“You are what you eat.”
Most people have heard the expression “you are what you eat” and think about how what they eat affects their physical health, but could food be affecting mental health too?
If you think about it, it makes sense. Your brain, like all other vital organs, is working 24/7 to take care of various functions throughout the body. Without good fuel, how can we expect it to be at its best?
That’s why one Massachusetts General Hospital clinician-researcher is conducting research and practicing within the newly emerging field of Nutritional Psychiatry.
What is Nutritional Psychiatry?
Nutritional psychiatry is the study of how food impacts mental health. The field started gaining traction over the last few years, and now more and more research has come out to support it.
For example, a group of researchers from Australia and New Zealand conducted the SMILES trial to evaluate individuals with major depression and compare the impact of a social support group versus a dietary support group. By the end of the 12 week program, the dietary support group showed a significant improvement compared to the social support group.
It is studies and results like these that motivate Umadevi Naidoo, MD, to keep practicing and researching nutritional psychiatry at Mass General, but her journey was not a planned one.
Naidoo always wanted to be a psychiatrist, but also had a passion for food despite not knowing how to cook. During her early days as a psychiatrist, she was inspired by Julia Child and decided to train as a professional chef and study nutrition, at the time not recognizing the potential connection between the two fields. Before long, she was incorporating her love of food and nutrition into her psychiatry work.
“I always had an interest in healthy eating and asked them what they were eating and drinking and if they exercised in a very integrated approach. I didn’t realize I was doing it until later on in my career when I understood what a more integrated, holistic approach was.”Uma Naidoo, MD
Clinicians know a healthy diet and lifestyle are important, but incorporating those factors into everyday clinical care can be difficult. Mental health can be an especially tough subject to approach, says Naidoo, but through the health and lifestyle lens of nutritional psychiatry it becomes easier.
What is Nutritional Psychiatry Care Like?
Dr. Naidoo tries to incorporate nutritional psychiatry strategies with all her patients if time allows, but she also is aware that psychiatry from the nutritional and lifestyle perspectives might not be the best approach for everyone. While food has been shown to impact mental health, it should not be used as the only treatment for someone who may need acute psychiatric care.
For those who are good candidates for diet and lifestyle changes, her unique approach to care involves going through a comprehensive list of factors including things like mindfulness, diet, sleep, hydration and sugar intake.
Assessing a patient’s habits are the first step to understand what lifestyle adjustments can be made. However, any adjustments to a patient’s routine must start small and gradual, says Naidoo. A sudden drastic change in diet could create a sharp imbalance the body is not used to, which she has seen significantly affect a patient’s mental health.
One such example involved a patient who made an appointment because they felt they were suffering from a panic disorder. They were experiencing symptoms of panic and anxiety they had never had before, so Naidoo took a standard history including some of her questions to evaluate nutrition and lifestyle.
In the history there was one thing in particular that stood out. The patient mentioned being a lover of sweets, and in an effort to live a healthier lifestyle they had gone from eating high amounts of sugar daily to cutting it completely out of their diet overnight.
The sudden “sugar detox” was the culprit in the panic attacks and anxiety.
But once the issue was pinpointed, Naidoo was able to work with the patient to slowly adjust their diet to the point where the feelings of panic subsided and medication was not necessary.
It is always important to consult your doctor before making any significant changes to your diet, but here are a few foods that could affect your mood.
The Future of Nutritional Psychiatry
While research shows that nutrition and lifestyle choices make an impact on mental health, it can be hard to incorporate nutritional psychiatry strategies into every patient visit. It is still a relatively new field, and there are not that many people practicing it.
Umadevi Naidoo, MD, founded the Nutritional Psychiatry program at Mass General, and she is currently the hospital’s only nutritional psychiatrist. She continues to conduct research, both locally and nationally, and hopes to secure more funding to grow the program and increase patient access to this unique form of care.
“I think we can all agree we can all do something a little bit better, and no one is perfect, but that being said I always try and meet the patient where they’re at to help them get to where they want to be.”Uma Naidoo, MD