Uma Naidoo is the author of the new book This Is Your Brain on Food. A psychiatrist, chef, and nutrition specialist, she is the director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Q: You write, "Nutrition and psychiatry may not seem like the most natural fit." How did you end up focusing on both of those subjects, and how do you see them fitting together?
A: As our bodies develop during pregnancy, the brain is formed by special cells known as neural crest cells. These cells migrate extensively throughout the developing fetus, also forming the nervous system in the gut.
That’s why some people call the gut “the second brain.” And it’s why the gut and brain influence each other so profoundly throughout our lives. Separate though they may appear to be, their origins are the same.
So, I chose to make a career of focusing on both, as I understood through embryology, anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, and neurochemistry that there is a very clear link between how we eat and how we feel.
Q: How did you select the recipes you include in the book?
A: In addition to including recipes that contain foods that boost mental health—fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, etc.—I made a point of it to incorporate spices that boost mental health.
Turmeric (especially when used with a pinch of black pepper), saffron, oregano, cinnamon, ginger—all of them can help you, and all of them can make your dishes much more flavorful.
I also chose recipes that are simple enough to encourage home cooking and versatile enough to work for any diet—for example most recipes can be made vegan or vegetarian, or a vegetable can be switched out for a well sourced seafood or meat preference.
Q: Given the stress people are under today with the pandemic, what advice would you give regarding food choices?
A: Depression, anxiety, insomnia, and trauma are the issues people are really facing right now due to the pandemic. The good news is, all of them can be helped with the right food.
For depression, you need probiotics (like yogurt with active cultures—which provide good bacteria to your gut—and fermented foods like miso and sauerkraut) and prebiotics (like garlic and onions).
For anxiety, turn to beans, broccoli, and healthy whole grains or, if you’re in a rush, grab a handful of nuts like macadamia.
And for insomnia, well, go for foods that are rich in melatonin. That’s fish, milk, eggs, asparagus, and broccoli.
To lower symptoms of trauma, blueberries were found to be helpful, so add a ¼ cup a day or so to your fruit servings!
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I hope they come away with an understanding of the fact they can improve their mental health with food—that by making the right choices about what they eat, they can help themselves. I wrote this book in an effort to empower people in that way.
During this pandemic we can make a choice to fortify and strengthen our mental well-being using the best food choices for our brain health and ward off mood or anxiety symptoms, and even sleep better. I also hope the recipes in my book reassure them that healthy food can still be delicious.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve been teaching cooking and nutrition for a Food as Medicine class at Harvard, seeing patients virtually, and promoting my book. In fact, I was recently on the Today Show, which was really exciting—a dream come true!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: In addition to thinking about foods you can add to your diet, be mindful of foods you may want to subtract from them.
For example, if you’re having trouble sleeping, avoid alcohol which, yes, will help you fall asleep since it’s a sedative, but then it disrupts the normal sleep cycle—so you won’t sleep well.
Caffeine can worsen anxiety—so maybe skip that third cup of coffee. And sugar can worsen depression—so trying to cheer yourself up with a vending machine type candy bar isn’t the best idea.
However, naturally sourced dark chocolate is a fermented food due to how the cacao beans are processed, and fermented foods help with depression. So, 1-2 tiny squares of extra dark chocolate may actually help your mood!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb