Shonda Rhimes said, “You can’t say, ‘yes’ to everything and not say, ‘yes’ to taking care of yourself.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The first wealth is health.”
When we think of eating healthy food, we often think about them within the context of improving our bodies physically — to get healthy, lose weight, increase our lifespan, and feel better in general. But did you know that healthy food actually improves your mental health?
If you think about it, it makes sense, right? After all, our brains are like the control centers of our bodies. Because of the work the brain does, we can walk, talk, eat, and do the things we love to do. While the brain is a beautiful thing, it can sometimes get stuck in negative thought patterns, manifesting in depression and anxiety.
Within the past few years — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic — the mental health crisis has only increased. Children, teenagers, and adults around the world are struggling with depression, anxiety, and other disorders.
How do we fix this? How do we keep this crisis from doubling in the coming years?
The answer may be sitting right in front of us. Today, I have Dr. Mark Hyman, a family physician and renowned leader in the field of Functional Medicine, to share his wisdom about the impact food has on our mood and mental health.
Dr. Mark Hyman is leading a health revolution—one revolved around using food as medicine to support longevity, energy, mental clarity, happiness, and so much more.
Dr. Hyman is a practicing family physician and an internationally recognized leader, speaker, educator, and advocate in functional medicine. He’s the founder and director of The UltraWellness Center, the Head of Strategy and Innovation of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, AND the Board President for Clinical Affairs for The Institute for Functional Medicine.
Somehow, in the midst of all this, he’s a twelve-time New York Times bestselling author. He’s also a regular medical contributor on several television shows and networks, including CBS This Morning, the Today Show, Good Morning America, The View, The Dr. Oz Show, and CNN.
And, as if all that weren’t enough, Dr. Mark Hyman hosts the leading health podcast The Doctor’s Farmacy. On his podcast, he shares a wealth of information about how our food choices are affecting our health and what we can do about it.
Needless to say, he’s an expert. Dr. Hyman is one of my favorite people to learn from when it comes to health because he is so honest about what’s going on. He’s really got humanity’s best interest at heart.
If you’re ready to learn about how food can heal or harm our bodies and what to eat to improve mental health, keep reading!
When it comes to learning about diet, disease, chronic illness, nutrition, and overall wellness, it can be overwhelming. There’s a ton of information out there, and sometimes it seems to be entirely conflicting. I’ve had conversations with many wellness experts of The School of Greatness who have shared an array of facts and research.
A very simplified summary of what I’ve learned from them is that if you eat whole foods, sleep well, move your body often, and let go of stress, many challenges in life are taken care of. Obviously, that’s a very simplified explanation, but it’s a good starting point. So when Mark shared with me how the food we eat affects our brain, I knew I needed to share it with you, too.
“It turns out that food is probably the biggest driver of dysfunction in the brain when it comes to mood behavior, attention, [and] memory. And this is not just sort of hypothetical — there’s a whole department … at Harvard of Nutritional Psychiatry, [and] at Stanford of Metabolic Psychiatry. … The doctors … from those institutions are talking about the role of food and the brain and mood.” – Dr. Mark Hyman
Mark went on to explain that these doctors are finding that a poor diet — like the standard American diet — is causing inflammation in the brain, which is at the root of most mental illnesses.
“It turns out that when you eat the American diet … people are damaging their brains in ways that create inflammation in the brain. And we now know that mental illness often is an inflamed brain.” – Dr. Mark Hyman
This is important because when the brain is inflamed, it acts very differently from other parts of our body that are inflamed. This very different response makes it hard for us to know when our brain isn’t okay and needs our attention.
“When you cut yourself, and you get an infection, it’s red and hot and sore and inflamed. If you sprain your ankle, it’s sore. If you’ve got a sore throat, it’s sore and red. [But] when your brain is inflamed, it doesn’t hurt. The only way your brain knows how to say, ‘Ouch,’ is by getting depressed or anxious or angry or irritable.” – Dr. Mark Hyman
Mark said that there have been clinical studies where individuals have been able to get rid of depression by switching their diets from junk food to whole foods. He has also seen people overcome panic attacks and anxiety disorders by changing the food they ate. Mark said this shift could be mostly attributed to the way eating excess sugar affects the body.
“When you eat sugar or starch, your cortisol level goes up, which is the stress hormone. [And] your adrenaline goes up. So if you eat a bagel or a cookie, your body literally has the same reaction as if you’re running from a saber tooth tiger. And that can create anxiety.” – Dr. Mark Hyman
While this information can feel frustrating because bread and cookies taste good, this information is incredibly powerful. By choosing what we eat with intention, we can help ourselves stay in a positive mindset. This also means that if we’re going through a season of thinking negative thoughts and having trouble pulling ourselves out, we can look at what we’ve been eating lately.
If we have been eating more processed foods than real foods, we can help ourselves get into a better frame of mind by eating more whole foods!
After that, I think it’s safe to say that food affects our brain and our mood. But when Mark took this lesson a step further, he explained that bad food doesn’t just increase inflammation in the brain. It actually separates your brain’s frontal lobe from your amygdala, which results in much of the extreme behavior we see, like suicide, hatred, and upheaval. Here’s why Mark said this happens:
“The frontal lobe is a grownup. It’s the adult in the room. It’s like, you think you’re going to punch that guy, but you go, ‘I better not punch that guy.’ … It’s that adult in the room that sort of is your higher self [that keeps you from punching someone]. And the amygdala is your reptile brain. … It’s going to just run or fight or flee.” – Dr. Mark Hyman
In other words, your frontal lobe is rational, while your amygdala is impulsive. They’re both important pieces of a thriving life, but when you’re operating solely from one — in this case, the amygdala — you’re not looking at the whole picture. As a result, people act out in severe ways.
“[The frontal lobe and amygdala] are connected, but when you eat crap, they get disconnected. And so you’re constantly reacting from your amygdala with no grownup in the room, which is why we see this level of divisiveness and hatred and I mean … all the upheaval we see in society.” – Dr. Mark Hyman
There have been clinical studies conducted in juvenile detention centers where an improved diet significantly improved behavior and suicide dropped by a staggering 100%. Here’s how Mark explained it:
“[There were clinical studies done with] kids … in juvenile detention centers … who were disruptive, violent, aggressive, oppositional, suicidal. By cleaning up their diet and giving them whole foods [there] was a 91% reduction [in] all violent behavior, oppositional behavior, and need for restraints went down. Suicide went down a hundred percent. I mean, it’s the third leading cause of death in that age group [and] it went down a hundred percent — no suicides!” – Dr. Mark Hyman
I am almost speechless by the profound impact eating real food has on mental health and suicide rates. If anyone has been bewildered by the increase of depression, suicide, and hate since the COVID-19 lockdowns, I think food might be a very good reason as to why we’ve seen this significant shift. Not only have many of us lost valuable interpersonal connections, we’ve also been sitting at home eating not-so-great food.
But I want to encourage you, again. These stats shouldn’t leave you discouraged. They should fill you with courage to believe in a better tomorrow and chase greatness. All your emotional challenges might not evaporate when you change your diet, but based on this data, it’s safe to say you’ll be in a much better place mentally!
Now that we have all this evidence on the mental health benefits of eating well, let’s talk about food we absolutely shouldn’t eat. If you’ve followed this podcast for any length of time, you probably know a solid list of things to eat, including hormone-free grass-fed meat and all the veggies! So, I asked Mark to share with us three things we should never allow into our shopping cart.
“[Avoid] anything with high fructose corn syrup, [because] almost by definition [it’s] a highly processed food that comes with all kinds of other bad crap.” – Dr. Mark Hyman
High-fructose corn syrup is found in almost everything processed that is sweet and especially drinks. When you ingest high-fructose, you’re eating something that isn’t natural. It’s been so significantly altered from its original state that your body does not recognize it as fuel.
Trans fat can also be called hydrogenated fats and hydronic fats. Again, these are fats that are altered so much from their original state that your body doesn’t know what to do with them.
“Hydronic fats have literally been banned by the FDA, essentially ruled not-safe-to-eat, but they’re still out there.” – Dr. Mark Hyman
Typically these fats are found in processed or packaged foods as well as anything fried, including french fries.
If you can’t pronounce the ingredient, it most likely didn’t come from the ground or an animal — it’s a chemical or modification, that’s why its name is so weird. That’s why Mark says to stay away from them and stick to ingredients you can pronounce.
“You should only eat foods with ingredients that you would have in your cupboard [that you] can pronounce and recognize. In other words, [if] you have butylated hydroxy in your cupboard that you sprinkle on your salad, which is also known as BHT, it’s a preservative that’s been linked to cancer. It’s banned in Europe. … You probably shouldn’t eat it! – Dr. Mark Hyman
Here’s how you could simplify this: Avoid processed foods. If you need to grab something on-the-run, choose a processed option where you can pronounce all the ingredients.
But, remember, building a life of greatness starts with a small decision in the right direction. Gradually, one small decision after another builds into a big decision. So, if you feel overwhelmed with changing your diet, start with one thing — one small decision in the right direction. If you keep at it, it will lead to greatness!
Every time I have Mark on the show, I learn so many incredible things, and today was no different! In this interview, he shared a wealth of science-based information. If you enjoyed what you learned today, be sure to listen to the whole episode where we jump into how to eat for longevity and anti-aging, whether or not you should get your protein from meat, and how he came up with the word “Pegan.”
I’ve had Mark on my show several times — on episodes #916, #714, #616, #293 — so instead of asking him how he defined greatness, I asked him what one of the greatest challenges is that he’s facing. And this is what he said:
“I struggle with letting go of the things that define me and actually reimagin[ing] things that will redefine me to be who I want in the next phase of my life.” – Dr. Mark Hyman
As he’s looking to the next 30 years of his life after spending 60 years building a thriving practice and successful career, I think this struggle is very understandable. But I also think it’s something all of us should consider: What do we need to let go of to become the next version of ourselves?
If you loved what you learned today, make sure you grab a copy of Mark’s latest book, The Pegan Diet, where he bridges the gap between Paleo and Vegan and educates readers on how to personalize their nutrition. And, don’t forget to connect with Mark on Instagram and his website!
If you’re looking to clarify and crush your goals — maybe swap out junk food for whole foods — this year, and for real this time, I have something for you! My newest program, The Greatness Coaching, is your high-performance system for 2021 and beyond. It includes coaching, accountability, community, and my Greatness Playbook, where I guide you through reflecting, planning, and creating goals that align with your values and move you toward your dreams! If this sounds like something you’ve been looking for, you can learn more and apply to the program here.
If you were inspired by today’s message, please share it with someone you know. Just take a screenshot of this and share it on Instagram. Tag us both — Dr. Mark Hyman, @drmarkhyman, and me, @lewishowes — and let us know what your biggest takeaway was. If this is your first time here or you haven’t subscribed yet, make sure to go to Apple Podcasts and click on that subscribe button, and leave us a rating. Every time we get a subscriber or new review, it helps us spread the message of greatness to more people. So by taking a few minutes to do that, you’ll be helping more people improve their lives!
Finally, I want to leave you with this quote from the Buddha who said, “To keep the body in good health is a duty. Otherwise, we shall not be able to keep the mind strong and clear.”
Now, you know what time it is — it’s time to go out there and do something great!