Eating a healthier diet might affect your physical health by lowering your blood pressure or your cholesterol. According to Dr. Uma Naidoo, it also just might improve your mental health.
Naidoo is the author of a new book, This Is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to the Surprising Foods That Fight Depression, PTSD, ADHD, Anxiety, OCD, and More, and she's bringing her unique insights into the relationship between diet and mental health to local audiences through a new video series produced by Lakewood Ranch's Brain Health Initiative.
Naidoo runs a private psychiatric practice in Newton, Massachusetts, and is currently the director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and the director of nutritional psychiatry at the Massachusetts General Hospital Academy. But she also knows how to cook. She grew up in South Africa as part of a large Indian family. When she moved to the United States to study psychiatry, she found herself cooking family recipes to unwind.
"Cooking at the end of the day was my time of relaxation and enjoyment," she says. "That was my mindful space." She also lacked cable TV, and found herself watching Julia Child on public television a lot. "At some point, after my residency, I felt I wanted to do more with cooking," she says. "I decided that if Julia Child could do it as a second career, why couldn't I?" She enrolled at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.
Eventually, Naidoo's interests in cooking, nutrition and psychiatry braided together. With her patients, she uses nutrition as a way to complement other treatments and medications, and recommends specific types of foods that can help people struggling with things like depression or anxiety.
In her book, Naidoo explains how different ingredients can positively affect one's mental health, and even includes recipes people can make at home. That's also what she'll be doing in her new video series, which will be posted on the Brain Health Initiative's Facebook page. The first episode will go live Saturday, Aug. 1.
To combat depression, for example, Naidoo suggests seeking out foods with omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in sockeye salmon and other fatty fish. Eating a meal high in such fatty acids twice a week could help alleviate symptoms of depression.
Naidoo says many of her patients feel confused about how to eat better, because of the proliferation of food and wellness trends. Her goal in writing the book was to create what she calls a "well-vetted" resource with concrete tips that people can understand.
"The book is based on a large body of work from my clinical work with patients, as well as taking what we know in the scientific literature and whittling it down, making it digestible," she says. "It was very important for me that it would be something my patients could pick up and read."
The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic catastrophe have raised stress levels all across the country. Naidoo says people are sleeping more poorly, turning more to alcohol and drugs and relying more on prescription medications. They're also eating worse.
"When you're stressed, your brain becomes hyper-sensitive to the rewards of tasty, high-fat, high-sugar foods," Naidoo says. "And when you feel better with the use of that substance, you want more of it. The problem is the longer-term effect."
According to Nadoo, eating healthier can boost your mental health during times when anxiety runs high, like it is now. It can also help prevent mental health problems from developing. "Food can be used as your armor," she says.