Ep 283: Soothe Anxiety with...Food?

Andy Earle: You're listening to Talking to Teens, where we speak with leading experts from a variety of disciplines about the art and science of parenting teenagers. I'm your host, Andy Earle.

We're here today with Dr. Uma Naidoo talking about healing anxiety with food.

We often think of stress and anxiety as something that happens in the brain. If we want to fix that, we need a therapist or we need better coping strategies, or we just need to lighten up our schedule.

But actually a lot of new research is showing that the foods we eat have a profound impact on the level of stress and anxiety that we feel on a daily basis.

If you've got an anxious teen, You might just take a look at what they're eating.

Dr. Naidoo is a board certified psychiatrist, professional chef, and nutrition specialist.

And she's the author of This Is Your Brain on Food and the new book, Calm Your Brain with Food.

Dr. Naidoo, welcome to the Talking to Teens podcast. Thank you so much for being here today.

Uma Naidoo: Thanks so much, Andy. Thanks for having me.

Andy Earle: I am super excited. Your writing has got me thinking about the brain in a much more expanded way and I'm so excited to talk to you about it.

Uma Naidoo: I'm excited to talk to you too.

Andy Earle: Talk about the gut brain connection. I think of these things as separate things. Food and the brain.

Different systems. Different parts of the body. Not connected. Talk to me about where this idea comes from that they're so linked together.

Uma Naidoo: You're not alone in that. Andy, many people don't realize that the gut and brain are connected and, eons ago, the father of modern allopathic medicine, Hippocrates, spoke to this connection. But the science and the research had to follow.

The gut and brain, it turns out, arise from the exact same cells in the human embryo, and they then divide apart and form two separate organs that are in two different parts of the body. But they remain connected anatomically, biochemically, and physiologically by the 10th cranial nerve, which is the vagus nerve, which acts like a two way text messaging system. Like teenagers messaging each other all the time, all day, all night.

But what they're messaging about is actually neurotransmitters and chemical messages. So that helps us to understand the impact of this bidirectional connection.

Then when you add food into the mix, you realize a few things. Serotonin is often called the happiness hormone, and 90- 95 percent of serotonin is made in the gut. So food that's being digested is also in that same environment as the trillions of microbes that live there.

Sometimes I say to people, what happens when you have a headache? You have a headache somewhere in your head, then you might take a pill. You drink some water and hope in 10 to 15 minutes the headache goes away.

But I say to people, let's take a step back. You took a pill and you swallowed it, went to your digestive tract, to your stomach, but it's working on your head. How does that work? And then they're like, Oh, I didn't think about that. But it also helps to really unpack the fact that in a similar but more complex way, the food that we eat is broken down in the digestive system, interacts with trillions of microbes, interacts with the serotonin receptors, and can also, over time, impact the connection through, to the brain.

So it's, it just helps us understand that the food- mood connection exists as well.

Andy Earle: You talk in the book about how so many of the different neurotransmitters that are actually powering the brain come from the stomach.

Dopamine, serotonin, glutamate, and gamma amino butyric acid. So we've got this vagus nerve linking between the two. Messages going back and forth. And what are they talking about?

Uma Naidoo: The chemical messages of the neurotransmitters are sending information back and forth.

And given that they're related to our behaviors and our mental wellbeing and our condition, they may be messaging about many different things that then may impact how we are feeling. I think the important thing for us to take away from this is that this gut- brain connection helps us to understand the food- mood connection.

So if we are mostly eating a diet of fast foods and ultra processed foods and junk foods and candy bars, then our gut is going to respond a particular way. And one of the ways that will respond is that inflammation will get set up over time because those foods, especially those with highly refined sugars and ultra processed ingredients like colorants, dyes, and stabilizers and the like, all actually cause inflammation in the gut.

And they feed the bad microbes there. And those bad microbes thrive and really take over the gut. And that's when you start to develop over time conditions like leaky gut, because the breakdown products that they make from food are more toxic to the gut. It starts to damage the cell lining in the gut, which is very delicate.

And over time you run into trouble. And so understanding that connection just becomes so important. Intestinal permeability or leaky gut can also lead to an uptick of symptoms like depression or problems with anxiety as well.

Andy Earle: I feel like I've been hearing so much about inflammation and leaky gut but not really thinking about how it would affect the brain.

But it totally makes sense. We're eating these foods causing inflammation in our stomach, then it's percolating up to our brain. And then to fix it, I'm having brain fog. I need to focus. So let me drink some more coffee. Or I'm not feeling so great, let me have a beer. Not a helpful cycle. One thing you talk about a lot is glycemic load carbohydrates.

Uma Naidoo: We are understanding more and more that our mental health and our metabolic health are connected.

So when you have these higher glycemic carbohydrates, depending on how you interpret food and your understanding of nutrition, these foods can be more highly sugared, more highly starchy foods. And they can be problematic because not only do they drive toward things like insulin resistance potentially over time, if you eat a lot of those and you're only eating those foods potentially towards, type two diabetes and things like that.

You really want to keep them at bay and not consume as much of them. So if you think about nutritional psychiatry, in my new book, calm your mind with food, I talk about an anti anxiety eating plate. You always want that component of whole grains or starch to be smaller.

It's not that you shouldn't eat them. It's that you should eat them in moderation because pure whole grains, barley, quinoa, things like that are actually important for the gut because the gut needs those foods that have rich in fiber and other nutrients, but you just don't want to have a whole plate of it.

You want to have a portion of it because if not, you are really upsetting the metabolism in a certain way.

Andy Earle: What happens with the high glycemic load carbs, and why is that causing issues?

Uma Naidoo: They drive toward inflammation . And their breakdown products are upsetting the metabolism in our body.

And our metabolism is actually related to our mental well being as well. Because when we are just consuming more of those unhealthy foods, they are driving towards inflammation. They are upsetting things our satiety hormone. There's a hormone called which tells us that the associated We're full, we've eaten enough food, and by eating the wrong foods all of the time, we start to upset the balance of this hormone, and it stops working and stops telling us that we're full, so we continue eating more.

And as we eat more, we're taking in more calories, we may gain weight, we may run into problems, and you start to impact and impair your metabolism. So it's an orchestra. There are many different parts of the body that are working together and we want them to work in synergy than work against one another.

Andy Earle: So instead of sugary foods and sugary drinks, are we better off with artificial sweeteners?

Uma Naidoo: Not necessarily. There are some newer artificial sweeteners where they seem more promising. But many of the artificial sweeteners and diet sodas and low sugared foods are quite problematic to the gut.

So they're not ideal. If you do have an artificial sweetener, have less of it, try to not depend on it. And certainly, soda and diet soda are not great options anyways. For many different reasons, including the artificial sweeteners and then the added sugars and high fructose corn syrup in the sodas.

The overall arching principle is the more times that we can move toward healthy whole foods and away from processed, ultra processed foods that have a lot of sugar, unhealthy fats, things like that, the better our brain is going to be. And the healthier our brain is, the healthier our mental health is.

Andy Earle: Oh, it makes sense. It sounds so simple when you put it that way, but it's so cool in the book, you dive so deep into the research on so many different specific types of foods and how they affect your mood in different ways. And one thing you talk about is you just mentioned briefly, but fats come up a lot, and fried foods.

You talk about good fats that are actually helpful to your mood and your brain and bad fats that are detrimental. What's the difference?

Uma Naidoo: So healthy fats are things from avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds. These can contain fats like omega 3 fatty acids, which are also contained in foods like wild caught salmon.

The unhealthy fats are the ones that are, say, in shelf stable baked goods. If you ever go and you're picking up pastries that you can eat today, you can eat them next week and they're going to be fine, those usually have trans fats and hydrogenated oils that make them shelf stable.

And those are the ones you want to be careful about. There are also some highly processed vegetable oils, like corn and soy, that are not the best for us because they drive and worsen inflammation.

Andy Earle: I always wonder how is it that it can sit there on your counter for a week and it still tastes just as fresh and delicious as it did when you bought it.

Uma Naidoo: Makes you wonder. Yeah.

Andy Earle: You have a section here about fried foods.

Uma Naidoo: Everyone loves a French fry once in a while, but that shouldn't be our daily food, right? For many reasons. The deep frying is obviously less healthy and there are smarter ways to do this now.

I've been using an air fryer to make many different crispy vegetables that are not drenched in oil. Also, fast food restaurants tend to use inexpensive oils that are more inflammatory because they tend to be the ones that are not good for us.

So they are not a good idea. French fries in some of the fast food restaurants also made with sugar in the way that they are processed, and you don't taste it. The research and development is to make them really hyper palatable. So we not only want the biggest size, we want to go back the next day and get more.

Just being aware that tried foods are not good, that some products that are processed have these other ingredients that are less healthy for us. It's just helpful information for us to have so that we make more mindful choices in the meals that we're eating.

Andy Earle: Wow. It makes me think French fries are some of the worst things. You got the high glycemic carbohydrates, take the worst fats we can, then fry it all together. Douse it in salt. Yeah. Oh, yeah.

Uma Naidoo: And then dip it in sugar.

Andy Earle: Oh, wow. Yeah. You're killing me now. All the good things.

So some really interesting stuff in here on the links between anxiety and diet. And you talk about some research conducted on mice, looking at the gut bacteria and how that's then affecting symptoms of anxiety, and the amygdala. When they have no bacteria in their gut, they have this enlarged hyperactive amygdala.

What's going on with that?

Uma Naidoo: The animal research, what it's sharing with us is that the gut microbiome is one of the really important parts of a condition that develops. Because we spoke about that gut brain connection. Those microbes are hugely important.

Neural research shows us more specificity around different types of microbes and which neurotransmitters they interact with, different bacterial groups and things like that. So it's actually even on a much deeper level now. It's still younger, newer science, right?

The gut microbiome is newer science of the past, maybe two decades now, but it is very exciting. It's emerging. And it helps us unpack these different conditions.

Anxiety can worsen depending on the configuration of gut microbes you have. And one of the ways that you might impact those gut microbes is how you're eating.

So if you are mostly eating those french fries and mostly eating the fast foods, then those negative microbes are going to be fed and their breakdown products are going to be more toxic.

There's another fascinating study in the book, in the chapter on schizophrenia, which is a much more serious mental health condition. The gut microbiome from individuals who had schizophrenia symptoms. So humans, they took a fecal microbial transplant and they placed it into mice who were germ free.

So these mice had never been exposed to any germs or microbes. And those mice uh, With that transplant over time developed symptoms and behaviors consistent with schizophrenia, showing the power of the microbiome. So the reason I spend a lot of time and shared a lot of the research on the microbiome is it's very powerful.

And same thing with my second book, although in Calm Your Mind with Food, which was released in December of 2023, given the global pandemic of anxiety that has come forth, one of the things that people need to understand, including what I talked about in This Is Your Brain on Food, is how powerful food can be to help really offset symptoms of anxiety.

Andy Earle: Something I found really interesting in here. You're talking about this study on bacteria, people with anxiety versus without. Treating the anxiety disorder through non dietary methods did not cause a corresponding change in the patient's gut bacteria.

While the gut has this huge impact on the anxiety, on how we feel the anxiety, just treating the anxiety itself or trying to calm ourself down through a surface level tactics doesn't actually change what's going on in the gut. So you're still not actually getting to the root of the problem.

Uma Naidoo: There are trials and research looking at the impact of prescription medications on anxiety and the fact that they are not always effective for everyone. In fact, there's a pretty low percentage rate of people who actually feel full improvement. Most people have either no improvement, mild improvement, and many actually have ongoing symptoms.

So it really speaks to what you just said about the power of other things we can be doing to improve things like anxiety.

Andy Earle: I think so many of us don't even think about that. This could be related to my digestion, or the food I'm eating. It's my schedule. It's what's going on in my life. I need to maybe to work with a therapist or something. This is a mental problem where I'm under too much pressure or I'm not handling it properly. I need better coping strategies or something like that. But we don't think about looking at our daily habits and the food that we're putting into our body and how that could all be connected.

You've got me thinking in a new way about food and about the brain and how so much in the body is interconnected.

And I really hope that people listening can take some of these lessons as well. And also pick up a copy of the new book, Calm Your Mind with Food as well as any of the previous books. This Is Your Brain on Food is really fantastic as well.

Uma Naidoo: Thanks so much, Andy. I really enjoyed talking to you.

Great questions.

Andy Earle: Thank you for coming on the show today. I really appreciate you being here. It's been so enlightening and interesting. Where can people go to, to find out more about what you're doing or follow updates from you?

Uma Naidoo: Go to my website, umanaidoomd. com and first and foremost, sign up for my newsletter.

Where you can get weekly updates and different foods from me and have a connection to what I'm doing. You can also follow me on social media @ drumanaidoo, where you'll get updates from me about my newsletter. And I talk about a specific new and different food each week, the science behind it and how to use and eat that food to feel better.

So check that out. And the book, This Is Your Brain On Food, which is really a sister book to Calm Your Mind with Food. It really dives deeper into a holistic and integrated approach for anxiety, being the most common mental health condition. The two books go together.

Andy Earle: We're here with Uma Naidoo talking about how anxiety and stress are deeply connected to the foods that we eat. And we're not done yet. Here's a look at what's coming up in the second half of the show.

You talk about a study of eating a healthy and nutritious breakfast versus not eating it and how having that breakfast has measurable effects on people's ability to focus and their cognitive performance hours later in the day.

Uma Naidoo: Magnesium is so powerful. It's being used and needed in 300 to 600 biochemical reactions in the body. A deficiency can actually make us feel quite anxious and many Americans are deficient in magnesium.

Individuals who have conditions like ADHD and problems with focus, they may be a little sensitive to the A1 milk caseins. And therefore want to be careful about that and maybe consume the A2 milk.

Andy Earle: I could definitely see as a parent of a teenager thinking, actually, maybe we don't want too many more libido foods around the house. Our teen is horny enough as it is. Too much pistachios or maybe no more pomegranates.

Want to hear the full interview? Sign up for a subscription today. It's completely affordable and your membership supports the work we do here at Talking to Teens. You can now sign up directly through Apple Podcasts. Thanks for listening and we'll see you next time.

Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Dr. Uma Naidoo
Dr. Uma Naidoo
👩‍⚕️MD @harvardmed 🥦Mood Food MD 🧠Nutritional Psychiatry Pioneer 📗Author #CalmYourMindwithFood
Ep 283: Soothe Anxiety with...Food?
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