These Foods and Nutritional Deficiencies Can Make You Depressed or Violent

Man Eating a HamburgerThe U.S. is still reeling from another tragedy -- the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and the murder of several civilians during the attempt.

Many are asking what the cause might have been -- whether it was pervasive, over-the-top violent rhetoric in the culture, or simply mental psychosis.

But, even if the former, there is still the underlying cause of mental psychosis to consider.

And what if people are lashing out with such destructive force, at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and now Arizona, not because of what they are hearing, but at least in part because of what they are eating?

Soy infant formula has damaging effects on the development of the brain, but soy is a common ingredient in many processed foods and soy products are being mistakenly touted as a healthy option. Copper toxicity can also cause mental disturbance, and a diet high in grains and low on animal products is also likely to be high in copper. Animal-based omega-3 fats are crucial for fetal brain development.

Writing in her blog, Kimberly Hartke, a publicist for the Weston A. Price Foundation, says:

"Our USDA dietary guidelines currently advise to restrict meat and eggs, in favor of vegetables and grains ... Could our government policies be misguided and leading us down the wrong path? ... Let's stop focusing exclusively on the environmental influences in the home and in our culture, but start looking at the internal influence of the Standard American Diet on mental health."

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

Kimberly Hartke, a publicist for the Weston A. Price Foundation, brings up an important yet largely ignored factor in violence, namely diet.

This is yet another case of common sense being swept under the rug in favor of political discussions about how to handle people with mental "issues." But trying to figure out how to identify potential violent offenders before they strike is actually avoiding the real issue of why emotional and mental health problems are on the rise in the first place. New laws and stricter gun control will have no impact on the root of the problem whatsoever.

I've previously written about the detrimental impact of antidepressants and other drugs. Many of these can exacerbate emotional problems and lead to senseless violence against yourself and others.

In fact, a study by The Institute of Safe Medication Practices published last year, highlights 31 commonly-prescribed drugs that are disproportionately associated with cases of violent acts toward others. Topping the list is the quit-smoking drug Chantix, followed by Prozac and Paxil, and a number of drugs used to treat ADHD.

It's not presently known whether Jared Loughner, the young man who shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed several civilians, was taking medication, but there are indications that he did not have a healthful diet.

Many people may scoff at this discussion, but like Hartke says, we cannot continue focusing solely on environmental influences such as upbringing and culture. Our mental health is so clearly linked to our diet and lifestyle that it simply cannot be ignored any longer. And if our government and health authorities really want to improve the mental health of the people, they must begin to reconsider their dietary recommendations.

More people than ever are medicated to supposedly address their mental anguish, yet people seem to be more depressed, despondent, and violent than ever. The "magic" fix it pill paradigm is simply not working. It's time to rip off the Band-Aid and look deeper.

The Gut-Brain Connection

When you consider the fact that the gut-brain connection is recognized as a basic tenet of physiology and medicine, and that there's no shortage of evidence of gastrointestinal involvement in a variety of neurological diseases, it's hard to fathom why diet is still so widely ignored by the mental health field.

In a very real sense, you have two brains, one inside your skull and one in your gut.

These two organs actually originate from the same type of tissue during fetal development. One part turns into your central nervous system, while the other develops into your enteric nervous system. These two systems are connected via the vagus nerve, the tenth cranial nerve that runs from your brain stem down to your abdomen.

This is what connects your two brains together, and explains such phenomena as getting butterflies in your stomach when you're nervous, for example. They work in tandem, each influencing the other. And this is why your intestinal health can have such a profound influence on your mental health, and vice versa.

For an interesting and well-written layman's explanation of this, read through Sandra Blakeslee's 1996 New York Times article Complex and Hidden Brain in Gut Makes Stomachaches and Butterflies.

Further evidence of this connection includes the fact that a number of neurotransmitters such as serotonin can be found not only in your brain, but also in your gut. In fact, the greatest concentration of serotonin, which is involved in mood control, depression and aggression, is found in your intestines, not your brain!

Nutrition Affects Your Mood and Mental State

As a result of this connection, it should be obvious that your diet is closely linked to your mental health. Furthermore, it's requires almost no stretch of the imagination to see how lack of nutrition can have an adverse effect on your mood and subsequently your behavior.

As Hartke points out, foods that contain beneficial nutrients for optimal brain function and mood control have been "demonized" in our culture. B3- and protein-rich foods such as raw dairy products, eggs and meat have been more or less blacklisted, accused of being too high in cholesterol and fat.

Hartke also mentions soy, which is frequently recommended as a healthier substitute. Popular soy foods include soy infant formula, which we now know is extremely harmful to infants, especially their brain. Trans fat is another area of concern. According to Dr. Mary Enig, a well-known researcher and scientist, the USDA's dietary guidelines endanger the health of our children.

Are You Getting Enough "Brain Food"?

One nutrient in particular that is essential for optimal brain development and functioning is omega-3 fats. It's one of the few supplements I recommend to all the patients at my clinic. Omega-3 fats are especially important during prenatal development, and, unfortunately, most people are sorely deficient.

Could rampant omega-3 deficiency be a contributing factor to deteriorating mental health?  I believe so—along with vitamin D deficiency, which also plays an important role.

NOW Toronto also touches on the subject of omega-3 fats and violence in a recent article stating:

"Hamburgers and fries are rarely accused of causing violent behavior in male youth who subsist on them. But the standard junk food diet of North America is dangerously low in many nutrients, notably the omega fatty acids found most easily in fish and walnuts, fats that were likely crucial in early human evolution. 

I say "dangerously low" not only because of the body's physical need for such fats, but because these fats deliver mental health benefits that counter depression. Washington-based National Institute of Health clinician Joseph Hibbeln created a momentary stir in 2001 with research showing lower murder rates among prisoners who ate fish regularly. 

Harvard's Andrew Stoll wrote about EFAs as "the new pharmacology of aggression" in his 2001 book, The Omega-3 Connection, and expressed "hope that at least part of the answer" to such problems as intermittent explosive disorder "may be as simple as omega-3 fatty acid."

Research has shown that low plasma concentrations of DHA (a type of omega-3 fat) is associated with low concentrations of brain serotonin. This decreased amount of serotonin can be associated with depression and suicide.

In fact, not getting enough omega-3 fats is known to change the levels and functioning of both serotonin and dopamine (which plays a role in feelings of pleasure), as well as compromise the blood-brain barrier, which normally protects your brain from unwanted matter gaining access.  Omega-3 deficiency can also decrease normal blood flow to your brain, an interesting finding given that studies show people with depression have compromised blood flow to a number of brain regions.

Finally, omega-3 deficiency also causes a 35 percent reduction in brain phosphatidylserine (PS) levels, which is relevant considering that PS has documented antidepressant activity in humans. Fish used to be the ideal food for obtaining omega-3 in your diet; however, fish stocks around the globe are now so polluted I cannot recommend eating fish anymore. Especially not if you're pregnant.

After doing extensive research in this area, I'm convinced that the ideal source of omega-3 fats is krill oil, which also contains astaxanthin, an extremely potent antioxidant that also benefits the brain, in addition to protecting the oil from going rancid. Krill oil is also more potent than fish oil, which means you need less of it.

Omega-3 fats such as those in krill oil have actually been found to work just as well as antidepressants in preventing the signs of depression, but without any of the side effects. I can also attest to this, as throughout my years of medical practice many of my patients were able to eliminate their antidepressants once they started taking omega-3 fats.

Researchers Around the World have Linked Bowel Problems to Brain Disorders

Brain disorders can take many forms, one of which is autism. In this particular area you can again find compelling evidence of the link between brain and gut health. For example, gluten intolerance is frequently a feature of autism, and many autistic children will improve when following a strict gluten-free diet.

Dr. Andrew Wakefield is just one of many who have investigated the connection between developmental disorders and bowel disease. He has published about 130-140 peer-reviewed papers looking at the mechanism and cause of inflammatory bowel disease, and has extensively investigated the brain-bowel connection in the context of children with developmental disorders such as autism.

I realize he has taken a lot of unfair heat in the media recently and I hope to report on that more fully, but always remember that there are two sides to every story and the one telling the story now is Brian Deere. If you want to hear the other side of the story you can view the interview I did with him last year.

A large number of replication studies have also been performed around the world, by other researchers, confirming the curious link between brain disorders such as autism and gastrointestinal dysfunction. These studies include:

  1. The Journal of Pediatrics November 1999; 135(5):559-63
  2. The Journal of Pediatrics 2000; 138(3): 366-372
  3. Journal of Clinical Immunology November 2003; 23(6): 504-517
  4. Journal of Neuroimmunology 2005  
  5. Brain, Behavior and Immunity 1993; 7: 97-103
  6. Pediatric Neurology 2003; 28(4): 1-3
  7. Neuropsychobiology 2005; 51:77-85
  8. The Journal of Pediatrics May 2005;146(5):605-10 
  9. Autism Insights 2009; 1: 1-11
  10. Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology February 2009; 23(2): 95-98
  11. Annals of Clinical Psychiatry 2009:21(3): 148-161
  12. Journal of Child Neurology June 29, 2009; 000:1-6 
  13. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders March 2009;39(3):405-13 
  14. Medical Hypotheses August 1998;51:133-144.
  15. Journal of Child Neurology July 2000; ;15(7):429-35
  16. Lancet. 1972;2:883–884.
  17. Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia January-March 1971;1:48-62
  18. Journal of Pediatrics March 2001;138:366-372
  19. Molecular Psychiatry 2002;7:375-382
  20. American Journal of Gastroenterolgy April 2004;598-605.
  21. Journal of Clinical Immunology November 2003;23:504-517.
  22. Neuroimmunology April 2006;173(1-2):126-34.
  23. Prog. Neuropsychopharmacol Biol. Psychiatry December 30 2006;30:1472-1477.
  24. Clinical Infectious Diseases September 1 2002;35(Suppl 1):S6-S16 
  25. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 2004;70(11):6459-6465 
  26. Journal of Medical Microbiology October 2005;54:987-991

Can Your Diet Prevent Mood Disorders and Aggression?

I've already addressed the importance of omega-3 fats in brain development and mental health above. However, although extremely important, that's not the only nutrient needed for optimal brain function and mood control. Your overall diet is just as important. Eliminating most sugars and grains from your diet is high on the list, as these will increase your risk of insulin resistance, which is also linked to depression.

Researchers have discovered a positive connection between higher levels of insulin resistance and severity of depressive symptoms in people with impaired glucose tolerance, even before the occurrence of diabetes. Based on these findings, it was suggested that insulin resistance could be the result of an increased release of counter-regulatory hormones linked to depression.

Additionally, excessive insulin release can lead to hypoglycemia (falling blood sugar levels), which in turn causes your brain to secrete glutamate. High levels of glutamate can cause agitation, depression, anger, anxiety, panic attacks and an increase in suicide risk.

Many food additives, preservatives and food colorants can also cause behavioral changes, so avoiding candy and processed foods is important.

Fermented foods, on the other hand, have been found to have mental health benefits, which again ties into the gut-brain connection, as fermented foods are rich sources of healthful probiotics.

Optimizing your vitamin D levels is yet another way to boost your mental health.

Have you ever noticed how great it can feel to spend time outdoors on a sunny day? Getting safe sun exposure, which allows your body to produce vitamin D, is actually great for your mood. One study even found people with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more prone to be depressed than those who received healthy doses.

As for food sources containing vitamin D, lard from organically-raised pigs and butter from grass-fed cows are two viable sources. Sylvia P. Onusic, PhD wrote about this on Hartke’s blog:

"Lard is a good fat to use in cooking because it is hard at room temperature which means it will not spoil or become rancid as quickly as liquid oils at room temp do. But lard purchased in the supermarket is usually hydrogenated and thus a trans fat to be avoided….   

Butter from pastured cows on green grass also contains nice amounts of natural vitamin D as does farm fresh milk. The vitamin D is in the butterfat.  Conventional milk, produced from cows that are usually fed either/and /or corn, soybeans, candy, brewery wastes, does not naturally contain vitamin D.  These cows may never even see the pasture or feel the sun in their lifetimes.

Other Lifestyle Factors for Mental Balance

Last but not least, exercising and having effective tools to address your stress also play important roles in caring for your mental health. Regular exercise is in fact one of the "secret weapons" to overcoming depression because it helps to normalize insulin resistance while boosting "feel good" hormones in your brain.

As for managing your stress levels, my favorite strategy is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT); a form of psychological acupressure that you can learn how to do yourself. However, if you have depression or serious stress it would be best to consult with a mental health professional who is also an EFT practitioner to guide you.

Of course, there are other stress-management methods out there as well, such as meditation, journaling, breathing exercises, yoga, or simply sharing your feelings with a close friend. Ideally, pick the method that feels best for you.