How Does Food Affect Your Mood? Pt. 1 with Zoe Davis

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast

When you start to think about food as medicine that can heal you, rather than just stuff you eat when you’re hungry, everything can change. In the first episode in a series with BrainFitLife coach Zoe Davis, Dr. Daniel Amen and Zoe discuss the standard American diet (SAD), the food/mood connection, and how elimination diets can tell you if some of the biggest health offender foods are hurting you.


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Dr Daniel Amen: Welcome to the Brain Warriors Way Podcast. I'm Dr. Daniel Amen.

Tana Amen: I'm Tana Amen. Here we teach you how to win the fight for your brain to defeat anxiety, depression, memory loss, ADHD, and addictions.

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Dr Daniel Amen: So welcome back, everybody. This week, we're going to talk with our Brain Fit Life coach, Zoe Davis, who's just amazing. She has a master's degree from Antioch University in Seattle, has worked with people who have eating disorders. What's really more important to us is she's our coach for Amen Clinics, especially on our online program, Brain Fit Life. I get to watch all the questions people ask on Brain Fit Life, and I just love how she answers them.

Anybody knows the Amen Clinic's method really well, it is Zoe. Zoe and I did a very fun project with Satori Capital in Dallas, Texas, where the whole company embraced brain health for a year. As part of it, I lectured to them and all of them had individual appointments with Zoe, and they actually found that to be incredibly valuable to them.

This week's podcast, we're going to talk about food and mood; food and your mind. We're going to talk about gut health. It's like why does psychiatric clinics care about gut health? Because it's completely connected to your brain. Then, we're going to get super practical on what you should you eat every day? Welcome. Such a joy to be with you, Zoe.

Zoe Davis: Thank you. It's great to be here.

Dr Daniel Amen: Let's start by talking about what's your favorite story ... in working at Amen Clinics? You actually work in our Walnut Creek clinic in Northern California. You have a lot of great contact with our folks online.

Zoe Davis: Yeah. Gosh, there's so many good stories. I love working with folks who are really ... at the the end of their rope in terms of feeling frustrated by lack of health, or lack of feeling better. The model that we offer, the bio, psycho, social, spiritual model really embraces someone's whole self. When we start talking to patients about how we can help them differently, it renews hope. It renews a sense that there's something they can do, and there is. There's a lot.

Lots of stories. I can think of one off the top of my head of a woman who was really struggling with depression and anxiety. She had been for much of her life, and had been through every diet program you can go through; because she struggled with weight as well. We started talking about nourishment on a really broad scale. How can she feed her brain well so that her mood is better? How can she feed her body so her weight moderates? She really started to change her relationship with food. She started to change her relationship with herself, and really started addressing the poor nutrition through her food, but also through her relationships that weren't serving her. She really started to transform.

Her body, her weight started to come to a normal point. She started to feel less depressed. She started to feel more motivated. Those kind of stories, again, we were always going back to the whole person and really treating the whole person, and seeing the whole person. I think has so much value, whether we're specifically in a nutrition visit, or a coaching visit. That's the mindset that we have, and it really serves the whole person. I love those kind of stories where all of the pieces come together, and someone begins to be able to transform; because they're not just in a diet group, or they're not just in a ... getting psychiatric medication for depression, but they're looking at their whole life. We can really hold that space and help them to do transformative work.

Dr Daniel Amen: I love that.

Zoe Davis: I love those kind of stories.

Dr Daniel Amen: It's why we do what we do, right? It's the stories that ... keep us motivated every day.

Zoe Davis: Absolutely, yeah.

Dr Daniel Amen: One of my favorite stories, thinking about food and your mind, is we saw a guy named Jeff who had been depressed for 30 years, and even had ECT, and three suicide attempts. No one had ever talked to him about his diet. It's like nuts.

Zoe Davis: Yeah.

Dr Daniel Amen: But there's a brand new study out that I read on BBC that said medical doctors get virtually no training on nutrition.

Zoe Davis: Right, yeah.

Dr Daniel Amen: Which, ... it seems like the pharmaceutical companies have hijacked medicine. You get a lot of pharmacology, but the best pharmacology is actually F-A-R-M, 'farmacology' from ... it's healthy food.

Zoe Davis: Absolutely.

Dr Daniel Amen: Jeff came to see us, and one of the things I often do is put people on an elimination diet. It's like let's just get rid of things that are controversial, that might hurt you. Gluten, dairy, corn, soy, sugar, and artificial dyes and preservatives.

Zoe Davis: Yeah.

Dr Daniel Amen: A lot of people get freaked out. It's like, 'Oh, there's nothing to eat.' I'm like no, there's 10,000 things to eat.

Zoe Davis: Yeah.

Dr Daniel Amen: God gave you a big brain for a reason. Stop acting like you're four.

Zoe Davis: Yeah.

Dr Daniel Amen: Within three days, he's better. It's amazing.

Zoe Davis: Whoa.

Dr Daniel Amen: Three days, he's better.

Zoe Davis: Three days, yeah.

Dr Daniel Amen: We started to add things back one at time. We added back gluten, not one thing happened. He's still better.

Zoe Davis: Yeah.

Dr Daniel Amen: Added back dairy, not one thing happened. He's better.

Zoe Davis: Yeah.

Dr Daniel Amen: Added back corn, he said within 20 minutes, he had the image of a gun in his mouth, wanting to shoot himself.

Zoe Davis: Oh my gosh. Yeah, I've had a similar experience with someone with corn as a trigger in the elimination diet. I mean, it's fascinating. I think it ... When you're motivated, because your symptoms are so bad or so impactful to your life, which is a lot of what we see in the clinic, people are motivated to do what it takes. Emphasizing what you want to be eating, as opposed to only what you want to get rid of, can really help people to feel like there is a wide variety because whole foods, there's tons of them, right? There's tons of different kinds of vegetables, low sugar fruits, healthy fats, high quality proteins. I mean these are, for the most part, we've got access to that.

Emphasizing what you can really be eating in a day to use food as medicine is a really different frame of thinking for a lot of people, because we think of standard American diet, right? It's all about taste, and convenience, and what's quick. It's not thinking about how is this food actually going to nourish me? How am I going to be fueled by this? How am I going to either prevent symptoms or disease? How am I going to heal from things that are going on currently? That's a real different way of thinking about it. For a lot of people, just having that language of saying, 'Let's talk about how we can use food as medicine, which is how I'd like to speak about it, it changes it for people because it's not ... the way that we normally think about food. We just don't.

Like to your point exactly, at medical school you're not necessarily taught how to tell people what to eat, even if you're a GI specialist, right? It's not happening.

Dr Daniel Amen: When you think of the standard American diet, so I always love the acronym for that, 'SAD.' It's associated with so many mental health problems, from depression, dementia, attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder. One of the things that got me really interested in diet is ... I think one of my big gifts is I listen to my patients. When they get better, I at least think about it, rather than dismiss it.

One of my patients told me her arthritis went away when I got ... when she got rid of NutraSweet, or aspartame. At 35, I was 35 at the time, I had arthritis. My knees hurt. My hands hurt. I'm like, 'Oh, well I'm getting old.' Now that I'm 63, I'm like, 'Well, that's sort of silly.'

Zoe Davis: Young to be old, yeah.

Dr Daniel Amen: I was drinking diet coke like it was my best friend.

Zoe Davis: Yeah.

Dr Daniel Amen: At lunch, I'd go through Jack in the Box, get a 32 ounce diet coke. It's horrifying now.

Zoe Davis: Yes, right.

Dr Daniel Amen: That I think about it. I stopped it, and my arthritis went away. I'm like, 'Oh my god.' Then I'm like, 'No.' I would test it. Within 20 minutes, my hands would start to hurt.

Zoe Davis: Yes.

Dr Daniel Amen: I'm like I'm paying attention to this. Then, one of my ... autistic kids, his mom heard about an elimination diet. When she got rid of gluten and dairy, he picked up 100 new words in a month. I'm like, you know maybe I should pay attention to this.

Zoe Davis: Absolutely. It can be that powerful. It really can. You think about not only what are you taking away, but when you're replacing that with nutrient dense foods, you're getting all these nutrients that you probably weren't getting before in the standard American diet, right? We're notoriously low in some key vitamins; vitamin E, vitamin D, vitamin C. We're not ... Magnesium. We're not getting these in the standard American diet. It's yes, you're removing these toxins essentially, and then you're also replacing them with these nutrient dense foods. The nutrients as Dr. Kidd, one of our peers talks about, these are not optional. These are nutrients that our brain requires for functioning, right? Our body requires.

We're resilient. We're able to get by for so long, but eventually things start to break down when we're not getting what we need in our daily lives for food. It can be so powerful when you start to make those changes. I've had a lot of aspartame stories, so you just reminded me of that.

A lot of patients there, I'm like, 'Let's get you off of that. Let's ... [crosstalk 00:12:33] ...

Dr Daniel Amen: It's in everything. Now, chewing gum, for example, they don't put the ingredients on the label.

Zoe Davis: Right.

Dr Daniel Amen: How they get away with that, I'm not quite sure.

Zoe Davis: Yeah.

Dr Daniel Amen: It's virtually in everything that is processed.

Zoe Davis: Yes.

Dr Daniel Amen: Reading the label is critical. I would just say, if it's not on the label, don't ... If they don't put the ingredients on the label, don't buy it.

Zoe Davis: Right.

Dr Daniel Amen: That's a sign that there's some trouble waiting for you.

Zoe Davis: Absolutely. Something's hidden, yeah. Getting people used to reading ingredients is just a really great way to engage people with what they're putting into their bodies, because it's ... again, it's not something that a lot of people think about. Certainly a lot of people do, but we're slowly getting there to where people are starting to think, 'Oh, does this matter if I take this in? Is this impacting me over time?'

The other thing I think about is how, as we get older, hopefully getting older, that we're accumulating all of these things that we've eaten, or not eaten throughout our lives, so that it makes sense that there's going to be issues like dementia, or cognitive decline, or mood issues; because we haven't been doing it. It's accumulated over time, our body has been able to compensate for a period, maybe, maybe not. Then, eventually, we've got to do something about it.

Dr Daniel Amen: If somebody is struggling with dementia, I think it's an emergency, because the longer that goes on, the less hope there is.

Zoe Davis: Right.

Dr Daniel Amen: If someone's struggling with attentional problems, brain fog, or pain, depression, what are some of the things you think they should start eliminating from their diet?

Zoe Davis: The big three that we talk about immediately are gluten, sugar, and dairy; because they're just known to be the most sort of obvious ones that people can have some benefit from removing. That's hard to do for some people. Some people really resist doing it, but when there's something like you said, urgent that's going on, there's a great motivation to do that. We talk about how do that, how do we take those out? What do we eat instead? We really emphasize, again, what do we want to be eating? What are we trying to eat more of? Yes, we're removing these things, but we're not taking away the variety, because there's a lot of variety.

Often people notice a more immediate benefit from those three things. You can also, as you mentioned earlier, corn and soy are ... other two that people tend to have a response to. Once you remove the sugar, and the gluten, and the dairy, you've eliminated so many processed foods. They're in so many packaged foods. They're in so many products. When we just talk about trying to eat whole foods and emphasize whole foods, we're already eliminating dyes, and artificial flavorings, and artificial sweeteners; all these things that you just don't have to think about if there's not a label on it and you're just eating whole food. Then you've eliminated a lot of those other ones that we really have to get to at some point.

I always talk to people about how do we start just ... eating only foods that you ... are in their original form as much as possible. Vegetables throughout the day, how do we just have those as much as we can? Most people have ... I think the average American has like two cups a day, and maybe the vegetable is white potato, or corn, or something. We want to be getting more like six to nine cups a day. We can do that. We just have to eat it more regularly throughout the day. That alone is going to benefit us hugely. If we're replacing that gluten, that wheat, that white flour product with more vegetables, we've upped our nutrient density immensely, and we're getting more fiber. We're getting more vitamins and minerals. We're eliminating something, but we're really emphasizing the variety that we're replacing it with.

Dr Daniel Amen: I have a fun story. ... 'Fun' might not be the right word. This guy came from Michigan ... no, Minnesota, to get scanned. ... The scan was not very healthy.

He said, "I want you to do one more scan on MSG." I had never heard of it as a problem at that time. This is about 15 years ago.

I'm like, "Why?"

He said, "Whenever I get MSG, I get violent, and I've actually hurt my wife. I just want to know what it does my brain."

We gave him a big slug of MSG, and scanned him again. It deactivated his left temporal lobe. It was so clear, which is an area of the brain that's involved in violence.

Zoe Davis: Right, yeah.

Dr Daniel Amen: It was funny, my interaction with him; I said, "Well, you have two choices." It was sort of tongue in cheek for me. I said, "You can stop the MSG, or I can put you on Neurontin, an anticonvulsant, and I can protect your temporal lobe."

Zoe Davis: Right.

Dr Daniel Amen: I'm fully expecting him to say, "Okay, it's a problem. I just won't eat it." He said, "You have to give me the medicine."

I'm like, "Why?"

Zoe Davis: Wow.

Dr Daniel Amen: He said, "Food companies often don't have to label that MSG is there, or they'll call it 'natural flavorings.'"

Zoe Davis: Natural flavors.

Dr Daniel Amen: "If I go out to dinner and I get MSG, if I lose my temper one more time, my wife said she is divorcing me. And if she divorces me, I'll kill myself."

I'm like, "Let me give you the medicine."

Zoe Davis: Yeah.

Dr Daniel Amen: We put him on the medicine, and told him to hold the MSG. If they don't have it at a certain level in food, they don't have to put it in the ingredient.

Zoe Davis: Right, right. Yeah.

Dr Daniel Amen: That's why eating whole foods, as you mentioned, is so important when it comes to your mental health. Who would think that a food additive could actually cause a marital problem, which then leads to suicide?

Zoe Davis: Yeah, yeah.

Dr Daniel Amen: Isn't that crazy?

Zoe Davis: It's pretty amazing. I mean, it makes sense, right? This is the chemistry of how we imbibe things, and take food in, and then what happens? What happens to us? The opposite can be true. Saffron, like the spice of good feeling, where you can eat it and feel this happiness overwhelm you. There's research to back that up. It's actually an antidepressant. It's like food is medicine. It's that powerful.

As I think you always say, it's medicine or poison. It's like it can go either way. Getting people to even think about that, and even make that connection can be really powerful. I like talking with kids about that, too. It's like start making those connections when you eat something, how does that make you feel? You start that young, and you get that language kind of going in the internal mind, it really helps to steer you toward certain foods, or away from other foods that you know aren't going to make you feel good.

Dr Daniel Amen: So important. That's why we call this podcast the Brain Warriors Way, because you're in a war for the health of your brain. Everywhere you go, someone's trying to shove bad food down your throat.

Zoe Davis: Absolutely.

Dr Daniel Amen: Didn't we say the real weapons of mass destruction are highly processed pesticide sprayed, high glycemic, low fiber food-like substances stored in plastic containers that are destroying the health of America? We can do so much better.

Stay with us. When we come back, we're going to talk about the gut brain connection. Who knew that I should have been paying attention more to the gut lectures when I decided I was going to be a psychiatrist? Who knew. Stay with us.

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