Bad for your heart, bad for your mood

It’s a therapist’s job to help people find their own answers. When it comes to healthy living,  we spend a lot of time telling them what they should do. By the time you’ve explained how one’s mood and stress level benefit from exercise, regular hours, spiritual practice and skipping drugs and alcohol,  your index finger can be exhausted from the waggling.

Luscious, hot, salty yummy-nummies, just dripping with despair

This paradox will only grow worse, with the University of Montreal Hospital Research Center’s new study on diet and mice’s behavior.  Stephanie Fulton, Ph.D and her team found that after twelve weeks of high-fat, high sugar meals, their subjects froze under stress. They were less likely to explore new environments, and more likely to scurry for safety. Compared to a control group of mice fed the pelletized equivalent of grilled quinoa and kale, they gave up faster in tests of  ‘behavioral despair’.  In short,  they looked anxious and depressed.

Behavior can have lots of explanations, of course. It’s  been assumed that anxiety and unhealthy eating correlate, because we seek solace in ‘comfort food’ when we feel stressed.  Sadly, Fulton’s study suggests the reverse. Brain scans indicated the mice on high-fat diets had elevated levels of corticosterone, a hormone conclusively linked to anxiety and CREB, a molecule implicated in the fear response. Saturated fat appears to be the enemy here – the mice who were fed “good fats” like olive oil didn’t show as much anxiety.

Dopamine depletion in T-minus 100… 99… 98…

In interviews, Fulton theorized there’s also a neurological link between scrumptiously unhealthy food and depression. She surmises  that because high-fat, high-sugar eats are so ineffably delicious, they trigger releases of dopamine. That’s a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, particularly with reward-driven learning. Life being unfair, the rush of dopamine leads to a corresponding crash, which causes symptoms of depression. Over time, per Fulton, this can reshape the brain’s reward circuits. Instead of easing life’s suffering, steady consumption of greasy, sugary treats may create an addictive pattern of short-term highs and long-term gloom.

… told you so.

David C.W. Lau MD PhD, editor of Canadian Journal of Diabetes emphasized this study only shows association, not causation.  The researchers freely admit it is hard to square their findings with other studies where mice on similar diets became more docile. Given that, two points come to mind:

1. The clash between offering health advice and helping people find their own answers? It’s an irony, but not a conflict. We’d be remiss if we didn’t tell people there are quick steps to improve one’s mood. “You have worse problems than lack of exercise,” I’ll say. “But exercise would help.”

2. Occasional indulgences are not a high-sugar, high-fat diet. Vegetarians’ organic, easy-going good humor is enviable, but not every client will be pried away wholly from sugar and fats. Good food is one of life’s great pleasures, and life has to be worth living. As  clients often ponder when they’re offered MAOIs: if you give up chocolate, cheese and wine entirely in trade for an effective antidepressant, has your life actually improved?

Citation: Diet-induced obesity promotes depressive-like behaviour that is associated with neural adaptations in brain reward circuitry. Sharma S, Fulton S. Int J Obes (Lond). 2012 Apr 17. doi: 10.1038/ijo.2012.48. PMID: 22508336 [PubMed – as supplied by publisher]

@ 2012 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved

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Filed under anxiety, depression

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