Dr. Drew Ramsey Talks Brain Food

  • Written By:Alexandra Perron, Managing Editor
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by Alexandra Perron, Managing Editor

Dr. Drew Ramsey knows a thing or two about brain food. He’s a psychiatrist and a farmer and one of the leading voices in today’s conversation about mental health and nutrition. His new book, Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety, outlines a six-week plan to help get your brain into what he calls “grow mode.” We caught up to hear more about the connection between mental health and nutrition and what foods we should be adding to our plates right now.

Tell us a little bit about your background — you’re a psychiatrist and a farmer. That’s not a pairing we see a lot. How did you get where you are today?

I feel really grateful to have one foot planted on our farm in rural Indiana and the other foot in New York City. Both these places feel like home to me. My folks were part of the Back to The Land movement in the 1970s and moved from Long Island to Crawford County, Indiana when I was 6. We started growing a lot of our own food, got our water from a cave on the land, and built a house. Indiana was really good to me educationally. From a specialized high school for smart kids to a top-notch medical education at Indiana University Medical School, those institutions all gave me so much from scholarships to international travel and working on a psychiatry ward in Kenya. Then I won the lottery and ended up at the Mecca for mental health for my adult psychiatry specialty training: Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute. This was before farms and farm-to-table was cool and it was both intimidating and also exhilarating being with some of the brightest minds in brain science and mental health. Living on a farm had put me in the midst of a natural cycle of life and I find deep meaning and motivation in the natural world that greatly informs my work as a psychiatrist. 

I also love nutritional psychiatry because it helps get mental health in the prevention business.

- Dr. Drew Ramsey

Why do you think nutrition is often overlooked when it comes to mental health? And why is it important to incorporate it into treatment?

It's really curious, right? We know when we eat poorly, we don't feel well and vice-versa, but we don't connect food and mental health. I'm working hard to change that. One reason is stigma. We don't talk about mental health, that's changing, and it makes me hopeful. Another reason is we didn't have the science to back up this common sense. The first clinical trial to use food as a treatment for clinical depression was published in 2018. It is important because the fuel and structure of the brain matter for mental health! And it matters because food interventions empower patients that we can all do things in our everyday life to care for our brains and mental health.

I also love nutritional psychiatry because it helps get mental health in the prevention business. Traditionally, we only seek mental health care providers when we are ill. That is a bummer as there is so much that mental health professionals have to offer for improving our lives and mental fitness.

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In your book, Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety, you outline a 6-week plan, can you give us an overview of what this looks like and entails? 

The 6-Week Plan in Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety is based on the clinical method we use in The Brain Food Clinic. We focus on food categories and boosting nutrient density. The goal is to help the brain get into "grow mode" by decreasing inflammation, boosting microbiome health, and thus coaxing more growth of brain cells and their connections.

In the plan, we go through leafy greens, seafood, fermented foods, and also ask folks to really examine themselves as eaters. People have gotten so twisted up in the strangeness that is modern diet culture and I hope some of the insights and questions we ask eaters will help them be more confident and better informed. 

What are some key nutrients or foods that everyone should be adding to their diet to boost brain function on a daily basis?

We list 12 antidepressant nutrients in the research paper Antidepressant Foods, which all had high levels of evidence that they are involved in the prevention and treatment of depression. These same Big 12 appear in Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety. Some of these nutrients, like omega-3 fats and vitamin B12, are often associated with mental health, but others like zinc, magnesium, and selenium often surprise people. To get the most of these nutrients, I have a little rhyme: seafood, greens, nuts, and beans and a little dark chocolate.

Most people are struggling with the ubiquity and deliciousness of highly processed, packaged foods. Adding more plants, more seafood, and also more fermented foods to help promote a diverse microbiome are good steps. While we emphasize these food categories, there is a list of "Power Players" in the book. Some that surprise people are pepitas, clams, kefir, and anchovies.

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Courtesy of Instagram

What does your ideal plate of “brain food” look like? 

I'm really vibing on seafood pastas now, like a gnocchi with a pine nut and sardine sauce. I like to see a lot of colorful plants on my plate, my favorite way to prepare vegetables is simply roasted on a sheet pan in the oven with extra virgin olive oil and salt (hopefully the mix includes potatoes), a small serving of beans, wild fatty fish or mussels, a nice mound of sauteed greens with garlic and lots of EVOO. Side salad of sunflower sprouts with lemon oil and EVOO. Dessert of Dark Chocolate Brain Truffles and a cup of chamomile tea.

Everyone should know about the vagus nerve which descends from our brain to the gut and creates a neural super-highway for information both ways.

- Dr. Drew Ramsey
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Over the last few years, I feel like we’re hearing more and more about our microbiome and how it’s connected to just about everything. What is the relationship between gut health and mental health?

Very intimately connected. Everyone should know about the vagus nerve which descends from our brain to the gut and creates a neural super-highway for information both ways. The "good bugs" as I call them are the trillions of bacteria that live in our colon. It seems gross but there is some serious magic that happen with these bugs. They play a major role regulating inflammation and research is starting to demonstrate that the kinds of bacteria in your gut impact our mood, level of anxiety and even how clearly we think. 

This last year has had a profound impact on our mental health — what advice have you been giving your clients when it comes to getting through the day-to-day and looking ahead to post-pandemic life? 

We all are processing so many complicated feelings. I emphasize the importance of experiencing these and processing them. Of course, I encourage eating more brain food and implore people to respect sleep. I also believe some active work—be that breath work, movement, mastery of a new skill—is important this year. For example, my wife decided that my mental health needed so much help she bought me a giant horse and now I'm trying to be a jumper. That horse has become the most therapeutic thing I've experienced in a long time. You don't need to move to the country and buy a horse of course...but everyone does need to be intentional about the deep impact of the pandemic on our lives.

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