Nutritional Psychiatry: Why Diet May Play an Essential Role in Treating Mental Health Conditions, Including Depression, Anxiety & Beyond

For years neuroscientists have been trying to correct the old assumption that our minds are reducible to our brains. Research into what is known as the gut microbiome, for example, has shown that mood and mental health are intimately linked to the functioning of an ecosystem of microorganisms within the digestive system. As researchers write in the Journal of Neuroscience, “experimental changes to the gut microbiome can affect emotional behavior and related brain systems [and] may play a pathophysiological role in human brain diseases, including autism spectrum disorder, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain.”

Even Parkinson’s Disease has been linked to gut bacteria in studies performed by microbiologist Sarkis Mazmanian, who points out that “70 percent of all neurons in the peripheral nervous system—that is, not the brain or spinal cord—are in the intestines, and the gut’s nervous system is directly connected to the central nervous system through the vagus nerve.” Our guts also supply the brain with fuel, and it requires a “constant supply,” notes Dr. Eva Selhub at the Harvard Health Blog. “That ‘fuel’ comes from the foods you eat—and what’s in that fuel makes all the difference. Put simply, what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.”




Such findings have given rise to the emerging field of Nutritional Psychiatry, which you can hear described in the TEDx talk above by clinical psychologist Julia Rucklidge. Initially taught that “nutrition and diet were of trivial significance for mental health,” Rucklidge, like most of her colleagues, believed that “only drugs and psychotherapy could treat these serious conditions.” But after encountering evidence to the contrary, she decided to do her own studies. Beginning at around 5:30, she presents compelling evidence for a dramatic reduction in rates of ADHD, PTSD, depression, and psychosis after dietary treatments.

That's not to say that drugs and psychotherapy do not play important roles in treatment, nor that they should be supplanted by a nutrition-only approach. But it does mean that nutritional treatments are shown by many fields of study to be effective and perhaps essential, for reasons consistent with widespread knowledge about the body and brain. “It is now known,” for example, as Joyce Cavaye reports at the Independent, “that many mental health conditions are caused by inflammation in the brain which ultimately causes our brain cells to die.” Inflammation is, in part, caused by “a lack of nutrients such as magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics, vitamins and minerals… all essential for the optimum functioning of our bodies.”

Diets consisting primarily of highly processed foods and sugars are also a cause of inflammation. “Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function,” Dr. Selhub writes. These diets promote a “worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression.” Processed foods with high carbohydrate content and few nutrients have created an epidemic of malnutrition among a significant portion of the population who otherwise seem to have plenty to eat. The situation seems to have majorly contributed to the corresponding epidemics of depression and other mental health conditions.

Nutritional psychiatry is not a fad or a program claiming to recreate the diet of early humans. While “a potential evolutionary mismatch between our ancestral past (Paleolithic, Neolithic) and the contemporary nutritional environment” merits exploration, as researchers write in an article published at the Journal of Physiological Anthropology, many more contemporary factors—such as economic development and the rise of scientific medicine—play a role in how we understand diet and mental health.

Rather than look to prehistory, scientists have studied the diets of “traditional” societies (those not reliant on mass-produced processed foods) in the Mediterranean and Japan. They have found a 25-35% lower rate of depression, for example, in those who eat diets “high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, and fish and seafood,” writes Selhub, with “only modest amounts of lean meats and dairy.” There is no perfect dietary formula, however. Everyone’s gut processes things differently. Dr. Selhub recommends cutting out processed foods and sugar and experimenting with adding and subtracting foods to see how you feel. (Nutritional experiments like these are probably best carried out after consulting with your doctor.)

Just as we will need to change the way we eat if we want to preserve our outer environment, the health of that rich, and no less necessary, inner world known as the microbiome will require what for many is a dramatic change in eating habits. Sadly, it is not a change everyone can afford to make. But for millions suffering from mental illnesses, nutritional psychiatry may represent a life-altering course of treatment.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Animated History of Cats: How Over 10,000 Years the Cat Went from Wild Predator to Sofa Sidekick

Dogs sees us as their masters while cats sees us as their slaves. - Anonymous

The next time your friend’s pet cat sinks its fangs into your wrist, bear in mind that the beast is probably still laboring under the impression that it’s guarding the granaries.

Anthropologist Eva-Maria Geigl’s animated Ted-Ed Lesson, The History of the World According to Cats, above, awards special recognition to Unsinkable Sam, a black-and-white ship’s cat who survived three WWII shipwrecks (on both Axis and Allied sides).

It’s a cute story, but as far as directing the course of history, Felis silvestris lybica, a subspecies of wildcat that can be traced to the Fertile Crescent some 12,000 years ago, emerges as the true star.




In a Neolithic spin of "The Farmer in the Dell," the troughs and urns in which ancient farmers stored surplus grain attracted mice and rats, who in turn attracted these muscular, predatory cats.

They got the job done.

Human and cats’ mutually beneficial relationship spelled bad news for the rodent population, but survival for today’s 600-million-some domestic cats, whose DNA is shockingly similar to that of its prehistoric ancestors.

Having proved their value to the human population in terms of pest control, cats quickly found themselves elevated to welcome companions of soldiers and sailors, celebrated for their ability to knock out rope-destroying vermin, as well as dangerous animals on the order of snakes and scorpions.

Thusly did cats’ influence spread.

Bastet, the Egyptian goddess of domesticity, women's secrets, fertility, and childbirth is unmistakably feline.

Cats draw the chariot of Freya, the Norse goddess of love.

Their popularity dipped briefly in the Late Middle Ages, when humankind mistakenly credited cats as the source of the plague. In truth, that scourge was spread by rodents, who ran unchecked after men rounded up their feline predators for a gruesome slaughter.

Nowadays, a quick glimpse at Instagram is proof enough that cats are back on top.

(Yes, you can haz cheezburger with that.)

Dogs may see our service to them as proof that we are gods, buts cats surely interpret the feeding and upkeep they receive at human hands as evidence they are the ones to be worshipped.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City January 14 as host of  Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Jazz Musician Plays Acoustic Guitar While Undergoing Brain Surgery, Helping Doctors Monitor Their Progress

Unlike many colorful expressions in English whose origins are lost to us, the comparison of majorly consequential tasks to brain surgery makes perfect sense. One false move or miscalculation can result in instant death. The chances of irreversible, life-altering damage are high, should a scalpel slip or a surgeon mistake healthy brain tissue for diseased. This can happen more readily than we might like to think. “It can be very difficult to tell the difference between the tumor and normal brain tissue,” admits Dr. Basil Enicker, a specialist neurosurgeon at Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital in South Africa.

An operation Enicker led makes the procedure seem like just as much an art as a science. During an “awake craniotomy,” the surgeon and his team removed a tumor from the brain of Musa Manzini, a South African jazz bassist.




To help them monitor the operation as they went, they had him strum an acoustic guitar in the OR. “Presumably, had he hit a wrong note,” writes Kimon de Greef at The New York Times, “it would have been an immediate signal for the surgeons to probe elsewhere.” He also carried on an extended conversation with one of the surgeons, as you can see in the video above.

Such procedures are not at all unusual. In a similar case at the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center, young musician Robert Alvarez strummed his guitar while surgeons removed a tumor near his speech and movement centers. In 2014, de Greef reports, “a tenor in the Dutch National Opera, Ambroz Bajec-Lapajne, sang Schubert’s ‘Gute Nacht’ as doctors removed a tumor. In 2015, the saxophonist Carlos Aguilera read music and performed during an operation in Spain.” That same year, a Brazilian man played the Beatles while he underwent brain surgery.

Not all of them are musical, but awake craniotomies are so common that Manzini “watched quite a lot of YouTube videos,” he says, “to prepare myself mentally.” As for the shock of being conscious while surgeons poke around in your most precious of bodily organs, millimeters from possible paralysis, etc., well... it’s certainly more comfortable now than in some of the earliest brain surgeries we have on fossil record—some 8,000 years ago. One wonders how Neolithic patients passed their time under the knife.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Music Can Awaken Patients with Alzheimer’s and Dementia

In the late 1950’s, pioneering free jazz bandleader Sun Ra played a gig at a Chicago mental hospital, booked there by his manager Alton Abraham, who had an interest in alternative medicine. The experiment in musical therapy worked wonders. One patient who had not moved or spoken in years reportedly got up, walked over to the piano, and yelled out, “you call that music!”

The anecdote illustrates just one experience among untold millions in which a person suffering from a debilitating neurological condition responds positively, even miraculously, it seems, to music.




As famed neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks puts it in his book Musicophilia, “musical perception, musical sensibility, musical emotion and musical memory can survive long after other forms of memory have disappeared.”

This medical fact makes musical therapy an ideal intervention for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. In the short video above, Sacks describes his visits to patients in various old age homes. “Some of them are confused, some are agitated, some are lethargic, some have almost lost language,” he says, “but all of them, without exception, respond to music.”

We can see just such a response in the clip at the top, in which the barely responsive Henry Dryer, a 92-year-old nursing home resident with dementia, transforms when he hears music. “The philosopher Kant called music ‘the quickening art,’ and Henry’s being quickened,” says Sacks says of the dramatic change, “he’s being brought to life.” Suddenly lucid and happy, Henry looks up and says, “I’m crazy about music. Beautiful sounds.”

The clip comes from a documentary called Alive Inside, winner of a 2014 Sundance Audience Award (see the trailer above), a film that shows us several musical “quickenings” like Henry’s. “Before Dryer started using his iPod,” notes The Week, “he could only answer yes-or-no questions—and sometimes he sat silently and still for hours at a time.” Now, he sings, carries on conversations and can “even recall things from years ago.”

Sacks comments that “music imprints itself on the brain deeper than any other human experience,” evoking emotions in ways that nothing else can. A 2010 Boston University study showed that Alzheimer’s patients “learned more lyrics when they were set to music rather than just spoken.” Likewise, researchers at the University of Utah found music to be “an alternative route for communicating with patients.”

As senior author of the Utah study, Dr. Norman Foster, says, “language and visual memory pathways are damaged early as the disease progresses, but personalized music programs can activate the brain, especially for patients who are losing contact with their environment.” See the effects for yourself in this extraordinary film, and learn more about Sacks' adventures with music and the brain in the 2007 discussion of Musicophilia, just above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Psilocybin Could Soon Be a Legal Treatment for Depression: Johns Hopkins Professor, Roland Griffiths, Explains How Psilocybin Can Relieve Suffering

Much of the recent scientific research into psychedelics has picked up where researchers left off in the mid-20th century, before LSD, psilocybin, and other psychoactive drugs became countercultural means of consciousness expansion, and then banned, illegal substances the government sought to control. Scientists from several fields studied psychedelics as treatments for addiction, depression, and anxiety, and end-of-life care. These applications were conceived and tested several decades ago.

Now, thanks to some serious investment from high-profile institutions like Johns Hopkins University, and thanks to changing government attitudes toward psychoactive drugs, it may be possible for psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” to get legal approval for therapy in a clinical setting by 2021. “For the first time in U.S. history,” Shelby Hartman reports at Rolling Stone, “a psychedelic drug is on the fast track to getting approved for treating depression by the federal government.”

As Michael Pollan has detailed in his latest book, How to Change Your Mind, the possibilities for psilocybin and other such drugs are vast. “But before the Food and Drug Administration can be petitioned to reclassify it,” Brittany Shoot notes at Fortune, the drug “first has to clear phase III clinical trials. The entire process is expected to take about five years.” In the TEDMED video above, you can see Roland R. Griffiths, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins, discuss the ways in which psilocybin, “under supported conditions, can occasion mystical-type experiences associated with enduring positive changes in attitudes and behavior.”

The implications of this research span the fields of ethics and medicine, psychology and religion, and it’s fitting that Dr. Griffiths leads off with a statement about the compatibility of spirituality and science, supported by a quote from Einstein, who said “the most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It’s the source of all true science.” But the work Griffiths and others have been engaged in is primarily practical in nature—though it does not at all exclude the mystical—like finding effective means to treat depression in cancer patients, for example.

“Sixteen million Americans suffer from depression and approximately one-third of them are treatment resistant,” Hartman writes. “Depression is also an epidemic worldwide, affecting 300 million people around the world.” Psychotropic drugs like psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA (which is not classified as a psychedelic), have been shown for a long time to work for many people suffering from severe mental illness and addictions.

Although such drugs present some potential for abuse, they are not highly addictive, especially relative to the flood of opioids on the legal market that are currently devastating whole communities as people use them to self-medicate. It seems that what has most prevented psychedelics from being researched and prescribed has as much or more to do with long-standing prejudice and fear as it does with a genuine concern for public health. (And that’s not even to mention the financial interests who exert tremendous pressure on drug policy.)

But now, Hartman writes, “it appears [researchers] have come too far to go back—and the federal government is finally recognizing it, too.” Find out why this research matters in Dr. Griffiths' talk, Pollan’s book, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, and some of the posts we’ve linked to below.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

British Doctors To Prescribe Arts & Culture to Patients: “The Arts Are Essential to our Health and Wellbeing”

Photo by Adam Jones, via Wikimedia Commons

The arts and humanities are afterthoughts in many American schools, rarely given priority as part of a comprehensive education, though they formed the basis of one for thousands of years elsewhere. One might say something similar of preventative medicine in the U.S. healthcare system. It’s tempting to idealize the priorities of other wealthy countries. The Japanese investment in “forest bathing,” for example, comes to mind, or Finnish public schools and France's funding of an Alzheimer’s village.

But everyplace has its problems, and no country is an island, exempt from the global pressures of capital or hostile interference.

But if we consider such things as art, music, and dance as essential—not only to an education, but to our general well-being—we must commend the UK’s Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, for his “social prescribing” initiative.




Hancock wants “the country’s doctors to prescribe therapeutic art- or hobby-based treatments for ailments ranging from dementia to psychosis, lung conditions and mental health issues,” reports Meilan Solly at Smithsonian. The plan “could find patients enrolled in dance classes and singing lessons, or perhaps enjoying a personalized music playlist.”

In a speech Hancock delivered on what happened to be election day in the U.S., he referred to a quote from Confucius that represents one particularly ancient educational tradition: “Music produces a kind of pleasure, which human nature cannot do without.” (He also quotes the Rolling Stones' “Satisfaction.”) Hancock’s idea goes beyond aristocratic traditions of old, proclaiming a diet of the arts for everyone.

They’re not just a right in their own terms as the search for truth and expression of the human condition. We shouldn’t only value them for the role they play in bringing meaning and dignity to our lives. We should value the arts and social activities because they’re essential to our health and wellbeing. And that’s not me as a former Culture Secretary saying it. It’s scientifically proven. Access to the arts and social activities improves people’s mental and physical health.

We’ve likely all come across research on the tremendous health benefits of what Warnock calls “social activities,” maintaining friendships and getting out and about. But what does the research into art and health say? “The medical benefits of engaging with the arts are well-recorded,” Solly writes, citing studies of stroke survivors making great strides after performing with the Royal Philharmonic; dance lessons improving clarity and concentration among those with early psychosis; and those with lung conditions improving with singing lessons. Additionally, many studies have shown the emotional lift museum visits and other cultural activities of a social nature can give.

Similar trials have taken place in Canada, but the UK project is “simultaneously more comprehensive and less fleshed-out,” aiming to encourage everything from cooking classes, playing bingo, and gardening to “more culturally focused ventures.” The proposal does not, however, fully address funding or accessibility issues for the most at-risk patients. Hancock’s rhetoric also perhaps heedlessly pits “more prevention and perspiration” against “popping pills and Prozac,” a characterization that seems to trivialize drug therapies and create a false binary where the two approaches can work well hand-in-hand.

Nonetheless, a shift away from “over-medicalising” and toward preventative and holistic approaches has the potential to address not only chronic symptoms of disease, but the non-medical causes—including stress, isolation, and sadness—that contribute to and worsen illness. The plan may require a rigorously individualized implementation by physicians and it will "start at a disadvantage," with 4% cuts per year to the NHS budget until 2021, as Royal College of Nursing public health expert Helen Donovan points out.

Those challenges aside, given all we know about the importance of emotional well-being to physical health, it’s hard to argue with Hancock’s premise. “Access to the arts improves people’s mental and physical health,” he tweeted during his November 6th roll-out of the initiative. “It makes us happier and healthier." Art is not a luxury, but a necessary ingredient in human flourishing, and yet "the arts do not tend to be thought of in medical terms," writes professor of health humanities Paul Crawford, though they constitute a "shadow health service," bringing us a kind of happiness, I’d argue with Confucius, that we simply cannot find anywhere else.

via The Smithsonian

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Free Guided Imagery Recordings Help Kids Cope with Pain, Stress & Anxiety

I don’t have to tell you modern life is full of stressors that exacerbate hypertension, depression, and everything in-between. Therapeutic stress reduction techniques based in mindfulness meditation, trauma research, and a number of other fields have proliferated in our daily lives and everyday conversation, helping people cope with chronic pain, career anxiety, and the toxic miasma of our geopolitics.

These methods have been very successful among adult populations—of monks, veterans, clinical subjects, etc.—but adults process information very differently than children. And as every parent knows, kids get majorly stressed out too, whether they’re absorbing our anxieties second-hand or feeling the pressures of their own social and educational environments.




We can’t expect young children to sit still and pay attention to their breath for thirty minutes, or to change their mental scripts with cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s far easier for kids to process things through their imagination, channeling anxiety through play, or art, or—as pediatric psychologists at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) explain—guided mental visualization, or “guided imagery,” as they call it. How does it work?

Guided imagery involves envisioning a certain goal to help cope with health problems or the task or skill a child is trying to learn or master. Guided imagery is most often used as a relaxation technique that involves sitting or lying quietly and imagining a favorite, peaceful setting like a beach, meadow or forest.

The therapists at CHOC “teach patients to imagine sights, sounds, smells, tastes or other sensations to create a kind of daydream that ‘removes’ them from or gives them control over their present situation.” In the video at the top, Dr. Cindy Kim describes the technique as “akin to biofeedback,” and it has been especially helpful for children facing a scary medical procedure.

While all of us might need to go to our happy place once in a while, most kids find it hard to relax without some form of creative redirection, like the guided imagery program above from Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. At the CHOC website, you’ll find over a dozen other audio programs tailored for pain and stress management and relaxation, for both young children and adolescents. Lifehacker’s parenting editor Michelle Woo describes a representative sampling of the programs:

  • For pain management for young kids, listen to “The Special Cake.” Sample line: “With your next deep breath in, notice the sweet smell of the yummy frosting.”
  • For pain management for teens, listen to “Climbing a Ladder.” Sample line: “Let’s have a look at the first step. As you put your foot on it, you begin to remember a time when you realize that you can have control over your body.”
  • For anxiety, listen to “The Magic Kite.” Sample line: “All of the uncomfortable feelings or sadness or anger or pain or worry are all on the ground and you are flying away from it.”

As kids listen to audio, Woo writes, “have them notice how their body feels—their breathing may slow and their muscles might relax.” And hey, there’s no reason guided imagery can’t work for grown-ups too. Try it if you’re feeling stressed and let us know how it works for you.

via Lifehacker

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

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