It should’ve been the best time of my life. At 22, I lived in vibrant New York City, had an apartment, a job that nearly paid for it and no dearth of friends, both new and old. Still, I wasn’t happy. I ate what I thought would make me happy, and drank what I thought would make me skinny, which was mostly vodka & soda at my near daily happy hour. I mapped out my commute according to the locations of my favorite frozen yogurt haunts, sometimes several in the course of a day. A mountain of hidden sugar heaped high, I coated it with trail mix to make it healthy and wondered why my weight piled on.
It wasn’t only my weight. My mood shifted as well. Happy on the outside, gregarious and ready for the party, I struggled with low feelings that I figured were reflective of not making a ton of money, not having met my dream guy, or not yet having achieved movie star status. I dragged myself to work in a fog, searched for snacks out of boredom and idled at my boss’s candy bowl a little too long each day, digging out the remaining Snickers.
I attributed this vacillation between dark and light to my uninformed youth and lack of direction in my life, but something hit me midway through my 20s. Could food affect my mood? I had read that caffeine and sugar could plunge us down into the depths of despair, but didn’t relate because, after all, I wasn’t clinically depressed. I was just a little down at times, right? Plunged even further into the depths after a breakup and in therapy twice a week, I began to think about nutrition and psychology, even looking into creating a master’s degree that combined the two, but nothing was out there that discussed nutrition and psychology. At least not yet.
Dr. Ramsey does depression
Dr. Drew Ramsey is doing just that. He’s helped pioneer the emerging field of Nutritional Psychiatry. A psychiatrist by trade, Dr. Ramsey became interested in nutrition at the age of 7 while living on his family’s farm — the same one he tends today. A junk food vegetarian for a time at medical school, he made changes in his own diet that altered his mood and made him less socially anxious. He discusses food with his patients and often prescribes a new way of eating as part of his treatment plan.
Dr. Ramsey, a kindred kale lover, created the Brain Food Clinic in New York City. He’s the author of four books, including his most recent publication, “Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety,” which maps out a six-week program and specific changes that will help our mood. Dr. Ramsey lays his solutions out on a platter for us, going as far as to make suggestions about which kitchen items to get before embarking on this journey. He gives us recipes and thoughts to focus on, all the while relaying relatable experiences in his own life as a doctor, farmer, reformed seafood hater and family man.
Dr. Drew isn’t just throwing ideas around hoping they stick. He’s got the research to back it up. The first of its kind, in a trial whose acronym aptly spells SMILES, (Supporting the Modification of lifestyle In Lowered Emotional States), a group of participants were asked to change their diet to eliminate most processed foods, adopting the Mediterranean diet in lieu of their normal fare. The trial was successful. Thirty-two percent of people who changed their regime didn’t just feel a little better, but their depression was gone. Poof. Even anxiety was seen to diminish in these subjects.
Depression has us all flummoxed. The last thing we want to do when we have major depressive disorder (MDD), or anxiety is to make changes to anything in our lives, especially our diet, but this book makes it seem doable.
We’re all familiar with serotonin and dopamine, but there’s a new player in town called brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF). Dr. Ramsey describes BDNF as a molecule that, among other things, tells your brain cells to repair themselves and to reach out and make new connections. It even plays a role in turning stem cells into brain cells. “More brain cells good!” he says as he imitates a cave man. The fascinating thing is that some foods (like nuts) increase our BDNF. A jump in BDNF correlates with a drop in depressive symptoms. Pass the nuts, please.
Breakdown and breakthrough
Drew and his colleague, Dr. Laura LaChance developed what they deemed the “Antidepressant Food Scale,” in which they list 12 foods designated as essential for good brain health. From magnesium to selenium and several B vitamins, these remedies are all found in everyday foods, which is where he says we should get them, instead of relying on supplements. Ramsey sources these nutrients for us, citing seafood and shellfish in particular, as all important foods for our mood.
Depression and anxiety are a big problem and have become ever more so since the onset of the pandemic and the lockdowns. Ramsey quotes that 25 percent of women of childbearing years are taking an antidepressant. People who had a poor diet going into the lockdown, he says, had a 1000 percent increased chance of developing poor mental health during the pandemic.
In his six-week program, Ramsey cites the implementation of foods like his beloved seafood, “brainbow veggies” and leafy greens. (He wasn’t deemed a kale evangelist by NPR for nothing.) He blows my mind when he informs me that clams are the number-one B vitamin-containing food there is.
Dr. Ramsey says that we can’t have good brain health without having good gut health and if there’s any question as to why the gut has been labeled “the second brain,” it becomes clear now. Fermented foods like kefir (which, I learned by listening to the audiobook, I’ve been pronouncing wrong my whole life), sauerkraut, kombucha and miso heal the gut by restoring our good belly bugs. During our conversation, we learn that he adds kombucha to his smoothies, a great idea if sipping this fermented beverage isn’t for you.
As the topics we’ve discussed in this column creep up again and again, we realized just how connected every part of our body is. As inflammation is a culprit in depression and anxiety, Dr. Ramsey’s program incorporates many anti-inflammatory foods as well.
It always comes back to processed foods, doesn’t it? Kick those to the curb, get some seafood on your plate, focus on olive oil, fruits and veggies (especially those green leafies), grab a copy of this book, and you’re well on your way to a better mood.
Is it that simple? Perhaps it’s not, but this is one prescription whose only side effect is health and, since Dr. Ramsey promotes nibbling on dark chocolate a few times each week, this program just got a whole lot sweeter.
Dilly Wild Salmon Burgers
Excerpt and recipe from “Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety: Nourish Your Way to Better Mental Health in Six Weeks”
Provided courtesy of author, Dr. Drew Ramsey
Power-player salmon makes a serious burger, as it’s a top source of long-chain omega-3 fats, B12 and protein for our mind and moods. Using canned wild salmon also takes away the pressure of buying the perfect fish or concerns about freshness, and it’s a great value. A nice alternative to a typical beef burger, using salmon in this form is a perfect swap for eating to beat depression and anxiety. Adding phytonutrients to the burgers themselves with the dill, cilantro, green onion, ginger and garlic boosts their brain-nutrient density even more. These burgers last a couple of days in the fridge once cooked, making them great for meal planning.
(Makes 4 burgers)
2 large eggs
3 (5-ounce) cans wild salmon, drained
1/2 cup finely ground almond meal
1 organic lemon, zested and juiced
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chips
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/3 cup plain whole-fat Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
Whisk the eggs in a large bowl. Add the salmon and use a fork to smash it until no large chunks remain.
Add the almond meal, lemon zest, 1/4 cup of the dill, the chives, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/8 teaspoon pepper, and the garlic powder and mix to combine. Form four 1/2-inch-thick patties. Refrigerate if not cooking right away.
In a separate bowl, combine the yogurt, lemon juice, remaining 2 tablespoons dill, 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and a pinch of pepper.
Warm the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the patties until golden brown all over, about 4 minutes per side.
Top nutrients: Selenium = 367%, Omega-3s (DHA+EPA) = 340% (1707mg), Vitamin B12 = 122%, Vitamin B6 = 112%, Vitamin A = 59%