While no cure for serious disease, whole foods can help protect the brain from mood and other disorders.
HELENA PLATER-ZYBERK figured it was her own fault. Sure, she felt stressed, not entirely emotionally stable and tired from poor sleep, but that was par for the course for an entrepreneur like her. “The difficulty entrepreneurs face in launching companies is well-known, and I attributed a lot of my stress and anxiety to situations I was putting myself into,” says Plater-Zyberk, a 41-year-old in Berkeley, California, who somewhat ironically co-founded Supportiv, a digital startup for mental health peer support groups.
But soon enough, Plater-Zyberk’s mental and emotional symptoms bled into physical ones. She had a tear in her calf muscle, pinched a nerve in her shoulder and developed sciatica and Achilles tendonitis – all of which wouldn’t heal. Eventually, she took her co-founder’s recommendation to visit an integrative health doctor, who ordered 30-some blood tests to test her suspicion that Plater-Zyberk’s stress, anxiety and injuries were all linked to one thing: inflammation. The test results, the doctor told her, confirmed it. “Your body is a forest fire,” Plater-Zyberk recalls the doctor saying.
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The prescription? A strict anti-inflammatory diet, or an eating pattern that tends to emphasize antioxidant-rich foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, and minimizes or eliminates inflammatory foods, though professionals differ on what they consider inflammatory. In Dr. Andrew Weill’s anti-inflammatory diet, for example, fruit, whole grains, legumes, red wine and cheese are fair game; in the plan Plater-Zyberk’s doctor prescribed, those foods are all off-limits, with the exception of quinoa.
“I explain it by it’s ‘can’ts’ and ‘don’ts,'” says Plater-Zyberk, who sticks to foods like unsweetened almond flour pumpkin muffins for breakfast and salads with fish or poultry for lunch. For someone who regularly drank wine and up to eight cups of coffee a day, ordered late-night room service while frequently traveling and occasionally soothed stress with potato chips, it was a drastic change.
“The first week, I had the traditional, miserable withdrawal,” she says. But the physical and mental health benefits have been so worth it she plans to stick with the plan for the prescribed three years. “I immediately noticed I was sleeping better, and that’s changed everything for me,” says Plater-Zyberk, who started the diet about six weeks ago. “I wake up ready to tackle the day; I have a slower, more mindful approach to meals; I plan ahead and I’ve started cooking. It makes me a calmer person.”
What Is Inflammation Anyway?
To understand an anti-inflammatory diet, you first have to understand inflammation. The buzzword refers to the cellular damage caused by byproducts of metabolism, pollution, exercise, sun exposure and other internal and environmental stressors, explains Robin Foroutan, an integrative dietitian nutritionist in New York City and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Inflammation on its own is not necessarily a negative thing; it’s part of the way our immune system functions,” she says. “But when inflammation doesn’t resolve at the end of whatever injury there is, then we’ve got this runaway inflammatory cascade – and that’s the part that’s dangerous.”
Increasingly, researchers are learning how it can be dangerous not only by leading to physical problems ranging from infections to chronic diseases like cancer, but also to areas of the brain involved in mental health conditions including schizophrenia and depression. Results from the 2009-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey of nearly 6,000 Americans, for example, found that almost 30 percent of people with depression had elevated inflammatory biomarker levels in their blood. It makes sense, Foroutan says, since inflammation is rarely confined to a single body system. “It’s one of those things we like to separate out symptoms from one another, but all of those symptoms are housed in one body.”At the same time, researchers are looking into just how much diet plays a role in reducing inflammation that may be linked to mental health concerns. In a new study in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, for instance, researchers surveyed more than 800 Australian teens and found that those with more “Western” diets – aka heavy on red meat, processed foods and sweets – were more likely to be obese, have elevated biomarkers of inflammation and higher rates of mental health disorders like depression. Those whose eating patterns more closely mirrored a Dr. Weill-esque anti-inflammatory diet (which is more similar to the Mediterranean diet than Plater-Zyberk’s plan) were the opposite.
“Chronic inflammation may underlie the association between diet and depression, since negative health behaviors, such as a poor diet, may lead to both inflammation and depression in susceptible individuals,” says lead study author Wendy Oddy, a professor at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the University of Tasmania in Australia.