Brain Health and Mood

The brain and nervous system can be vulnerable to the harmful effects of poor dietary choices as well as by not providing a healthy social environment or regular active brain stimulation, all of which can lead to increased risk of mood disorders, dementia, and other related conditions.

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Our nervous system is dependent on many important nutrients and conditions that help it maintain full and normal function. Taking care of our brains is similar in many ways to taking care of any other organ in our bodies. Foods that are good for our bodies in general are also good for our brains. A Nutritarian eating style maximizes and takes advantage of these brain-protecting nutrients. Some nutrients found in the foods emphasized in the Nutritarian eating style provide building blocks for nerve cells while others reduce inflammation and plaque build-up in brain cells and blood vessels in the brain. All this, combined with providing a healthy social environment and regular, active brain stimulation, becomes the best strategy for improved mood and a healthy brain throughout your life.

Mood disorders, such as depression, are strongly linked to nutritional imbalances and deficiencies. Though life’s stresses may be blamed as a primary cause, the inability to deal with stress and the breakdown of the brain's stability typically stems from inadequate nutritional intake or heightened requirements of phytochemicals, antioxidants, zinc, Vitamin D, B12, and long-chain omega 3, DHA and EPA.


Ask The Doctor

The following are sample questions from the Ask the Doctor Community Platinum and higher members can post their health questions directly to Dr. Fuhrman. (All members can browse questions and answers.)


I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, which seems to be at its worst during the winter months. I know not to ingest stimulating foods, such as coffee and tea, as they do play a part in my melancholia, but what other foods should I avoid? And, do you have any other tips for overcoming SAD during particularly hard times of the year?


As far as foods to avoid, it comes down to eating a high nutrient diet and avoiding the processed, refined foods, including sugar and caffeine, and minimizing animal products to less than 10 percent of total calories. Take the supplements I recommend to avoid deficiencies in B12, Vitamin D, and DHA, and get plenty of sunshine. It is important that the exposure to sunshine occur at the same time each day, first thing in the morning. When this is not an option, I recommend light therapy with a therapeutic light designed for this purpose.


Are the causes of Parkinson’s disease genetic, environmental, or diet related? If they are genetic, then is it just a roll of the dice as to who gets them?


Most diseases involve both genetic and environmental causes. Some interaction between genetics and the environment are present in Parkinson’s. Parkinson’s has some link with chemical or pesticide exposure, and it is possible that a genetic sensitivity to that exposure and multiple chemicals could promote the defect.


I read your article on the DHA/Parkinson’s connection. My 62-year-old brother is hardly the model for healthy eating, and he does have Parkinson’s, but he also does eat a lot of fish (which I have understood to be the best source of DHA). So, why then does he have Parkinson’s? Is DHA a successful form of treatment once people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s? Is eating lots of fish an acceptable way for some people to get the necessary DHA? Also, what causes these toxins that lead to Parkinson’s?


Parkinson’s is not caused by DHA deficiency, but DHA deficiency makes one more susceptible to the toxins that do cause it. So, just because your DHA stores are normal doesn’t mean you can’t get it. Nobody knows the precise causes of Parkinson’s, but there are some studies that implicate certain toxins and pesticides.

Your brother should eat right and take DHA. Keep in mind, however, that this will not cure it but may slow the worsening of his symptoms. Most fish do not have much DHA and EPA, though wild salmon and sardines are rich. I do not recommend people eat much fish because of the pollution and mercury issues. Eating some wild, low-mercury fish once or twice a week is an option, as is taking a little supplemental DHA. He still needs to adhere to a Nutritarian diet to prolong his life and reduce his chances of this getting worse.


Have Parkinson’s disease patients been treated at your facility? Can you say something about how they do on your plan? Thanks.


Over the years, many patients with Parkinson’s disease have been helped here. Research has shown that diet has a profound influence on our nervous system and neuronal function. Phytochemicals within a Nutritarian diet have been found to modulate inflammation and oxidation in the brain. Patients with Parkinson’s have excessive amounts of both, so, the hope is that by providing sufficient nutrients to diminish further neuronal injury and eliminating foods that are pro-inflammatory, people with neuro-degenerative illness will have decreased progression and maybe improved function.

We see people at various stages of Parkinson’s. The best time to institute the dietary changes is early on in the course of the illness. Nevertheless, even for people who have had Parkinson's for a while, this dietary style will be beneficial on many levels.

Also, certain supplements are being studied and may be useful such as CoQ10, riboflavin, curcumin, resveratrol, and EPA and DHA.


I’ve read several articles that state that gluten sensitivity may cause depression. Is that true? I’ve experienced depression and fatigue for years. I would have thought losing 70 pounds would have given me more energy but it hasn’t. Do you think I should try a gluten free elimination diet? If so, how long would it take for me to know if gluten is a problem for me?


Even though depression and fatigue are both on the list of possible symptoms one can have if they are sensitive to gluten and eating it, the high glycemic diet with white flour and sugar is a much more likely factor. We have to be careful not to assume that one is sensitive, though, just because they have these problems. Sometimes people will notice that they feel the effects of foods such as grains and fruits that can cause a rise in blood sugar quicker than other foods, which can include somewhat of a withdrawal effect resulting in perhaps fatigue or depression as well as other possible symptoms, but that isn’t the case for most people. Change your entire diet to a Nutritarian diet with the proper supplements I recommend to aid your mood. Utilize light therapy too, as that is an effective intervention. Your diet then will already be low in gluten anyway, but if you don’t see a significant improvement in a few months, a trial off gluten is reasonable.


Is there any real evidence that refined sugar contributes significantly to depression, such as scientific studies? I know that the physical body suffers tremendously from sugar consumption, but I would like to know if it really affects mood and how.


Yes, oxidative stress in general, which means low intake of the broad spectrum of plant-derived phytochemicals can also contribute to depression. Also, Vitamin D deficiency and omega-3 deficiencies can also contribute. I’ve also included a study for your review, and, yes it is also true that sugar, fast food, and commercially baked goods are linked in scientific research to depression. For example, in this study published in Public Health Nutrition, those who ate more fast food or commercially baked goods had double the risk of depression.


My son seems to be depressed lately. He doesn’t stay focused and sits around a lot and watches TV. He is 31 and married with a one-year-old. He is also 30 pounds overweight. He gets interested in eating and exercising and then day 2 - stops. Can eating healthy help with this, or should he go to a doctor and get evaluated? Most doctors will just put him on anti-depressants or Ritalin. What do you think?


A standard American diet is deficient in nutrients that foster optimal brain health. Low levels of nutrients like zinc, omega-3 fats, vitamin D, and folate, to name a few, are linked to depression and ADHD. Plus, medical studies reveal poor nutrition, junk food, and commercially baked goods are a causative factor. Given his weight, he likely has insulin resistance and other hormone imbalances that are associated with mood and behavior disorders. So, eating a high nutrient dense diet along with a few important supplements is critical to his mental wellbeing.


How does taking omega-3’s help with depression or other mental issues?


There are many theories on the mechanism of why high dose omega-3 fatty acids improve depressive symptoms, but we do know that it does help and has some kind of mood stabilizing effect. The dose of the EPA ingredient should be fairly high to maximize speed of onset. Most studies recommend 1,000 mg of the EPA component daily, but I do not think that high a dose should be maintained forever. After a few months, cut back to about half that amount.


I am a 58-year-old female and very overweight. I am at the point where I am thinking of getting on some meds for depression and anxiety. I only have the energy and motivation to get myself to work, have clean clothes for work, and just do what I must. I decreased my hours at work, hoping I would then have more time and energy to eat healthy, but the lack of inner mobility is really making it difficult to do what is needed to purchase, prepare, eat, and then clean up after a meal.

I found someone to help and he suggested some amino acids that may help, but I would like to run this by someone. Question- Is it harmful to take 5HTP, Tyrosine and DHA? Would there be any side effects?

I know if I can stick with this plan for six weeks, I would get rid of my food addictions and feel better emotionally, but I know I need to feel better emotionally so that I can stick with this. I have felt slightly depressed most of my life, but the past 4-6 months have been more so. I had been on psych meds before, and they helped a little.


I am sorry you are having this trouble, but your best chance to really get well emotionally is to eat well. Looking to medicate to be able to eat well is a pie in the sky expectation. You have to eat well whether you feel like it or not, and then you will eventually feel well. A Nutritarian diet, without excuses, can help solve your problems. Hundreds of people have noted their mood elevated after switching to this way of eating, and it is established in medical studies that fast food and commercial baked goods are a causative factor in depression. 5-HTP can be helpful for some people, but others have increased anxiety with it. Tyrosine can also cause anxiety and sleep disturbances, particularly if taken later in the day. Depression and anxiety is usually helped more with EPA/DHA, as omega-3 fatty acid deficiency is associated with mood disorders. Use a purified fish oil, and take at least 600 mg of the EPA component each day. You also should make sure you are taking Vitamin D3 to get your 25 hydroxy vitamin D level between 30-50 ng/ml.

Try to get out early in the morning to walk in the sunshine. Have you considered light therapy? It is very effective. Try to include 15 minutes of light therapy every morning at 7:00 sharp.

Exercise every day. Exercise has been shown to reduce depression, and combined with the light therapy, it should be more effective than anti-depressants, regardless of your diet. Try using meditation CDs at night to help reduce your stress. Taking saffron can also help.


Any ideas on what contributes to memory loss or what can help it? I seem to be forgetting a lot. I am a 51-year-old female. Any advice will be appreciated.


Not only do atherosclerosis, poor nutrient intake, and lack of exercise cause memory impairment, but exposure to toxins, especially mercury, plays a role, too. Addressing all these issues with a Nutritarian diet and appropriate supplementation can protect the brain from further damage. Low B12 and low DHA levels are associated with aging of the brain and memory loss, so that should be addressed as well.

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