13. Harvard’s Mood Food Expert-Dr. Uma Naidoo

Harvard Medical’s Dr. Uma Naidoo literally wrote the book on the science of mood and your microbiome. Find out what foods reduce stress, and which foods will deplete your mental health.

Gut Inflammation is Brain Inflammation


Dr Bill Ferro: Okay, welcome to another episode of Quacks and Hypochondriacs. I’m your host, Dr. William Ferro from Betr health and with me standing in for my co-host Erin O’Hearn is Barbara Baez, registered dietician. And, we have to admit that you’re also a Betr health coach and former first starting as a client. So, welcome Barbara to the co-hosting position. 

Barbara Baez: Thank you so much, Dr. Ferro. I appreciate the opportunity to be here. I’m so excited about today’s topic. 

Dr Bill Ferro: This is amazing and its really easy shoes to fill because Erin’s really not that good, though she’s an award-winning journalist and a news anchor for ABC and Philly. No pressure, No pressure. Great. So exciting topic today – the best-selling author is with us, Dr. Naidoo, and she has a book called This is Your Brain on Food.

How exciting for us because man, I will never stop talking about it. And no one in my family will listen to me. So maybe they’ll read Dr. Naidoo’s book and actually start listening to what she has to say. She is a Harvard trained psychiatrist and a professional chef. And who would have thought those two things would come together because in the psychiatry world, right?

We generally think towards big pharma and now we have, a medical doctor turned chef that’s just relying on big farmers, to help people kind of reverse this mental health crisis. So, she’s got the first hospital-based nutritional psychology service in the United States. She’s the Director of the Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Mass General. Director of Nutritional Psychiatry and Mass General Health Academy.

And while she’s also serving at the faculty at Harvard Medical School, and then what, in her spare time she’s whipping up delightful treats to help save the world. So, we’re excited to have you Dr. Naidoo, hello. 

Dr Uma Naidoo: Thanks Dr. Ferro, it’s really lovely to be here. Thanks for inviting me. 

Dr Bill Ferro: Absolutely. So, tell us why. Okay. You’re, you know, you set out and you set out to be a force to be reckoned with within psychiatry. What happened? What, where did you make this shift?  Into the nutrition or the, This is Your Brain on Food process? 

Dr Uma Naidoo: Well, thanks for asking, you know, I think that the more I think about it hindsight is 2020, and I didn’t come with a plan, but I did follow things that I loved to do and study. but it really stems from my childhood. I’ve I feel like saying that, you know, in some ways it’s in my genes, I just grew up around a lot of food.

Nutrients, family love, medical science. And the reason is that, I skipped out of school. I wanted to hang out with my maternal grandma, to whom my book was dedicated. And that the reason was my mom was a double boarded physician and she was a medical school. So, during the daytime, I would spend time with my grandmother.

And so, my grandparents taught me how to meditate, they taught yoga, but I also watched her cook, you know, we’d pick fresh vegetables from the garden.  I’d help her, you know, clean some of the vegetables but I’d watch the process.

Then we did a meal together and this was very much a big part of my childhood, but then I was also surrounded by, uncles and aunts who were in medical school. And then we had a couple of Ayurvedic practitioners in the family. So, conversations were also science, medicine, Ayurvedic practice, and it was something I absorbed from my environment.

So, as I thought about it, the one thing I didn’t learn how to do was cook because there are lots of cooks in the kitchen, grandparents, all the cousins. So, I just hung around and helped, you know, but I never cooked. I learned how to bake because my mom, but I think nice that I loved science. So, you know, when you cut to sort of later in my life, as I began to study, both medicine and had an interest in mental health, I felt that they needed to be more tools in the toolkit.

I kept thinking, you know, what about if someone’s anxious, why can’t they learn mindfulness or meditation? And it wasn’t necessarily part of general practice, but it was in what I felt. So, a few things happened, early on in my career. As a very young psychiatry resident, a patient yelled at me. And you’re pretty timid when you start off in training and you, what you please, your patients and, you don’t want people to be unhappy with you so, I slipped that stage, let’s say formatively. 

And this gentleman that’s calling in both came in and yelled at me and saying that I’d caused him to gain weight after starting Prozac. And I had in fact initiated the prescription a few weeks ago. But I knew looking at his medical record, which was in front of me on the computer that, you know, it wasn’t, he had started off at a certain weight. I hadn’t caused this, although of course Prozac can cause it as a side effect. 

As he was yelling at me, I looked at what he had in his hand. And in Boston, our favorite coffee is Dunkin Donuts, it originated in Massachusetts and he had a big 20-ounce cup of coffee. And I said, Hey, Bo, what do you mean? I know you upset, but let me just ask you something, what’s in your coffee?

And he looked down and said, oh, the usual, you know, and, and I recalculated. We sat down on the computer and we calculated that he had more than a half, a more than a quarter cup of processed creamer, and about eight teaspoons of sugar. And I worked out with him. I’m not much of a calorie counter. But I worked on with him, the amount of additional calories he was taking in was just a black coffee could have been okay.

Could have been relatively healthy. He wasn’t someone who was anxious. It wasn’t listening his anxiety in any way, and that moment when I saw the, almost the light bulb go off in his head that, wow, that actually makes sense. So, someone’s yelling at me, he then understood this translated information. I had my aha moment because I realized the power of just a simple translation of information in someone who was drinking something every day.

Not that he had to give it up, but he could tweak what he was adding to it. And that really set me off on a path of adding this into how I began to talk to patients had been pursuing different areas of how I put it together. Not necessarily because I felt, you know, I needed to study this or that. I really wanted, there’s a huge gap in nutrition education in medical school, we all know that as doctors. So, I really wanted to learn more. And, the only thing I would add to this, Dr. Ferro, that when I went to culinary school, that was an ode to Julia Childs. She was just my food hero. And as a poor psychiatry resident I could only afford public television and she was on public television in Boston.

And it really helped me kind of gain confidence as a young cook before that even, to follow recipes and that type of thing. So, I really felt it was a way to round off my own personal journey. But when it came together in the way I was able to form a clinic, I felt very blessed. So, it’s a very long story, but that was how it evolved during the course of my life.

Dr Bill Ferro: Julia Childs, what a great reference. Can you give us, do a good impersonation of her? 

Dr Uma Naidoo: No, I can’t.

Dr Bill Ferro: I mean, she was so. She was so iconic. You could be anywhere in the house. And when she was on the television, she would eat. And kid would even as a child, you’d walk by. And she just, she was so infectious with her Melodic ways and how she brought cooking in the kitchen.

So, what an amazing, you know, for the kids out there, she was the, he was the OG chef, Right She was, she started that. 

Barbara Baez: She is every dietician’s hero, like every dietician, like swoons over the thought of Julia Childs. So yes, that is amazing.

Dr Bill Ferro: And doc, when we look at the patients and we look at the explosion of mental health issues. And I agree with you where we’re not big calorie counters as well. We’re looking at the inflammation and the stress that the person has both, you know, of course, mentally, but it’s easier for us because I can focus on the internal inflammation, We Talk about, kind of brain setting we had at the other doctor on, she was talking about set points within the brain, which I’m not a hundred percent sure of. I really like realized that our brain has neuroplasticity. You’ve talked about this before. Can you explain what neuroplasticity is and neuro-inflammation and neuro-oxidative stress and how that relates to the body and what you’re putting into the body. 

Dr Uma Naidoo: Absolutely. I think we need to probably start with the gut-brain access because it’s sort of, you know, that is the connection between the brain and food. And I think that that helps people translate the information and then understand those other components.  So, you know, I think that one of the things we need to know is that if someone went to medical school a few decades ago, they didn’t study the microbiome, because it really wasn’t part of all our understanding of the gut and the science behind it, it’s really in the last one and a half to two decades that that has burgeoned. So, between 2013 and 2017, there were about 13, 12,000 or 13,000 publications in the area. And what it has informed my practice in nutritional psychiatry is that we now understand there is this connection between the gut and the brain.

They arise from the same exact cells in the embryo. They remain connected throughout life by the vagus nerve, the 10th cranial nerve. I like to call that a two-way super highway aligning for information back and forth, 24/7, 365 days a year, so both organs influence each other.

And then, you know, we know about selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors. Like my patient Bo had taken, but more than 90% of the receptors are in the gut, and you know, for the purposes of the pandemic, people also should know that 70% of our immune system is in the gut.  So, the gut is a powerful organ that interacts with everything else.

But one of the huge organs it interacts with is the brain. food that we eat as it gets digested can be broken down. I like to really simplify it for people and say, you know, if you eat a good meal, a healthy meal, it gets broken down into positive products for your body, and a less healthy meal breaks down into more toxic products for your body.

That’s where the whole cycle around the gut-brain connection, as well as conditions like oxidative stress, neuro-oxidation, neuroinflammation and neuroplasticity come in until, I would say, going back to a few decades ago, we thought that the brain couldn’t change, but then science showed us that there’s neuroplasticity.

So that is super helpful to know because the brain can evolve and change and adapt. And that becomes important because what it also says is that how we eat can impact things as well, if it comes out of the big drivers. As does inflammation, because I’d like to say a happy guy is a happy mood.

And I say that because if there’s inflammation in the gut, often one of the causes can be what we’re eating. And then that ultimately loops back to brain inflammation. And so, studies of Alzheimer’s, studies of cognition, have all spoken to how dietary changes can actually impact neuro- inflammation. It’s similar with conditions like depression and anxiety or others, where when there’s new information, someone will have an uptick of symptoms or what we’ve seen in the pandemic is people who didn’t have symptoms before were coming in with new-found diagnoses and symptoms as evidenced by the amount of prescriptions that were new for anxiety, insomnia, and depression about April of last year in the surveys that were done.

So, all of this is in fact linked. I’m not saying that food was the only cause there because obviously emotional stress, stress in the body, all of that counts. Environment toxins, it’s all a system, but food and nutrition is one of the things. And so, for example, neuroplasticity can affect neuro-inflammation from information in the gut, and then oxidative stress can be really one of the ways too. People read about, you know, eating blueberries because they’re antioxidants, but they don’t actually often realize what those were doing.

You know, we need antioxidant foods to offset radical oxygen species in the body, which gets naturally formed. And if left on their own, they can cause damage to the body. So, we want to eat antioxidants, including things like spices, including things like blueberries, including food vegetables, which are rich in those polyphenols, because they offset the oxidative stress.

By getting rid of radical oxygen species. So that’s the reason to eat antioxidant foods, and so understanding those three components based on the gut-brain connection becomes important for people. 

Dr Bill Ferro:    So, I think when you’ve mentioned, like, you know, blueberries and reducing oxidative stress. The way I would spend it to my kids is I would say they’re kind of like, you know, Oprah’s greatest things when she was like, Okay, you get an electron, you get an electron, you get an electronic, those things donate electrons and neutralize, those free radicals so that their body can look unimpeded.

The second part of that, so many people on SSRI, right? This is just overwhelming. Knowing that the digestive system produces 90% of our serotonin, as you said, most of the receptors are there. What is the theory behind using SSRIs? And do you think by improving the digestive health and the brain-gut connection that they could be eliminated or not really necessary at all? Just curious for your thoughts. 

Dr Uma Naidoo: Sure. So, there are a few different aspects to this. One is that, you know, I’ll always go back to food. Why do we have convenience foods? Yeah, because we tend to be an impatient nation. You know, we tend to want things fast.  We want to get a quick meal. We want to do something rapidly.

it’s not the only reason for convenience foods, but it’s one of them. So, if you think about that, dynamic. I think that when people are not feeling good. They go to a doctor to get a fix, to get fixed, to feel better. And I think that doctors are in a position where, A: we don’t learn enough nutrition in medical school.

So, unless you go off and study nutrition as I did. You really don’t have those tools to have the conversation. So, doctors will go to prescription pad, our system is set up this way.  So, most doctors will say here, he has a prescription. There is almost no room in that discussion for what else could we do? You know, are you exercising? Are you sleeping well? What are you eating? You know, all of these things matter. So that’s the one component, I think convenience, wanting a quick fix, wanting to feel better. And when, when someone’s not feeling good, feeling anxious, of course, they want to feel good, I understand that. 

But another component of it is that, you know, I don’t think we’re at a point where we could give up medications So, I have to assess in each nutritional psychiatry evaluation that I do a personalized nutritional plan for that individual. Some people are functioning, they are going to work. They, you know, speaking on a podcast, they are showing up at the zoom meetings, but they’re anxious. And they wished that they could be feeling less anxious and they might be in a functioning state of mind that they can work with me around just nutrition, but others might need a medication or someone else might be prescribing a medication.

They might come to me to tweak that dietary changes to help them and all the time some people get to a lesser dose of a medication. And I think all the time, my hope, my real hope with the burgeoning amount of research around the gut microbiome, you know, things like psychobiotics that are being looked at and, and being studied that we might be in a position where people have an option of doctor assessing them to see, look, you can do be okay without medication, but here are some realistic options through food.

I don’t think we’re at the point where we can say that yet. But I think it would be awesome to be in a position where people had that option. And I really have a lot of hope around the exciting and sort of cutting-edge work that’s going on around the gut microbiome because I think we headed in that direction, but we’re just not there yet.

And then also to remember that the serious conditions that, you know, you can’t just say to someone who’s actively suicidal or manic, that they don’t need medication because you have to get them to a safe state. 

Dr Bill Ferro:  First of all, thank you for your work. The confidence in how you portraying this and your thought process is just so refreshing. It’s not a black or white issue. I think that’s where we always polarize ourselves.

And that’s what makes our patients so upset is that one doctor says, nope, it’s a hundred percent this way. This expert says it’s that way. And they’re stuck in the middle. What you’re saying is there, is a middle ground here. We’re going to set you to that. And there is some level of some may need more medication unless some can actually do most of this with diet and nutrition. And by coming to you and going through that assessment, you’re able to give them just what they need. The right amount of it.

Secondly, I’m, inside I’m so happy because, so I’m a chiropractor by training. I put chiropractic offices in gyms, I had about 30 of them, and I’d watched people come in and we’d get them from paying at a performance. But I realized we were battling internal inflammation and they weren’t preparing; they weren’t getting there. They were yelling at me saying, Hey, you put me on this diet program, this trainer, I’m not losing weight, and they get frustrated. And I would tell you that it was, out of a hundred patients that would come in that were seeking just better wellness.

The transformation happened in less than 5% of them, and I felt like a fraud. I was like, this isn’t working. So, I started researching inflammation and it brought me to digestive health. But as you mentioned, it, wasn’t a lot of research on there. So now here’s this quack, now I’m double quack, cause I’m talking about these microorganisms.

So, do you know who Flava Flav is?

Dr Uma Naidoo: I don’t. 

Dr Bill Ferro: Okay. So Flava Flav is at NWA, big rap group, and he’s the guy that just ran around the stage when the other rappers were professing and he would just go, yeah boy, that’s how I feel right now. I’m your Flava Flav, Dr. Naidoo, you’re onstage dropping this amazing knowledge and I’m running around like, yeah.

And I told you, I told you. A real Harvard doctor. Amazing. She said it, it’s gospel, drop the mic. You just gave us a drop the mic moment Dr. Naidoo. It’s very, very impressive.

Dr Uma Naidoo: Thank you. I love that. I love being a rap star, so if we can rap that would be awesome. 

Dr Bill Ferro: You’re a rock star. You’re a rapper. And I think we can, my Flava Flav is probably spelled flavor and flavor because, you know, you’re the chef. So, we can really have some kind of fun with that. Barbara, 

Barbara Baez: Yes, I actually, I have a question for you, Dr. Naidoo. So, in your book, you do talk about the importance of the gut microbiome and the direct relationship to the brain, but then also something that we don’t think about, and that I actually haven’t been enlightened to until reading the first chapter of your book, is the inverse of that as well, how external stress can then go back and affect your microbiome. So, can you talk a little bit about that? Cause I found that just so interesting. It’s a very fascinating.

Dr Uma Naidoo: Absolutely. You know, there’s also the research around sort of emotional health and the impact of the microbiome, how our thinking, how our thoughts impact the little microbes that live down there. And also, the fact that stress is such a big driver. You know, I feel like stress is the other vital sign that we should be checking as doctors because it impacts so many different things.

And it’s become universal and the impact on our body is huge. So, someone who’s super stressed, you know, you get that cortisol release, you get the high cortisol, well, it also affects our little microbiota and those microbes down there, and it sets off all the wrong sorts of reactions that we really want to fend off. It sets up inflammation for one. So, it’s bi-directional. We want to think of this as a system in our body. So, our emotional health, our physical health, our stress, our thinking all actually impacts the microbiome. 

Dr Bill Ferro:  You know, we talked about the Dunkin Donuts, the chemical sweetener, and you know that thing. Talk to us about sugar. I’ll add this, that because of the stress. That we have the emotional, mental stress. Our society’s kind of been designed to be in stress.

The top selling product of all time is disease, right? This is where there’s a lot of stakeholders that don’t want us to get in a state of ease because the DIS is helping us. And I describe the DIS as the D is for doubt, the I is for inflammation, the S is for stress. And oftentimes I’m going to say, yeah, sugar’s not great for you, but why are we creating the sugar is in response to that stress, right? The adrenal glands and firing it wants sodium, potassium, sugar. That’s, what’s driving this response for stress.

So, when we talk about sugar today, I want people to realize, we’re not saying, yeah, cut out sugar. You’re all good understanding why you’re craving that sugar is important, and then for you to tell us, what is it doing to the body?  Like what I love about your book it’s your brain on food.

You’re going over, what it’s actually doing. So, could you just describe what it’s actually doing in the body and why it is so detrimental? 

Dr Uma Naidoo:  So, in my book, this is Your Brain on Food. Every chapter has a list of foods to embrace.  Which I’m happy to say along with other foods to avoid. And why did I put in food to avoid? Because there are many things that people are eating that they’re thinking, Oh, you know, I have a family history of diabetes.

I’ve gained some weight during COVID, but they’re also affecting their mental health and sugar is one of them. And I’m going to be specific, we’re talking about added and refined sugars here. Good amounts of, Fruit, either fresh or frozen, actually good sources of sugar and part of a healthy, fiber rich diet, which we need.

 But I think that, where we go wrong was, we don’t realize things like fast food French fries have sugar in them because of research and development, to make them hyper palatable has added in sugar that we don’t necessarily perceive or taste, but these are forms of hidden sugar, which are in our everyday foods that they might be eating. There are upwards of 200 other names for sugar on food labels. Many Americans don’t know how to interpret food labels. And one of the reasons is that we bake, our recipes are standardized in the United States to pounds and ounces, but our food labels are in grams. So, here’s the thing, you know, if you tell someone, Oh, you should eat this amount of sugar as our guidelines, do they look at a food label?

And they don’t know what it means. So, you know, there are a lot of sort of missed steps that get us confused, but sugar and those added refined sugars affect our brain health. They worsen anxiety, they worsen depression and they definitely disrupt the gut. In terms of cravings one of the things that we’ve actually shown through research, sugar acts in the same dopamine reward pathways as things like cocaine, street drugs.

So, when people crave something, they tend to want more of it. Think about how someone who’s struggling with cocaine, if you’ve seen it depicted in a movie, or you’ve had some experience with it as a clinician or doctor or seen it happen, people just want one more. And the similar thing happens with sugar.

So, it’s important for us to understand the, kind of the neurochemistry chemistry behind it as well, and understand that there has to be a different way that we look at it and how do we step back from it? And I think it’s very hard. It’s especially very hard during the pandemic because there’s been an uptake of the eating and purchasing of processed foods.  And so, you know, all of this comes back to say that it’s just not a healthy thing to be consuming, not just for weight or diabetes or some other, other medical condition. It’s also brain health. And, the moment that people start to modulate it as they can, they really do see an improvement in their mental health symptoms. 

Dr Bill Ferro: you know, it’s interesting. And I think this is a point everyone needs to take away with is that. We’re not villainizing fruit, and a lot of diabetics, people with diabetes two, will actually feel that way. Last night, we had a call, a woman got on and she’d been on, doing our methodology. We do an elimination reintroduction process with a heavy influence on gut health. Within eight weeks she came off all of her insulin, meaning her doctor was able to slowly bring her down, no more insulin.  So, she went through it and she did this eating apples and oranges and blueberries, strawberries, and salads, and just feeling good. And another caller said, hey, I’m worried because you have apples and oranges on the plan and I’m diabetic.

And I said, didn’t you just hear the last person it’s so ingrained now for these diabetes two folks and even diabetes one, like oh, sugar. They just immediately, you know, now all forms of sugar are bad. And That’s unfortunately I think sending people over to kind of a ketogenic approach to lose weight, but now you’re not fueling the microbiome.

And what we find it by the diverse array of foods that they’re eating, then the microbiome starts craving more healthy foods. And so, whereas at this person couldn’t pass a sugar bowl without diving in two weeks ago is now like, no, I want an apple. I want blueberries and strawberries.

Dr Uma Naidoo: And that’s been proven in research. The diversity of the microbiome is one of the healthiest things that we need from microbiome. And you get that through the diversity of the foods that we eat. And I absolutely agree, you know, people demonize fruits and yes, we have to eliminate certain foods. But people will need to be in a couple of servings of healthy fruit today. You know, I usually say to people eat the whole orange, skip the store-bought orange juice because the added sugar and the fiber are removed.

So, it’s that principle, stick to frozen fruit, frozen berries, or fresh fruit, and you’ll be fine and always in moderation. So, the fiber, the vitamins and nutrients from those are not matched by other things that you might think you’re eating or taking in. 

Barbara Baez: You did mention the pandemic and how diets and things are affecting things. Can we talk a little bit about the silent pandemic and about mental health and how that’s being affected through the course of the past year?

Dr Uma Naidoo: Absolutely. So, you know, the silent pandemic or the parallel pandemic as some researchers have called it is really, the burgeoning amount of problems in mental health.  The way that I’ve sort of documented my thinking and looking at the research through the course of the pandemic is that the APA, the American Psychiatric Association, did a survey at the beginning of the pandemic and what they found with people who were most worried about the uncertainty.

And I would argue that more than a year later that uncertainty persists.  They also looked at a few other things which also panned out and some of it included, around I think spring of last year, Express Scripts did a survey and they showed the uptake of prescriptions for insomnia, anxiety, and depression.

Significantly increased in new prescriptions. So, these are not individuals previously diagnosed. And then June of last year, Zoloft went on shortage, which is a selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor. Very commonly used, it went on shortage in the United States. So, there were all these signs that things were, were increasing. And then some, very serious data came up from the CDC around summer last year, which showed the most concerning. There were many things about depression, anxiety, substance abuse, but the most concerning was that 11% of Americans were thinking about suicide.

And that’s a very huge number for people to, you know, to be ruminating or to be thinking on it.  We also saw that about 20% of teens were considering suicide and that was very, very troubling. So, where that’s left us is that we know that substance abuse use of drugs and alcohol is increased. We know that abuse because of the quarantine and the need for safety restrictions around our movement and where we living and we also know that depression, anxiety, trauma, and insomnia have increased. Insomnia, in fact, is called Corona-somnia, as many reported in the media because people are so worried during the pandemic that they just not sleeping well. So. What I’m most concerned about is where do we go from here?

You know, our metabolic health is in a state of crisis. We now know that this research has shown that this level of inflammation in our bodies and our gut, actually is related to different mental health conditions as well. And, you know, I sound like a stuck record, but I have to say that the one thing that would make a difference in addition to everything else, is how we eat nutrition is the one lifestyle measure that could potentially have an impact.

Like you mentioned, your patient and coming off insulin, in a similar way for mental health that’s one of the low hanging fruits, so to speak that we can reach out for while we do everything else. You know, we should be paying attention to how we sleeping, we should be paying attention to hydration, you know, because I practice a holistic integrated and functional approach.

So, I want people to meditate. And then you don’t have to do a denominational form of meditation. They can just practice a moment of silence. They can learn some mindfulness, they can learn a breathing exercise and, you know, movement and exercise become important. All of this.

Is sort of a holistic approach to our health.  And I feel like the crisis that’s emerging is how poorly people are feeling emotionally. And I’m worried about that. I’m most concerned about that.

Dr Bill Ferro: Yeah, I think we, a recent study showed that one in three COVID patients with diagnosed with a mental health issue.  We, one of our other episodes, we had Dr. Paul Wischmeyer on from Duke University and he’s doing a big study using probiotics to keep people off ventilators.  They first saw this in SARS and just taking a probiotic each day.

I have my thoughts on that. The probiotic, without the fruits and vegetables and water to me is like throwing seeds in a desert, but it’s definitely better than doing nothing, but I still feel like you’re missing the full boat by not doing the food with it, but we were talking about it. And he was saying that, when COVID patients coming into the ER, within 24 hours, the good bacteria to bad bacteria ratio had completely shifted and that the bad bacteria actually can signal to the other bad actors to go there.

And if that’s 70% of your immune system, if that’s controlling your inflammation. If that’s the expression of your DNA, reducing the serotonin. No wonder there’s that steady decline without bringing it back. What was so interesting to like listen to all of that part of it was just how ripe we were for this pandemic, right. Our soil was so off that we were just ripe from, from doing this.

Dr Uma Naidoo: If anything, COVID has actually taught us, you know, it’s sort of shone the light on the things that, it’s been horrible, it’s been, you know, I’m not undermining the loss and the pain and devastation that people have suffered, but it’s also really shown and taught us how poorly our metabolic health crisis is in this country and how that has placed us at increased risk for pre-existing conditions. Therefore, leading to worse outcomes with either death being the worst from COVID or other disabilities, and one of them being mental health and the uptick of mental health and even COVID survivors is very concerning.

So, I think, you know, it’s sort of a reset it’s a time for us to really look at what we can do differently. You know, we know that industrialization has changed the food system. So, what within the food system can we select to eat or how can we eat in a healthier way that at least protects our brain.

Certainly, from my perspective, and I would argue that when we’re eating healthier foods, our brain it’s also impacting the rest of our body, because you know, those little gut microbes, they respond within 24 hours. So, you can be at the fast-food place today, or you can have that healthier option, lunch or dinner, and they can respond.

You won’t feel it immediately, but it starts to set up that cascade of change. What you feed them is how they would respond to you. If you feed the bad microbes they take over and that’s when you get dysbiosis, inflammation, leaky gut, et cetera. So, it’s really up to us in that decision every time. Like I say, you know, that decision is at the end of our fork every single day. 

Dr Bill Ferro:  You know, we had to first convince the health plans to cover this. So, we were a little bit before our time in 2010, 2012, when we started taking people through this method, it was just about weight loss, because we were in these gyms and that’s what their main motivation was.

And I wasn’t paying attention, but now I go back and look at some of the video testimonies we had. I remember this one woman that was working with Gold’s gym in Los Angeles who they’d sent to us. You know, most people would just go in, I lost 30 pounds in such and such days.

I lost this and she said, I’m not anxious anymore. I’m not nasty anymore. It was just such a raw, she was thinking about herself and I had not at the time truly put it together.  I just thought she was happy with the weight loss and then more and more people started coming to us saying, you don’t have to come off this medication, my IBS, zap, fertility doctors started sending folks to us, people having problems with infertility and they, you know, six weeks later, like, Hey, we’re pregnant and doing well. And it wasn’t until 2017, 18 that we said, we should go back and go to these employer groups. And they said, well, what’s really different.

I said, you know, what’s different is that most of the programs are spending so much time on behavioral change, like telling the person that’s your fault. You need to make this better decision.  But really, they have no choice because the inflammation and the environment are working against them.

So, if they can just slowly just change that internal environment just in three days alone. The cool thing about that. Like we just mentioned in COVID bacteria, that it goes to bad bacteria very quickly. It can go to good bacteria just as quickly. Bacteria, it grows quickly. So, within a few days, you’re already resetting that process.

And then within two weeks you reset in the mucosal lining. Like when you think about it restoring mental, physical, and emotional health. When you think about the journey that we used to put them on, which was well flip tires and parking lots, shakes, points, we’ll see in six months now, it’s Hey, you know what?

In the next three days to 14 days, you can truly be on a much faster path to health. and as you mentioned with Americans, we do want to feel better quickly. Well, putting your microbiome and lowering inflammation, it’s the quickest way to do that,

 Dr Uma Naidoo: Exactly, if we could all just realize that. Absolutely. 

Dr Bill Ferro: Yeah, it’s so great. So, one of the questions we had what are five foods people can introduce to reduce stress and anxiety?

What would you be like if you had your top foods? And we also want to talk about the SFN. We don’t want to forget about talking about SFM, which is you talk a lot about your Instagram. So maybe talk about some of those specific foods and then enlighten us on what SFM means. 

Dr Uma Naidoo: So, the foods that I like to talk about, I start off with chocolate because that’s a good place to start, and people love to hear that they can eat dark chocolate, but I’m not talking about candy bars. I’m talking about the super dark, a more natural form of chocolate, rich in cocoa flavanols, also contains things like magnesium. It’s a probiotic because of how the cacao beans are fermented and they also contain serotonin. So, I think that one of the important things for us to understand is that it’s a small square of dark chocolate will actually help two things. In my opinion, it helps stress, but it also helps people come off those high sugar candy bars and candies themselves because people who stop to appreciate that texture and flavor of the doctrine will often come back and say to me doc, I just need a square of chocolate in the afternoon and I’m good. I don’t no longer need the two candy bars from the vending machine. 

 Then I always add in things like berries. So, eat your berries, you know, your blueberries, which are rich in those antioxidants, anthocyanins, which are great for your brain. I also like to lean on spices. Spices are a really hidden treasure in this toolbox that we have, things like turmeric with a pinch of black pepper actually been shown to help -anxiety and stress. So, add them in, things like those, we mentioned the sulforaphane vegetables, they actually really rich in fiber. Vitamin D rich foods will help lower your level of stress, so add them in. But also, you know, spend, 10 minutes out in the outdoors. 80% of our vitamin D is really obtained through direct exposure to sunlight. 

Simple things like that kind of help us, reduce our stress and also, I’d like people to understand, and it’s a good way to get fiber in, and that fiber actually helps with anxiety because when we eat more complex carbohydrates or complex food, think of, you know, a great vegetable, a great vegetable salad, or leafy green salad. Great for us to, not only eat, but rich in fiber and all the vitamins and minerals and nutrients, but the fiber actually breaks down more slowly in our body. It feeds those good microbes in the gut, but it also breaks down more slowly. So, unlike your sugary donut that you have, having a more fiber full or fiber rich meal will really help to even out your blood sugar and avoid those spikes where sometimes people will feel super anxious. So, it’s just another way to combat the stress. It’s much more complex than that, there are many more foods, but those are just some that I have asked people to help them get started.

Barbara Baez: So, I have a quick question as a dietician who also struggles with anxiety, what would you say is your go-to anxiety hacks for the listeners?

Dr Uma Naidoo:  So, I actually lean very heavily on spices.  I use my grandma’s recipe to make a golden chai latte and you can just be a golden milk latte. So, choice of milk, turmeric with a pinch of black pepper and a few other ingredients, the recipe is on my Instagram. That’s actually my hack because it’s warming it has a little bit of turmeric, but that pinch of black pepper to make it more bioactive and bioavailable and people find it very soothing.

I also think that people ignore things like a cup of chamomile tea or a lavender tea. All of that can also really be super calming. So, I tend to go with that first because for me it has that turmeric in it, which is which in my opinion is a super spice and it’s something easy that any one of us can do.

Barbara Baez: Right. So, I just want to interject here really quick and just say that you have so many great resources on your social media, on your Instagram. So, I encourage all of our listeners to go to her Instagram page, please. Dr. Naidoo’s Instagram.  In click around, there’s so much great information there.

And I cannot wait to try that recipe and they also have to say, as somebody that struggles with anxiety, your book is such a ray of sunshine that you encapsulate the whole human in your approach. And there’s no shame in those that take medication or rely on other things. You do such a fabulous job.

At truly helping people to use food, to help in the specific conditions and I have to say that your book does such a fabulous job at that because it is written in a way that when you need that specific support for that specific issue that you’re dealing with, you can turn to the chapter that is written as a standalone to help support that. So, if you guys can get a hold of the book and I know, audible specifically has it, so you can listen. Yes, I’m 

It’s a great book to listen to and in also to read. So yes.

Dr Bill Ferro: Barbara? Give your experience with, you know, kind of using food as medicine. 

Barbara Baez: Great. Okay. So, I came to Betr Health, as a client from my insurance. And I always say, thank you dad, for having diabetes, because my dad has diabetes now, insurance covers all sorts of proactive things for myself.  And you know, I joined because as a dietician, I like to know what is out there.

And I also struggle with inflammation, with weight, with anxiety. And as a stay-at-home mom, you know, it’s so easy to get away from the things that we know and so better. How does truly helped me personally, with not only the protocol and identifying which specific foods were reacting in my body, because, you know, we hear cruciferous vegetables, we should eat tons of cruciferous vegetables.

Well, my body was reacting to broccoli and oatmeal and these things that we. We know we’re healthy and it’s not that they’re not particularly healthy. It’s just that they react to my body. And so really fine tuning my nutrition to work for my body has helped me tremendously. And so Betr Health has done that for me.

 Basically, they hold your hand through the whole process. They give you the information and they empower you to be able to take it on and continue forward. And so that’s why I’ve come to serve the company as a coach, because how greatly it has impacted myself. And, as a day attention, it just really, it helps, I guess the style of service is that you’re getting to interact with people every day, versus when you are with insurance. In a clinic, in an outpatient setting, you’re limited to your interactions with your clients to either once a month, if you’re lucky, or just when they’re in the hospital coming out of surgery and you get a quickly come in as they’re coming off of anesthesia to educate them on nutrition.

So, I do feel like. Insurance has come so far with the pandemic in learning what we can do to improve and providing these proactive strategies now. And I think that your book, Dr. Naidoo really helps support that cause. And anybody, whether they have insurance or not can get this book and can turn and start getting help right away, you know, a lot of the different medications for anxiety and depression they take, what, three to five weeks to start kicking in, you can maximize that if you pair it with Dr. Naidoo’s book and start really fine tuning your nutrition to help support your whole person, you know, you really have to look at it as, as a whole. It’s not just medication and it’s not just food and it’s not just decompressing and stress relief.

It’s the whole person, and Dr. Naidoo you have done such a fabulous job on portraying that in your book and supporting those of us that have anxiety in such a loving way. You just come across as just such a sweetheart and just so loving in your approach. And so, I appreciate that. Thank you.

Dr Uma Naidoo: Thank you for those kind words. 

Dr Bill Ferro: Dr. Naidoo, are you treating people for telehealth outside of Massachusetts? 

Dr Uma Naidoo: So, so right now I can’t actually, because during COVID we had a little bit of flexibility.  And now some of that is changing. So, I see people within my clinic from Massachusetts. We are still virtual for the, my part of the clinic.  But you know, I have, we have an Instagram account. We interact with people like put updates and really, really working on doing some educational programming.

I’ve done some through the Academy at Mass General. We put out the first cooking for mental health professional’s series in February of this year where I paired up with a colleague of mine, who’s a family therapist, really talked about family dynamics around food, but then healthy recipes, so really more like that, that offers what I feel will help other clinicians just incorporate this in their practice.  I guess what the book taught me, Dr. Ferro, that you can take a message out of that one-to-one, office-based setting and make it broader.

And I guess I’m really trying to offer more educational opportunities so that more people can have access to this type of care. So that’s my hope and goal. 

Dr Bill Ferro: well, to bring this out, first of all, I’m coming for you, you got to come join our We need we need that bridge that gap. But secondly, when we were talking, I was like, all right, I tell the folks, all right, we’re going to try to separate this from the ease. So, you can just have ease in your life.

And the issue here is this is intergenerational. This isn’t just about health. This is about financial wellness as well, and that there’s so many generations of people say, well, this is just what our family does. Our family struggles, our family suffers. And I think what’s interesting that you brought up and started this conversation to bring full circle is you were a little girl in the kitchen with your grandmother and you would get in this intergenerational connection and passed on this wealth of knowledge about how Ayurvedic medicine works, how food is medicine. 

When we look at food as medicine and the way things are in your book is this is that you’re applying this, not just your own life, you’ve got applies to this child’s life to the parents that are living with you because we can’t have our kids the way they are now full of anxiety and ADHD medication. We can’t have our kids in their twenties that have no confidence trying to make their mark on this world. People in the thirties are worried whether they’re going to have to be able to have a baby or a family, people in their forties, just carrying them out copious amounts of stress, worrying about the top generation and the lower generation. And then we have those in our golden years, the ones that in our society, we’ve kind of pushed out to the side, right. They’re not inclusive. But those are the people that should be enjoying an active, healthy, and wealthy lifestyle so they can pass it onto the generation, the intergenerational part of it.

And so, by leading by example, by talking about that first, I think it was just a beautiful way to kind of bring us all back to the movement that if we can help people, as to your point on a broader scale, identify where that self-doubt is coming from, where the inflammation, where the stress is coming from collectively as a community, we can kind of make it easy. We can make it easy on each other, and so we just appreciate you so much for joining us. I know you’re very, very busy, so I’ll let you go save more lives. 

Barbara Baez: sorry. Can I ask you one? I just have to interject. So, I’m out here in sunny California. It is beautiful weather out here today. It’s a great time to get outside and start gardening. So, do you have any recommendations on any herbs or plans that would be great to help support the movement of mental health and especially for mental health awareness month?

Dr Uma Naidoo: Absolutely. So, I actually have a post on Instagram called mental health garden. You can follow me on Instagram, @drumanaidoo where we talked about several herbs that actually support mental wellbeing. So that’s why we call it mental health garden. And I’m directing you to that because I think there are a few that you could choose from.

You know, I often will have someone say, Oh, I don’t eat a certain spice. So, it offers you a good array of things. And I totally agree, go out and get planting, have it easily accessible. You know what, you know what you’re putting in your soil.  You can add it to food and flavor up different dishes and add those to those two vegetables, one of my favorite things.

Dr Bill Ferro: Excellent. Go get the book, 

Barbara Baez: Yes. And if you don’t do the hard copy, get the Audible version guys. It is so beneficial and you can skip around and get just what you need out of it.

Dr Bill Ferro: Well, thank you so much. We really appreciate it.   

Barbara Baez: Thank you Dr. Naidoo, we appreciate it.

Dr Uma Naidoo: Take good care, great to meet you. Thank you for having me

Dr Bill Ferro:   

all right, everybody. So next week we’ll be back, be sure to like, promote, rate this, reviews. This is Dr. Ferro from, I was going to say better health, which is our sponsor, but I’m from Quacks and Hypochondriacs and I’m also the founder of betrhealth.com.  Thank you

for my stand-in co-host. Barbara, I appreciate it. Let’s keep saving lives. Thank you to Dr. Naidoo, again, and thank you to Earfluence for producing this podcast. Remember get to the iTunes store, rate it, share it, do what you want with it. Make all the things easy for us to give you the next episode and you can find us. So, until next time everybody, have a Betr day. Take care.

Full Episode Transcript

DR. UMA NAIDOO is a board-certified psychiatrist (Harvard Medical School), professional chef (Cambridge School of Culinary Arts), best-selling author of This Is Your Brain on Food (Little Brown 2020) and nutrition specialist (Cornell University) whose research provides tremendous insight into the connection between food/nutrition and mental health.

Visit our sponsor, BetrHealth.com, a gut healthy, effortless, food-as-medicine approach to whole person health . Try BetrHealth risk free at https://betrhealth.com/risk-free-trial/.

Quacks and Hypochondriacs is hosted by Dr Bill Ferro and Barbara Baez, and is produced by Earfluence.

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