Even though it affects so many different areas of our health, nutrition has been quite overlooked in relation to poor mental health in the past. Luckily, this seems to be changing. Good nutrition means that your body gets all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals it needs in order to maintain optimal function. So what does nutrition have to do with our mental health? More than you can imagine! We had a chat with registered dietitian nutritionist and cell and molecular biologist Dr. Lina Begdache to investigate the food-mood connection and discuss feel-good chemicals, drug abuse, and healthy food choices.
How would you define nutrition and its importance?
I always talk about nutrition from the cellular point of view because it’s part of my educational background. We’re made up of trillions of cells, and the reason why we get hungry is because we need to provide nutrition to our cells. Our cells need ingredients to support structure, function as well as energy. We could look at nutrition as nutritious food or food with no nutritional value. If we consume nutritious food, we have healthy cells. If we don’t, we have unhealthy cells, and this is when we start seeing diseases.
We all have different diets that could depend on culture, budget, intolerances, moral beliefs… Are there any common factors that we should consider to make sure we get the right nutrition in our diet?
If we look at the human body from an evolutionary point of view, we have evolved to be eating macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, fats). Our brain is made in a way to crave food that we need. If we stop eating carbohydrates, we’re going to be craving carbohydrates because we need these macronutrients. We also need micronutrients, which include minerals and vitamins. Whenever we deprive our bodies of these major nutrients, we will start craving them. If we stick to a wholesome balanced diet, meaning whole food and no processed food, we should be getting most of our nutrients.
If we can’t get the right nutrients we need for whatever reason, would it be enough to take supplements?
As a nutritionist, I always advise people not to be taking supplements. In the United States, supplements are not regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Anyone could come up with a supplement and say that this is going to help your brain and that is going to help your bones. But there’s no oversight of these supplements, so it’s better to be getting all the nutrients from your food. Food has a synergistic effect, meaning that one component would be helping another component with absorption, and we don’t see that from supplements.
How does nutrition impact our brain structure and its functioning?
For a long time, we thought that nutrition mostly affects our physical health but not our brain. With the advancement in brain imaging technologies, now we can tell that people who are following unhealthy diets such as the Western diet have less healthy brains than the ones following a healthy diet such as the Mediterranean.
From an anatomical point of view, there are two major structures in the brain: white matter and gray matter. Both are made up of neurons, which are the basic cells in the brain. The white matter helps with the conduction of brain impulses, it communicates with different regions. Each region in the brain is part of the gray matter, and each region has a function. The white matter is made up of different types of proteins and fats, which have different turnover. This means that we break them down and we have to replenish them.
When we don’t consume all the ingredients the brain needs, there could be breakage, and the communication between the different regions gets affected. This could affect the limbic system (paleomammalian cortex), where we generate our emotions, and the prefrontal cortex which controls our emotions. If we don’t have effective communication between these two regions, we won’t be able to control our emotions, which could lead to mental health problems.
You did a study where you discovered that antibiotics had a serious impact on the brain and mental wellbeing.
We collected data from a clinic on people who have used antibiotics and we used data-mining techniques to identify what factors contribute to mental health problems. We found out that the use of antibiotics was highly correlated with anxiety and depression. Microbiota, the bacteria that we host in our gut, have a symbiotic relationship with humans. They help us with digesting food that we cannot digest and they also help with gut health. When we take antibiotics, they also wipe out all these healthy bacteria. Therefore, antibiotics kill both healthy and unhealthy bacteria, and next time we eat food, we might be ingesting harmful bacteria, since no food is sterile. The harmful bacteria establish themselves in the gut and cause inflammation. When you take antibiotics, you need to replenish the healthy bacteria by eating probiotics. For example, yogurt and fermented foods are great sources.
Does this only happen if we take antibiotics?
Even without taking antibiotics, these bacteria feed on the food we consume. We have evolved with them and they have evolved on a wholesome diet. When we stop eating a wholesome diet and we resort to eating processed food, these bacteria are not getting full nutrition. We’re causing them to die. So next time we eat unhealthy food with unhealthy bacteria, we’re establishing the unhealthy bacteria.
Could you tell us more about the gut-brain connection?
There is a gut-brain communication that happens through a major nerve called vagus nerve. When we have good bacteria, they are producing brain chemicals that could affect the vagus nerve and the function of the brain in a positive way. Unhealthy bacteria produce toxins and cause inflammation. Then the vagus nerve is affected in a negative way. We could have problems with concentration, memory and mental health. People who have gut problems tend to have mental health problems as well.
You’ve mentioned the prefrontal cortex, also known as the CEO of the brain. Could you tell us more about how it operates and interacts with other parts of the brain?
The brain matures with age and the last part of the brain to mature is the prefrontal cortex. Maturity is complete by our mid to late twenties. Anything we do beforehand, like alcohol, drug use, and poor nutrition may affect the degree of its maturation. As we get older and we pass the maturity stage, we start losing brain volumes. Part of losing brain volume is also losing the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex also helps with cognition, weighing the cons and pros of things. It helps with planning the future, emotional regulation and solving problems. That’s why we call it the CEO of the brain, because it takes care of so many things but at a higher level.
You’ve done some work with drug abuse. The music industry is a particularly stressful environment and there’s always a desire for instant gratification. Could you go in a bit more detail why we should avoid drugs when we have the urge to feel good? And if we ignore that and do take drugs, what are the implications?
Musicians have an advantage over other people because playing music by itself is a source of a feel-good chemical, the dopamine. It’s a brain chemical that we release to support survival. For example, when you’re eating food, you enjoy the food, you learn to eat food which promotes survival. This pleasurable feeling is caused by dopamine release. The pleasurable feeling is going to help you eat more food in the future to stay alive. Releasing dopamine is good for us, and playing music is a source of dopamine. Musicians can normally produce a good amount of dopamine.
So dopamine is a good guy?
The problem with dopamine is that it’s addictive. If you do things on a regular basis and you’re always releasing dopamine, you become addicted to it, which is good to a certain extent. Same thing with exercise. If you exercise and you feel like every time you run you’re enhancing your performance, you’ll become addicted to running. It’s the same problem with alcohol and drugs because they also increase dopamine release. With alcohol and drugs, you raise the bar with dopamine and that’s why you feel great when you consume them for the first time. The problem is that this is abnormal for the brain, and because it’s abnormal, the brain needs to adapt to this abnormality. Adaptation means that it’s going to lower the number of receptors that respond to dopamine, and this is what causes dependence.
The better we feel, the more we want?
The brain becomes dependent on this amount of alcohol or drugs so playing music in itself is no longer satisfying to people. You will feel that you have to drink or do drugs in order to feel okay. When you feel stressed, you feel like you need to boost that dopamine, so you increase the amount of alcohol and do more drugs. Now that you are raising the bar, the brain has to adapt by lowering the number of dopamine receptors. It becomes a vicious cycle and it will be harder and harder to go back to the normal state of the brain. It’s not impossible, but the longer you do it, the harder it will be to go back to normal.
You’ve mentioned that the prefrontal cortex matures between our mid and late twenties. Let’s say someone is reading this interview and they’re in their thirties and they’ve maybe done a bit of damage to their brain and want to make a change. Are there any actions they can do to kind of reverse or heal the damage?
With the imaging studies we’re learning that the brain is “plastic” or adaptable, a process called neuroplasticity. But in order to change, you need to stick to a certain practice to see improvement. Doing it every now and then is not going to help. But it’s true for everything in our body.
Musicians’ schedules are very hectic and it often happens that they will be doing an all-day session in the studio, touring across the country or doing late-night gigs. When it comes to nutrition, what should they be focusing on?
The best way to tackle this is to plan ahead. If you plan ahead, you can adjust the plans to your budget and get healthy food and snacks if you don’t have time to cook or to go to places.
In terms of specific food is there anything, in particular, we should go for?
Nuts, fruits and veggies are excellent snacks. But you also need to be looking for more wholesome food. You need to avoid all the processed food, even though it’s the easiest and maybe the cheapest on the go. If you plan ahead and consume salads, lean protein, complex carbohydrates and generally whole foods, you should be able to take in most of the nutrients you need.
If you had to pick one, what would be your best takeaway tip that we should go for?
Salad with chicken and almonds, with olive oil dressing. [laughs]
If someone reads this interview, there’s a lot to take in. Are there any initial steps that you would recommend they take to improve their nutrition?
I think the first thing is that you have to be convinced that you want to make the change. It all comes from our brains, right? If there’s a will, there’s a way. Once you’re determined, you can take action. It’s always good to educate yourself, but not everything online is credible. I would encourage everyone to start doing more homework and read from credible sources. That will help you to make those first steps and move forward.
Dr. Lina Begdache is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health and Wellness at Binghamton University, New York. She has a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology from the same University, and a Master’s Degree in Nutrition Sciences from the University at Buffalo.
Dr. Begdache is a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist, a Certified Nutrition-Specialist-Scholar, a Certified Dietitian, and a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Her research focuses on depicting and modeling the links between dietary factors and mental distress (anxiety and depression).