplements to get nutrients for your body and your brain. What are your thoughts on taking supplements? 

Dr. Ramsey: There is no debate in my mind. You can’t replace food with supplements. Everything you eat, you must process. How does your body deal with the megadoses of random stuff people take? Honestly, it is strange to me that so many people spend a lot of money on supplements instead of healthy food. A lot of them may eve be eating a diet that leads to sickness: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and we now know, anxiety, depression and dementia. I worry that the supplement debate obscures the food problem. I do appreciate that some medical conditions requite supplements and that some people simply feel better with whatever regimen they have discovered.

WAM: Dark chocolate is listed in your top food categories to beat depression and anxiety. What makes dark chocolate so good for our brain and our mental health? 

Dr. Ramsey: Can’t we just leave it a mystery of the universe? What puts the kapow in the cacao? Is it the iron? The fiber? The magnesium? The special phytonturients that seem to reverse age related memory decline and increase blood flow to the brain… We aren’t exactly sure which elements contribute to better brain health, but take altogether, we know dark chocolate is a pretty good package. It may sound like hyperbole, but the science of dark chocolate was a real treat to review for the book. Get this, eating daily dark chocolate is correlated with a 67% decreased risk of depression!

If you want to learn more, you can now pre-order Dr. Drew Ramsey’s book, Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety, here.