Ep. 173 – How The Food You Eat Boosts Your Mood & Mental Health (and the Connection Your Gut Health Plays) with Dr. Uma Naidoo

Your trusted source for nutrition, wellness, and mindset for thriving health.

I am delighted to have Dr. Uma Naidoo joining me on the podcast today! Dr. Naidoo is an awarded board-certified psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, professional chef, nutrition specialist, and author of the recently released This is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to the Surprising Foods that Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, and More. She was featured in the Wall Street Journal, ABC News, Harvard Health Press, Goop, and many others. Dr. Naidoo has a special interest in the impact of food on mood and other mental health conditions.

There were several strong influences in Dr. Naidoo’s early life. She grew up in a loving, nurturing home with a large extended South Asian family. Rather than going to pre-school, she decided to stay at home with her maternal grandmother, who was a wonderful cook. Dr. Naidoo used to help her grandmother pick fresh vegetables from the garden and prepare meals, and her grandparents taught her meditation and yoga. Her mother was a medical student, and she had many aunts and uncles who were physicians, so there was a lot of talk about science and nutrition in their home.

In this episode, Dr. Naidoo talks about food and lifestyle choices that can boost your mood and improve mental and emotional health. Tune in today to hear our fascinating conversation!

“Seventy percent or more of our immune system is in the gut.”

Dr. Uma Naidoo


  • Dr. Naidoo’s background and her journey from medical school to becoming a chef and a nutrition-focused psychiatrist.
  • What caused Dr. Naidoo to have an “aha” moment.
  • The connection between gut health and mental health.
  • Foods that tend to create the most problems with mental health.
  • Why do you need to read food labels and pay close attention to your food choices?
  • The clinical differences between men and women as our brains and bodies get older.
  • Trauma can happen in many different ways.
  • Foods that can impact libido.
  • Foods that can positively impact brain health.
  • What fiber does in the gut?
  • Some lifestyle changes could positively impact your mental and emotional health.

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Check out Dr. Naidoo’s website

Books mentioned:

Brain Wash by David Perlmutter

Connect with Cynthia Thurlow

About Everyday Wellness Podcast

Welcome to the Everyday Wellness podcast with Cynthia Thurlow! Cynthia is a mom of 2 boys, wife, nurse practitioner, and intermittent fasting and nutrition expert. She has over 20 years experience in emergency medicine and cardiology, but pivoted to focus on food as medicine. She loves to share science-backed practical information to improve your overall well being and is grateful to be interviewing leaders in the health and wellness field.  Her goal with Everyday Wellness is to help her listeners make simple changes to their everyday lives that will result in improved overall wellness and long term health.


Presenter: This is Everyday Wellness, a podcast dedicated to helping you achieve your health, and wellness goals, and provide practical strategies that you can use in your real life. And now, here’s your host, Nurse Practitioner Cynthia Thurlow.

Cynthia: I’m delighted today to have Dr. Uma Naidoo. She’s an awarded, board-certified psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, professional chef, nutrition specialist, and author of the recently released This Is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to the Surprising Foods that Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, and More. She has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, ABC News, Harvard Health Press, Goop, and many others. She has a special interest on the impact of food on mood and other mental health conditions. Welcome. It’s such a pleasure to connect with you.

Dr. Uma Naidoo: It’s wonderful to meet you, Cynthia. Thank you so much for inviting me.

Cynthia: Absolutely, and I was mentioning before we started recording that I had so many people request you specifically because they were so enamored with your work and so, I dove down the rabbit hole and had to learn about you and realize that your message would really resonate with my own listeners.

I think anyone that knows me already, my philosophy generally, it all starts with food. So, having a mental health specialist, a psychiatrist who believes in the power and the possibility of food is so nicely aligned. So, I would love for you to share with the listeners, because you have very much a renaissance background. How did you go from medical school into becoming a chef and a nutrition-focused psychiatrist? Because let’s fully recognize that traditional allopathic medicine is still very focused on medications that are going to treat symptoms as opposed to looking at a more root cause approach.

Dr. Uma Naidoo: Absolutely. Certainly, my background is different.

Cynthia: [laughs]

Dr. Uma Naidoo: It goes back to my childhood, when I thought about it, I’ve realized that there were several very strong influences. I grew up in a very large South Asian family, surrounded by grandparents and parents and cousins, and a very large extended family. But I decided, Cynthia, to skip out of preschool, and I prefer to stay home with my maternal grandmother to whom my book, This Is Your Brain on Food is dedicated to. So, the book is dedicated to her. But she was a wonderful cook and I would spend time during the day with because my mom was actually in medical school at the time. So, my parents would leave me with my grandmother during the day and we do things like pick fresh vegetables from the garden, I’d help her shell peas and do all sorts of things, and she would prepare meal. So, it was very much part of my DNA. It’s how I grew up.

But at the same time, there were several other very positive influences. My grandparents taught me how to meditate. They taught me yoga. And in this very large, extended family, there were lots of uncles and aunts, who were physicians. So, there was the talk of sciences, talk of nutrition. There’s also love and joy and nurturance around the home. I grew up with this influence of allopathic physicians, as well as if you are a Vedic practitioner, so that holistic approach and mind-body approach was all there. When I began to really learn about psychiatric medications, I realized that there was such a huge gap because there wasn’t any speak of anything holistic, there wasn’t any discussion of the mind-body connection. I think that the power of the prescription pad also led me to feel that I owed it to my patients to have just a few more options for them in the toolkit up against medications, actually, that work very well with medications and nutrition became one of those things early on.

For me, that aha moment actually happened for me when I began to delve deeper into nutrition when a patient yelled at me, which in some ways was also an enlightening moment for him. I was a very timid young resident and just learning about medications, and prescribing, and he accused me of causing him to gain weight from Prozac. Of course, technically, that is true, but I had his chart up on my computer and I knew that wasn’t the case. I knew his baseline weight. In the Boston area, our favorite coffee is Dunkin’ Donuts’ coffee, if you’ve ever been to the New England area, and well, let’s call him Bill. He had this very large cup of coffee in his hands. As he was yelling, I looked at this coffee and I said to him, “What did you put in your coffee?” and that did distract him. But I realized something had had clicked in my head and said, “Oh, well, I put what I always put Doc, my packets of sugar, and my cream, or whatever it is,” a cream I should say.

But when we sit on the computer, we worked out he put more than a quarter cup of processed creamer and eight teaspoons of sugar at least. When I am not much of a calorie counter, Cynthia. In fact, I don’t always think it’s helping people but we used that method just to outline to him what he had taken in just with his coffee before he even eaten. As the lightbulb went off for him and I saw his attitude change, his behavior, his demeanor change towards me, he suddenly was engaged, “Well, how can we work together to change this? Help me understand what I’m doing even in the rest of my meals,” that was my aha moment, because I saw the power of translating a simple educational fact about what habit he had every day that could be powerful in his life.

When someone wants to make a change or they see that there is a potential food, or drink, or beverage that is affecting them, that is very powerful. It really led me to want to do more of that and ask for questions. I just felt that I should be asking people, “Are you moving? Are you sleeping well? Are you drinking enough water?” That began to be what I started to ask about. I was very fortunate to be encouraged in my interest, both from my parents early on, but also, in my training, and it was supported by my mentors to open this clinic at Mass General, and to really serve individuals who want to use nutritional interventions to improve their mental wellbeing. That’s how my clinic in nutritional and metabolic psychiatry started. It was also how the book came to be.

I should just say on this very long answer, I didn’t mean for it to be so long that my food hero was Julia Child. When I was a junior resident, I would watch her on PBS, because a resident can only afford public television and not cable. She really helped me gain confidence as a cook. So, when I realized it was her second career that she was [unintelligible 00:09:26], so I thought, well, why not learn and why can’t I do that sort of thing? So, I decided to pursue that as well.

Cynthia: Well, I love that you married all of these background influences together and it’s a really powerful realization as a clinician when your patients give you opportunities to think a little bit differently. Like that day, when you recall that patient and you connecting over what he had put in his coffee, I like to remind when I’m working with people, just the realization that there are a lot of habits that we have that can add up over time. All of my background, I was an ER nurse in inner city Baltimore, and worked in cardiology as an NP for 16 years, and I got to a point where, and the listeners know this, I kept saying it can’t just be about writing prescriptions who really have to be spending the time. As an NP, I had the luxury of a little bit more time with my patients.

One patient in particular that I like to talk a lot about was a diabetic, and he went to the diabetes educator, and the diabetes educator thought she was providing really helpful information. So, I said, “What do you eat in a given day?” This is a diabetic, said, “I eat six bananas a day.” I said, “Okay,” and I said, “What did the diabetes educator talk to you about fruit sugar?” He said, “Oh, well, it’s a natural food.” I said, “It is.” But if you’ve already got a blood sugar problem, eating more fructose, even though it’s a fruit and having so many carbohydrates is not beneficial.” For him, he actually said to me years later, he said, “You’re the first person that actually said to me. Do you think maybe you’re eating too much fruit?” Too much of any one thing–

Dr. Uma Naidoo: Any one thing, right?

Cynthia: Right. May not be beneficial. So, I love that you have those discussions, because I think it’s so critically important, it can’t be that– and let me be clear for everyone that’s listening, there absolutely, positively times when the only option is prescription medication or surgical intervention. But when it comes to chronic disease or preventative disease, whether that’s mental or physical, it’s really important that we’re opening up these discussions, because we may not know how many sugars our patient is putting in their coffee, or how many pieces of fruit they’re having that they think are entirely benign, and yet, they’re diabetic.

So, let’s talk a little bit, let’s unpack. There’s a lot of discussion about the role between mental health and gut health, and really talking to people that there is this interplay, the enteric second brain. Let’s touch on this. I think this realization is really important for people that the foods that we’re eating are very powerful, because it can impact the chemicals that our gut makes or neurotransmitters, etc. Oftentimes, our choices in terms of foods, whether it’s things we consume in beverage form or physical food that we’re chewing and swallowing have a large impact on how we feel, how we see the world.

Dr. Uma Naidoo: Absolutely. If someone went to medical school a few decades ago, they were not taught the gut brain-connection. It’s really in the last decade to two decades that things have really unfolded in the research around the gut-brain connection, gut health, the microbiome. In fact, between 2013 and 2017, there were about 12,000 journal articles published in this area. So, it really speaks to this cutting-edge level of research, and also, what I’m excited about is the way that it’s impacting mental health. Because as my patients will tell me, the gut and brain are not close by in the body, why would you even think they were connected, and they’re absolutely right. [unintelligible 00:13:09], but when you break it down and discuss the fact that embryologically, the gut and brain arise from the exact same cells, develop, divide, and grow apart in the body, and then remain connected by the 10th cranial nerve, the vagus nerve, which I like to call to a superhighway. I call it that because it works 24/7, 365 days a year transmitting these chemical messages back and forth in a bi-directional way between these two organs. People start to understand that what they eating can in fact have an impact. Then, understanding that their medications like my patient, Bill, was taking Prozac, Zoloft, all selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, but about 90% of those receptors are actually in the gut. So, that is often why people will understand that if you’ve ever been prescribed an SSRI medication, you may have the first 5 to 10 days, a little bit longer, some GI upset or GI discomfort.

Then for the pandemic times, I always like people to know that 70% or more of our immune system is in the gut. That’s really important for people to understand that as we eat, the breakdown of products of our food I say, you can eat a healthier choice or a less healthy choice. If you’re choosing the fast foods, junk foods, processed foods, that’s going to have an impact on your microbiota. We know that those microbes change within 24 hours, you may not feel the change but they start to change, they start to respond, they start to react. So, if you were feeding the bad guys with the ice cream, and the sugar, and the fast, processed foods all the time, then they are thriving, and they overcome the good guys who are there to eat the fiber-rich foods, and help you thrive, and help your immunity, help your circadian growth, and help you sleep, help hormone balance, help your immunity, help you mental health. But if you don’t feed them right, they can’t really do their job. So, it’s important to understand that balance, and that imbalance when we are not eating a healthy diet is what really sets us up for inflammation in the gut.

Inflammation in the gut, I like to say happy gut is a happy mood, because the opposite is also true. If it’s not a happy gut or unhappy gut, there’s inflammation. But most importantly, that inflammation sets up the brain or neuroinflammation, and you will see over time an uptick of someone’s mental health symptoms or new onset of symptoms in some people too. So, you really have to understand what’s going on with the whole person and what they’re doing with all the habits. Not just are they taking their medication twice a day, but what else is going on in their life.

Cynthia: That’s really powerful. There’s a lot that you said in that short– well, not short answer, but in that very detailed answer, how critically important– we’re in still in the midst of a pandemic kind of on the– I keep saying on the tail end, I’m hopeful we’re heading out of those, but the net impact over what’s occurred over the last 15, 16 months for so many people that were not able to be as social as they would have liked to have been, not been able to go to a baseball game, go to a concert, travel with ease, things are still a little bit mucked up, and the impact of the food choices that we make are so profoundly powerful.

Now, I can probably guess some of the more inflammatory foods but based on the research, what are the foods that you see that create the most problems? You touched on some of the hyperpalatable, highly processed foods, but what are some of the other big categories? Because there may be people listening who may not make the connection with the foods that they’re eating and the net impact on their mood.

Dr. Uma Naidoo: Absolutely. Cynthia, as you well know, many people will go into their practitioner’s office and talk about a family history of diabetes, those COVID pounds that mostly everyone has gained or even a family history of hypertension. But no one’s actually making that connection between what we eat and our emotional health. I think that one of the ways that people also understand food is that they know that similarly to hypertension or weight gain, they’re concerned about those processed foods, the added sugars in foods, or sort of more sugary treats as something that will affect their blood sugar. But no one actually realizes that all of these foods actually impact your mental health and it shows in studies. So, added and refined sugars impact your mental health. They at least worsen depression or increase anxiety. Ultra-processed processed junk foods and fast foods, same sort of thing, the more preservatives the worse for your brain. Artificial sweeteners, many people feel that let me try to give up this soda and I’ll have a diet soda instead. Not the best move, especially if you have mental health symptoms, they could worsen.

Processed vegetable oils. Processed vegetable oils are often used in fast food restaurants because they’re less costly, and for that reason, if you’re eating fast food, junk food diet, you’re consuming pro-inflammatory oils that are going to disrupt your gut microbiota, and start to set you up for inflammation there. Trans fats have been associated with behavioral changes. So, it’s really avoiding the processed, ultra-processed junk foods, fast foods, added and refined sugars, artificial sweeteners are a big category, processed vegetables is another one. Just moving toward a healthy whole foods diet that’s rich in fiber.

Cynthia: It’s interesting. I was listening to a talk that Dr. Ben Bikman was giving recently and he said in the United States, the most consumed fat is soybean oil. So, you’re talking about those oils, seed oils, and how incredibly inflammatory they are. I know from Dr. Cate Shanahan’s work, she talks a lot about the fact that these seed oils drive carbohydrate addiction which leads to insulin resistance. The big takeaway from what we’re saying is just really get diligent about reading food labels, how critically important. We’re not saying to live in a bubble, but when you’re out at a restaurant, ask what is that salad dressing made with?

I have teenagers and they think I’m the most embarrassing human being in the world. But when we’re at a restaurant and we don’t eat out a lot, I will ask what are things fried in, what are your salad dressings made with. And 9 times out of 10, yeah, I would say 99% of the time, it’s canola oil blends, olive oil blends, soybean oil. I always say, thank you, but no, thank you. But I think that when people are able to make the connection that these foods that they’re consuming, oftentimes, the hyperpalatable foods, they’re in travel mode, they’re running into a grocery store and just grabbing something they can throw into their bag, oftentimes is not benefiting their physical or emotional health.

I know that when my boys were younger, anytime my now-13-year-old ingested red dye 40 at a birthday party, the brightly pigmented red icing that you get at a birthday party. My child could not sit still. My husband, God bless him, used to tell me he thought I was bananas. I said, “Just let him eat that cupcake and see what happens to his behavior.” He couldn’t sit down, normally, my well-behaved toddler could not sit down, couldn’t sit still. He was running all over the place, running amok. So, just acknowledging that the chemicals our bodies are exposed to can lead to behavioral changes. I’m sure for you, I would imagine you see quite a bit of anxiety and depression related to food choices that people are making.

Dr. Uma Naidoo: Absolutely. Sometimes, it’s really many people even perceive themselves to be eating healthy eating habits, but when you actually break it down with them, it’s not that they’re eating unhealthy, they really are making an effort. I always want to champion efforts that people make, because change is hard, and it’s not a perfect world. But they often, Cynthia, don’t realize something simple– like my patient Bill, something simple that they almost do it in an automatic fashion. When we’re not having that level of awareness connected to what we’re doing is often when we get ourselves in trouble and that’s when we uncover things that they’re doing in their daily habits such as drinking fruit juice. They should be eating their servings of fruit. So, when they see ads that say get your servings of fruit, they think, “Well, my doctor said I should eat fruit,” and they go out and buy store-bought orange juice and one of the things I harp on is eat the whole orange, skip the store-brought oranges on just because all the added sugars and lack of fiber doesn’t help you.

Simple things like that, we end up uncovering in their diet– or blueberries are healthy for my brain, they have antioxidants, but they’re getting a sugar-laden fruited yogurt, which in a half a cup or just over a half a cup can have a 10 teaspoons of sugar in it, if you buy us different brands, so, I think that even the brands have gotten savvy, and they’re trying to cut back on that. But as consumers, we just really have to understand food labels, and understand that 4 grams of sugar is one teaspoon, because our food labels are in grams, and we cook and bake in the United States with all our cookbooks are standardized to pounds and ounces. So, it’s very, very difficult for us to try to figure out a food label not knowing a few tips.

Cynthia: Absolutely. I think it’s important to meet people where they are, I think you bring up such an excellent point that we can sit in the ivory tower in academics or in our clinics, and then we forget it’s all about those small, sustainable changes, and the only way to make them small and sustainable is to make them small. You don’t want to go from 0 to 60, because then it will make it very hard to be compliant.

Now, it seems to me that a lot of what I hear women, in particular, especially, women in midlife, is talking a lot about brain health, brain fog, feeling they just don’t feel cognitively as clear. What are some of the gender differences that you see clinically with women and men in terms of the mental health impact, not just of our current circumstances in the pandemic, but as our brains are getting older, as our bodies are getting older, what are some of the differences that you’re seeing in women?

Dr. Uma Naidoo: I think the biggest difference that I see in women is that they might actually struggle a little bit more in different age groups, say, around childbearing years. They struggle with anything related to hormone imbalance or any form of treatment they might be taking. And then on perimenopause as well, they may have an uptick of anxiety, new onset of symptoms related to what they’re experiencing or the changes that they’re going through. Those tend to be two particular groups. But most of the time, I often see a very large amount of anxiety as well. Many unspoken, unseeing symptoms, not realizing that they’ve actually experienced a form of trauma that they never really thought about it that way, but when they share a particular event, story, or some of their background, they may actually be having symptoms of that trauma, stress-related symptoms or just reactive symptoms and not really almost put it in the context that it was a traumatic event.

Something as simple as things, sometimes, people confuse trauma with either physical trauma or very deep emotional trauma, but trauma comes in many different forms. It can be a young child I evaluated once who was called out for having a learning disability in childhood in the classroom, and developed then already had a speech impediment, but it became so, so much worse that he couldn’t get up, and stand up, and speak in front of his class. But he had been evaluated and gone through several medical tests, and seen several doctors over many years. When I saw him later on in his life as an adolescent, when I listened to what his mother said, I realized that this child had really suffered this immense trauma that it almost made him so afraid to speak out that only did his learning goal awry, but his speech impediment got worse, and he couldn’t express himself. So, it’s important just to understand the whole person that their whole life and to put it together in that context.

Cynthia: I think that’s really important. I think, even as a clinician myself that when I went through my training and I trained at a big research institution, when I thought of trauma, I thought, “Oh, medical trauma,” or someone’s had a rape, or some type of terrific event,” and what I’ve come to realize is that it’s very bio-individual, and trauma could have been the divorce you grew up with, with your parents, trauma could have been a traumatic breakup you had as young adult, trauma could be just the stress of a move. So, acknowledging that each of us experience those things so very differently, and how critically important it is to give ourselves grace, I think that’s the one thing is in my middle age years, I just acknowledges, give yourself some grace because there are so many things that impact our ability to view the world.

Now, one thing I’d love to touch on before we talk about some of the things that we can proactively do to impact cognitive and brain health. Let’s at least touch on libido, and how the foods that we eat, and the stress that we experience can impact libido in negative ways.

Dr. Uma Naidoo: Absolutely. It’s one of the things, the reason I included this particular chapter is that individuals who are taking certain psychiatric medications may actually struggle with the side effect of a lowered libido. So, I felt that was important but also because it’s not only just a part of life. I think that it’s helpful for people to know that they can lean on food for all these things in life. Some of the things that you want to think about are what to include in a date night, foods that you can start to incorporate in your diet. It can be as simple as things like one that people love, things like dark chocolate, because it boosts oxytocin, it’s rich in magnesium, it has multiple essential amino acid. Red wine is actually associated with this as well. Nuts, such as certain ones hit the high notes such as [unintelligible [00:28:30], almonds, and walnuts. Apples, pomegranate juice to name a few, avocados as a healthy fat, and some herbs and spices, saffron and fenugreek. So, just things– the way I like to people to think about it is what are these– to read the list in my book, but the way that I think about it is, every chapter has a list of foods to embrace which is much longer than the foods to avoid. So, look at the list and see what can I add into a dish or what can I put together for the evening and really bring it together that way, and then also be aware of the things to avoid.

Cynthia: Absolutely, and it’s interesting, the one thing that I always remember about walnuts and pomegranates is that, well, walnuts look like our brain, I mean the way that they’re shaped. I always think of pomegranates is the fertility fruit. It really just looks very ripe, then there’s lots of seeds, and so acknowledging that nature does this really beautiful job on so many levels with some of the things that you’ve mentioned that are designed to call our attention to them.

Now, I definitely want to touch on the role of foods and things that are beneficial for cognitive and brain health. I know this is a large focus of your book and for people that are listening, I’m loving your book. I’ve been listening to it on Audible, so-

Dr. Uma Naidoo: Oh, thank you.

Cynthia: -I can listen to it while I’m outside walking my dogs. I always say that brain connection for me like I’m walking them out in [crosstalk] nature, and it’s really something I look forward to. Let’s talk about some of the easy things that people can pull into their diets that have a positive net impact on brain health.

Dr. Uma Naidoo: Absolutely. So, if you’re thinking specifically about cognition, we want to bring in those healthy fats. Olive oil, we want to think about certain herbs and spices, turmeric with a pinch of black pepper, cinnamon, saffron, rosemary, ginger, and sage are some of those that actually again showed up in a very positive way. People that are dealing with brain fog, some of my tips around that, people will report feeling very sluggish in the afternoon, I always suggest to them a couple of things. One is a mood-clarifying green tea because the theanine is so rich in antioxidants and polyphenols that actually very people find it gives them a little bit of an energy boost that helps them focus. But you can also use foods which are rich in certain antioxidants such as fresh peppermint. One of the things I’ll ask my clients to do is make fresh peppermint tea, eat some sweet peppers, eat certain foods that are rich in luteolin, which is one of the antioxidants that is shown to be helpful with brain fog.

It’s a pattern of healthy eating and if people are concerned about cognition, I would start with some basic healthy habits, increasing those fruit vegetable servings. At least two servings of low-glycemic fruit like berries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries was a good idea, but then really having, and to your point, Cynthia about the caveat around diabetes, you should be talking to your endocrinologist, to diabetologists about that, because he or she may want you to adjust that fruit based on what’s going on with your blood sugar. But for the rest of us who may not have those conditions, things like paying attention to fiber, paying attention to enough servings of fruit, turns out that only 10% of Americans eat their servings of fruit and vegetables that everyone is always concerned about protein content. I’m a fiber champion. It’s important to be getting fiber, which we can only get from fruit, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, legumes, healthy whole grains, and I think if we’re not consuming those, for whatever reason, we should rethink this because fiber is really important. Of course, people who have IBS, SIBO, and other GI conditions have to be a little bit careful. They may not be able to tolerate what others do. But again, it’s sort of paying attention to those whole healthy foods again that are critical.

Cynthia: I think it’s really beneficial to talk a little bit about fiber because I feel and I agree with you that there’s been this concern/bastardization for some of these products, and I always remind people that the way to really stabilize our blood sugar is to focus on protein, and some healthy fats, and nonstarchy vegetables. But when we’re talking about fiber, let’s talk about what fiber beneficially does in the gut, so that people understand we’re not just saying this, so that you don’t [crosstalk] like you’re eating foods that make you feel gassy. You don’t necessarily have to eat a lot of them for them very beneficial. But they’re prebiotics and probiotic rich foods and fiber dense foods are really helpful. But let’s talk about some of the benefits to the gut microbiome.

Dr. Uma Naidoo: Absolutely. Fiber is really food for those gut microbiota, and it’s not just bacteria, they’re different types of organisms down there. But fiber tends to be something that nurtures them and something they can really thrive on. Prebiotic foods, quite simply things like the allium family, garlic, leeks, and onions, asparagus, bananas, oats, and a few others, actually many others. Then, even paying attention to adding in fermented foods to the diet, what they do is they bring live active bacteria back to this environment of the gut. How we want to think about it, Cynthia, is that by taking care of those microbes, they thrive, they can function for our better health. So, we’re giving them an opportunity to do their job, but do it well by feeding them well.

At the same token, like I said earlier, when we feed the wrong types of organisms down there, bad bugs is when we set up for inflammation. What fiber also allows these microorganisms to do is break down the food into positive substances for our body things like short chain fatty acids. And when we eat the more junk foods, fast foods, they break down into more harmful toxic substances in body. The gut lining is just one single-cell layer. Cells are held together by tight junctions. We can’t see this with the naked eye, it’s all microscopic. But when you think about it as inflammation may get set up with that sort of maybe fast-food diet, it’s very easy to start to get a leaky gut, because it’s such a simple thin layer of cells that lines the gut. As you introduce more toxic substances, sometimes what happens is people develop what is called a leaky gut, which is actually intestinal permeability. So, that’s when fiber just is a very positive substance for most of us, understanding that those with some gut issues may struggle a little bit with fiber, and like you said, you don’t have to eat a ton of it. But make sure you have good servings during your day throughout your day so you always have, you’re always charged with a lot of fiber in your body.

The other way in which fiber is super useful is that it evens out the blood sugar for individuals with anxiety. So, rather than a blood sugar level that’s spiking all over the place, it’s just complex carbohydrates that are rich in fiber will break down more slowly and evenly in your body. When that happens, you are emotionally more on an even keel. So, there’s another tip right there about the fiber as well.

Cynthia: I think it’s really important. I think I read a statistic that the average American consumes, I think, it was three fruits for every one vegetable, nonstarchy vegetable. Really, it should be flipped, that we should be having more non-starchy vegetables than fruit. But fruit is sweet and fruit is designed to be very sweet. So, it’s this hyperpalatable, relatively healthy thing. I’ll give you an example. I have teenage boys who eat like locusts and cotton candy grapes are in season for two weeks out of the year. It’s the only time I’ll let them eat them. These two boys went through three rounds of grapes overnight. I said to them, inherently, it’s a piece of fruit and it’s not inherently a bad thing, but you’ve both consumed, I don’t know how many cups of grapes in 24 hours.

Dr. Uma Naidoo: Yes.

Cynthia: So, we need to balance out like tonight you’re getting broccoli, and you’re probably getting another non-starchy vegetable that [crosstalk] all the food that you consumed. But I love and would love for you to touch on, we talked about the nutrition piece, what are some of the lifestyle pieces in addition to the nutrition piece that are absolutely critical when you’re working with your patients to help tailor into being in anxiety, depression, people are dealing with trauma or OCD behaviors. What are some of the other things they can do in terms of their lifestyle that can beneficially impact their mental and emotional health?

Dr. Uma Naidoo: Absolutely. Lifestyle factors are hugely important. So, thank you for touching on that. Nutrition is one of the strongest lifestyle factors that has an impact on mental health as well as metabolic diseases like you’ve touched on. But when we think about lifestyle, it can be things that I consider to be very important to be speaking to my patients about include how they sleeping. A lack of sleep is associated with increased or enhancement of mental health symptoms. The pandemic has been very bad on people’s sleep, so much so that we are calling it coronasomnia now. So, it’s something to pay attention to. But also, things like hydration. Having enough glasses of water during the day, dehydration can be associated with depression. Someone who is also is dehydrated could become feel more anxious, and not realize one of the components is that they could have or should have been drinking more water that day.

When someone is severely depressed, I wouldn’t want to talk to them about a certain number of minutes of exercise, but I will talk to them about whether they can walk the dog, pick up the newspaper, walk to the local store for a cup of coffee just to be out of bed and moving, when they latch on to such ideas, when you can start to build in more of a lifestyle plan as they start to feel better. So, all of these things become important. Sleep hygiene, hydration, are we moving, and also mindfulness and meditation are hugely important. So, someone can practice the meditation that works for them. Being mindful about their food, mindful eating, all of that is super important.

Cynthia: I love that you grew up in an environment where the parasympathetic or the rest and repose side of your health was really so nurtured. I think people are oftentimes surprised to recognize that the simple act of digesting our food really starts in the parasympathetic side of our body, the rest and repose. So, if we’re super stressed out, and we’re in the car, and we’re in traffic, or we’re yelling at our significant other or kids, and you’re trying to eat a meal, you’re really setting yourself up to make it a whole lot harder for your body to digest, break down, and assimilate that food. So, really focusing in on the lifestyle piece, I think, is so critically important, generally underappreciated. As this focuses in on sleep, I talk a lot about the fact that when I look at studies, if you sleep less than six hours a night, your ability to control your blood sugar, this is just one thing is reduced by 60%. I always say, when we’re stressed and we don’t have enough sleep, we don’t crave broccoli, we’re going to crave hyperpalatable carbs, we’re going to crave sugary stuff, because it’s going to give us a little bit of a serotonin boost, so we feel good at least temporarily.

Dr. Uma Naidoo: Temporarily.

Cynthia: Then, after the fact we really won’t– It goes without saying there’s one patient that sticks in my mind so significantly, this is a young man who had been put on benzodiazepines. For anyone that’s listening, young man who had been put on low-dose Xanax for years and years and years, obviously, not mentally my first line of thought process for addressing anxiety and depression. What was amazing for this young man was that when he pulled gluten out of his diet, his anxiety and depression went away and he really liked beer. So, this was a very much a hardship for him. But we used to have these very open conversations of how profoundly powerful it can be, when you are dealing with a chronic mental health disorder, and for anyone that’s listening whether we talk about OCD, ADHD, depression, anxiety, etc., these are no different than having high blood pressure or diabetes. So, these things for a lot of people can really impact their ability to go about their day without fixating on symptoms and really not feeling well. So, has it been your experience that when the sleep is dialed in, when they’re moving their bodies, when they’re eating better choices of food, people probably have a completely life altering perception of their disease system.

Dr. Uma Naidoo: They really do, Cynthia. It’s magical to see because when they start to connect those dots, and they want to make more healthy habit changes slowly, but over time is when they really start to make it a lifestyle. So, they live the lifestyle rather than trying to follow a checklist, I need to do this, I need to eat that. And that becomes, I think, one of the most powerful things because when people make these slow and steady changes over time, and they see the proven benefit in their own bodies, they speak to their doctors or they go in for their checkups, and things have improved and they lowering the dose of medication. Or, they’re having an adjustment to the amount of insulin they need. That’s usually powerful and I think where we can’t get stuck is this all or none sort of mentality we sometimes have in this country with diet wars or different pieces of information, pointing to one kind of diet that will cure everything and save the world rather just eat healthy whole foods include components that you like from different diets and most importantly include the important tools that will help you feel better.

Cynthia: I think it can be for a lot of people incredibly powerful to be able to make those connections that their food really does impact their mood rather profoundly. Now, I want to be super respectful of your time. Obviously, we’re going to put links to your website and your books, but what’s next? What are you working on right now?

Dr. Uma Naidoo: Right now, I am trying to figure out my next steps. I definitely have been approached to write more books and I’m thinking about it. I do feel, Cynthia, that this book has so much life in it, especially for the pandemic where people– It was very hard to be a debut author during the pandemic, but I have now grown to understand that the book has become– my book called This Is Your Brain on Food, has actually become a guide for people to feel better. It doesn’t have to mean that you have a diagnosis. It could be that you’re not just feeling, maybe you’re not sleeping well, maybe that you’re going for one Zoom meeting to the next thing one, your thinking needs to be sharper. Or, you just want to eat healthier for those reasons. So, I’ve been excited that that people are seeing it that way and I really have so much work to do sharing this book, which I plan to continue to do. I’m also very excited about the cutting-edge microbiome research that’s going on. I’m working at my clinic. So, I’m balancing that all up as best I can and looking forward to what the future holds.

Cynthia: Oh, I’m so glad that you wrote this book. It makes me think and reflect back on a conversation I had with Dr. Perlmutter, who I know you’ve connected with as well. He wrote Brain Wash, and how I’m thinking of your books in a similar light that in many ways they came about at exactly the perfect time, because there’s so many people, they’re really looking for ways to improve cognition, brain health, and do it in accessible ways that don’t necessarily involve looking at– Medication can certainly be part of the process, but really looking at the lifestyle, the nutrition piece as being critically important.

Dr. Uma Naidoo: Absolutely.

Cynthia: Such a pleasure to connect with you. Please let listeners know how to connect with you and the easiest way to reach you on social media.

Dr. Uma Naidoo: Thanks so much, Cynthia. So, the best way to reach me on social media is to follow me on Instagram, and Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, we’re everywhere, and it’s @drumanaidoo. @D-R-U-M-A-N-A-I-D-O-O. We always share the platform in an educational way to share things from my book, to share most recent research and updates. And then, my website, if you subscribe, you’ll get my newsletter and blogs, which if you like this kind of work may be interesting to you. You also get to hear first what I’m up to, where I’m at, what I’m doing, and that is umanaidoomd.com. So, I hope you will subscribe and join me there.

Cynthia: Absolutely. Thank you for your time today. It’s been a pleasure.

Dr. Uma Naidoo: Thank you, Cynthia. It is lovely to talk with you.

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