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Dr Delia McCabe is a neuroscientist specialising in stress resilience and the impact of nutrition on brain health and mental well-being.
We discuss the importance of specific nutrients for recovery from chronic illness like ME/CFS, Fibromyalgia, POTS & MCS and restrictive diets such as vegan or vegetarian diets.
|Introduction to Delia McCabe
|Delia tells how she first discovered the impact of food on brain health
|What happens in the brain when stress resilience diminishes?
|Is 'adrenal fatigue' a physical or personality challenge?
|Stress resilience vs stress management
|Stress sensitivity due to adverse childhood events
|Dan asks about what causes neurological stress intolerance
|Dan asks about the mechanism around cognitive dysfunction (brain fog)
|What is the role of acetylcholine and adrenaline in resetting brain function?
|How can nutrition affect the body and brain?
|Can we drive specific neurotransmitters and processes with nutrients?
|Vegan or Vegetarian diets - important considerations
|The difference of a "healthy diet" for healthy and ill people
|Getting our macronutrients right for ourselves
|The challenges around restricted diets
|Recognising the size of the task of a restrictive diet
Dan Neuffer: If you recognise that brain health is an important component of your chronic illness recovery, then hopefully you’ve considered the impact of diet to the ability of your brain to function well – not just for physical health, but also for mental health.
I was excited to speak to Dr. Delia McCabe – a neuroscientist focusing on the impact of diet on brain function. What makes Dr. McCabe so interesting to speak to is that she also focuses on a multilateral approach. On top of studying nutritional impacts on brain function, she also has a background in psychology to complement her neuroscience work.
What is resilience? Is it a physical or psychological issue? Is it a stress management thing? Or is it how we look at stress and our image around engaging with the wider world? Or is it simply a diet thing?
What about adverse childhood events? What about eating restrictive diets like vegan, vegetarian, or maybe a carnivore diet?
We talk about the very real problems that can occur with such diets – frankly, all diets – and how you can deal with these challenges.
I hope you enjoy this deep dive into nutrition for brain health.
Just a short but important message regarding the content of this podcast. The ideas, concepts, and opinions expressed in this recording, website, and associated media and products are intended to be used for educational and information purposes only. Nothing presented is intended to replace your physician nor are they a substitute for medical diagnosis, advice, or treatment.
This podcast is provided with the understand that the authors, guests, speakers, and publishers are not rendering medical advice of any kind.
It’s my pleasure to talk to a neuroscientist that is actually based on the Gold Coast where I live. I’m talking to Delia McCabe – the author of this wonderful book called “Feed Your Brain.” We are here to talk about stress resilience and the important impact of nutrition on our ability to respond to stress.
Welcome to the Wisdom from the Other Side, Delia!
Delia: Thank you very much, Dan! I’m really looking forward to this opportunity to chat with you!
Dan: That’s great! I’ve been really looking forward to it as well.
Stress – it’s such a misunderstood term. People tend to associate the word stress mainly with the psychological phenomenon. But, of course, there are other types of stress – physical stress, psychological stress, emotional stress, mental stress.
It’s interesting that your background is actually in psychology. Can you tell us, what made you change from being a psychologist to becoming a neuroscientist?
Delia: Well, it’s an interesting story because I was really, really committed to what I can call or what we think of as a talking therapist. I wanted to help people to talk themselves better. I was really very committed to that until I was working with a group of really smart school children who were doing really poorly at school.
I had developed an intervention program to help these children become more focused and committed and be able to learn more efficiently. I was obviously developing a whole lot of questionnaires in the process.
Fate is a very funny thing, Dan. On one of those questionnaires, I had a little bit of extra space. It was clearly a logistical situation. My husband had recently invested in a health food restaurant. I thought, “Well, let’s just ask these kids, ‘What’s your favourite food?’”
I was really astonishing because very seldom in research do you find a very clear distinction between your experimental and your control group. You know, generally, it’s a bit of a grey area, and you have to go and tease the details apart to see the distinction. But, in this case, 100 percent of the children in the underachieving group loved junk food, and 100 percent of the children in the achieving group marked control group didn’t love junk food. It was such a clear distinction to me that it really brought me up short. I thought to myself, “This is too important to ignore.”
I finished my dissertation. I had handed my masters in. I got my degree. But I was also very pregnant at the time. Destiny again. I thought, “Let me sit back and actually just take this time to investigate whether what we eat really does impact the brain and whether it could have had a role to play – along with the other psychological factors that were impacting these children.”
What I discovered really astonished me. It really pushed me to the point of saying to myself, “Delia, you can’t carry on asking people about their psychological framework and how they view the world and what’s important to them and so on without taking into account what they’re eating.”
The way I ended up looking at it was that only a very foolish person would try and push a car when their tires were flat. Wouldn’t you first start and try to pump the tires and then you push the car and let it get some service? It would us be silly to do it the other way.
I then decided, “Well, I’ll take a couple of months off, and I’ll check out how nutrition impacts the brain.” We may get back to this later, but one of the first ports of call for me was that 60 percent of the dry weight of the brain is made up of fat. I thought, “Well, I need to go and discover what’s important about fats and oils.” I thought, “Well, that’ll take me a couple of weeks,” and I’m still learning 25 years later.
It was a process for me of having to immerse myself in what was then available because there wasn’t a lot of information out there then about nutritional neuroscience. It took me a long time to find people that were the leading-edge researchers in that area. I would have to track them down on different continents then have conversations. Eventually, I got to the point where I really understood what was going on. That led to me writing my first book. And then, later, my second book which basically takes the science into the kitchen.
Along the way, I became a mother. I became a person who juggled things. I ended up feeling stressed. Then, I wanted to investigate that. That led to the second stage where I went and investigated female stress specifically with a PhD at Adelaide Medical School.
That’s the short synopsis, Dan.
Dan: It’s very interesting how our own experience tends to drive the direction of our research. There’s nothing like being passionate to really make you want to find the answers.
We will talk a little bit more about stress resilience. I’d love to get into the differences between men and women in terms of how we experience stress, but I wanted to see if we can get into some of the nitty-gritty. The group of illnesses that people have that follow me is ME/CFS, fibromyalgia, POTS, multiple chemical sensitivities, adrenal fatigue, and stress resilience is something that is at the forefront of these illnesses.
Now, most of the people who follow me would be well aware of the autonomic nervous system and the focus that I have on this. We talk about the sympathetic and parasympathetic. For those people who are new to the podcast, the sympathetic component of the autonomic nervous system is our fight-or-flight response, and the parasympathetic is our rest and digest. This is really the part of our nervous system that seeks to regulate so that we cope with stress and that we thrive and that we recover from stress.
Here’s the thing, Delia. When people are ill for a long time, their stress resilience gets to a very low level. It’s probably not something that most people could even understand or fathom when you are having difficulty just listening to someone talk to you, but that causes you so much stress that it feels deeply uncomfortable. When lights or sounds on their own are almost too much to bear. The words “too much to bear” is probably something that people will have used themselves who might be listening when it comes to stress.
My question is what is really going on in the brain? What is the deficiency or what is the mechanism in the brain that stops us being able to get this kind of stimulation?
Delia: This is a good question. Let’s just step back for a moment.
If we just look at the sympathetic nervous system and what the flight-and-flight response is, it was only meant to last for between 30 to 60 seconds. Most people are not aware of that. The tiger either ate you in that period of time and you didn’t need the stress response anymore or otherwise you escaped, and you could more automatically calm down and your PNS would step in. That in itself is telling us something very important – that SNS was only supposed to be used under extreme circumstances.
The challenge we have today is that now it’s switched on most of the time and the PNS doesn’t get a look in. Separating this from the illness for a moment, just a normal person living an ordinary life is now finding that their SNS – even if they don’t know what it is – is always on. They always feel vigilant. They always feel on edge. They don’t sleep well. They can’t rest. They fidget a lot. They just don’t feel calm. Their digestive system will have a challenge. They can’t focus and concentrate well. Their memory will be a problem. That’s just an ordinary person.
Then, we bring into that whole equation the fact that it’s not just the tiger chasing us. We’ve got a 60-second impulse that is now being extended for long periods of time, but it’s not just a physical response. It’s also a response related to our prefrontal cortex. Our prefrontal cortex is the CEO of the brain, if we can look at it from that perspective, but it doesn’t have any automated workarounds.
For example, the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal access that has a workaround. You have a stimulus and a quick response. The prefrontal cortex doesn’t work that way because it’s pulling information from all the different areas in the brain, organising it, consolidating it, and coming up with a solution. It is the most energy-intensive or energy-demanding part of the brain.
Now, you have people that are running away from a hypothetical threat – the tiger. They’ve got a hypothalamus that is continuously engaged. They have now got a prefrontal cortex that’s also engaged. It’s saying, “Have we experienced this before? No.” They keep on going backwards and forwards. That leads to a cognitive exhaustion which I think a lot of people can relate to now because it’s not just that physical adrenaline. It’s now the PFC that’s involved in this conversation continuously.
Another thing that a lot of people don’t take into account is the cost of adrenaline and cortisol. I did a presentation the other day. So many of the people came back to me afterwards and said, “Wow!” because I showed them the adrenaline costs from a nutritional perspective. You need B vitamins. You need C. You need magnesium. You need zinc. You need iron. You need all of those nutrients to actually synthesise adrenaline.
Now, that’s fine if you’re only experiencing that for 30 to 60 seconds. But, if you’re not, what does the human organism do? It says, “No, we’re going to prioritise adrenaline because it’s much more important that you escape the tiger versus synthesising serotonin which needs the same nutrients or producing energy in the mitochondria.” There’s constant conflict in the body around this whole process.
When people are very stressed, they can’t lie down and sleep. Their body is too switched on. They have got too much adrenaline and too few nutrients to actually synthesise the serotonin and all of the other nutrients that we need or the other neurotransmitters we need to be able to allow the PNS to kick in.
This is going to take us a little bit on a tangent. When I speak to people who are very stressed and have challenges – which they often call adrenal exhaustion which actually isn’t a medical term but is something that has now become a colloquial term that people use, or we can refer to it as burnout which I don’t think is only related to work; I think burnout is a general lifestyle challenge today – when I speak to these people, Dan, one of the things I say to them is, “This challenge that you’re experiencing feels like a physical challenge, but it’s actually part of your personality challenge.”
They always look at me with a little bit of horror because they think I’m saying something bad. It’s not a criticism. It’s simply that people that are more stress-sensitive and more vigilant in the world generally are people that are more perfectionistic, people that are more driven, people that are maybe more ambitious. These are not relaxed people that sit around all day and wait for things to happen. These are generally people that go out and make things happen.
When they continue to push themselves and don’t listen to their body’s signals, what happens over time is that that whole SNS/PNS balance becomes completely wonky, and they can no longer get back to that balance. What most of them do is they try even harder with all sorts of therapies and different approaches because that’s part of their personality to do that. They actually exacerbate the problem because of a psychological component that now is influencing the physical, cognitive, and neurobiology of the whole process.
You know, I’m not an expert in fibromyalgia or CFS in any way, shape, or form, but there is research to show that there definitely is a personality or psychological component in the development of these challenges simply because these are people that often felt they were pushing themselves too far and they were exhausted, but they didn’t step back, and then the body had to move to the next phase which you are the expert in.
That is a long explanation to share with you that we cannot actually separate the stress resiliency from the personality. We have to address both of them at the same time to be able to allow the person to heal properly and also to teach them strategies so that they can allow themselves to heal and not be completely committed and focused on the next thing they’re going to try or the next thing they’re going to do. They need to accept that it’s a process. It was a process that got them to that point.
Delia: The other thing that I think is worth mentioning – which is also a little bit of a tangent – is that, as a society, we haven’t really focused on stress resilience. We focus much more on stress management.
Something bad happens to us, we deal with that one thing, and then we tick it off the box and we wait for everything to calm down and relax again, but life is not like that. I think the last 18-plus months have taught us that a lot of curveballs can come our way. The previous generation probably knew more about stress resilience than we do because they had dealt with huge challenges.
The Depression and World Wars are things that teach you that there’s so much out of your control and you just have to sometimes toughen up. I don’t mean this to say that everybody must ignore how they feel and that that’s not important and that they shouldn’t care about their well-being. That is not what I mean at all. I’m saying that there’s a level of mental resilience that we are not cultivating in our society anymore. I do not know why that is the case.
There are a lot of theories about why that is the case. I’ve done quite a bit of reading on what the reasons are behind that. But that – coupled with the cost of ongoing stress, coupled with the personality of the person, or the tendencies of the person – creates a little bit of a perfect storm because now we have someone that is hyper focused on a solution or on the challenge they are experiencing.
They are not addressing what brought them to that place. Society is saying, “Well, just be kind to yourself. Just relax. Someone else must do something for you.” When you combine those things, you have a situation where it is actually challenging to solve the problem because we have to tease apart all the variables that led to that space.
That was a long explanation.
Dan: The psychological side of it is key – not just for psychological stress but for physical stress - absolutely. Or stress that perhaps we would say, “It’s not our fault.” This is something I talk to people about a lot.
Something happens to you. Let’s say you have a stressful job. You can say, “Well, look at all the demands placed on me in my work and what my boss is doing. It’s unreasonable.” Everyone is saying, “Yes, that’s unreasonable. It’s stressful, but it’s you who is in that job – choosing to keep engaging in it.” When we start o fall apart, often – like you were saying – we are so focused on fixing it so that we can perform again, when the question is “should we really be doing that in the first place?” It’s a little bit of a merry-go-round, and that’s where the personality comes in.
I think it’s really more than personality. It’s really a cultural problem that we have.
Delia: Yes, absolutely.
Dan: Go to a really hot country, you’ll discover a different culture.
You go to a hot country and people sit around under the tree and don’t feel guilty about it. They feel like this is quite fine.
There’s one more thing that I want to address which I think also speaks to this capacity for stress resilience. It’s stress sensitivity due to adverse childhood event. I didn’t really understand this in as much detail as I now do, but one of the experiments that comes to mind is an experiment that World War II afforded us. It was just a natural experiment.
Decades later, researchers went and had a look at the children who were now elderly adults who had been separated from their caregivers. They saw a fascinating difference between the ones who had been separated and the ones who hadn’t.
The separated now-adult had much higher cortisol levels than the ones who hadn’t been separated. That was across a lifetime that happened. It wasn’t as if the cortisol went down after the separation and after the severe stress. The cortisol level stayed high across the lifetime, and they were higher for women versus men which was interesting, and which I spoke to in my thesis.
That is something else that makes people sensitive to stress – when they’ve had events in their childhood that have led them to become hypervigilant – because the amygdala actually grows bigger in the case of being in that kind of situation where their physical survival was threatened, or they perceived their physical survival was threatened. The amygdala never goes smaller. It will stay at that size because the brain says, basically, “You know, you were in this very vigilant situation, so let’s just keep on letting you be vigilant.” This is why people that have had those challenges find themselves in circumstances where other people seem to cope perfectly, but the stress level for them is just too much.
Ironically, a lot of people that had adverse childhood events go and choose situations that put them under extreme stress. This is one of the things that researchers are not entirely sure why that happens. Maybe they go into that circumstance because they recognise it, and they feel comfortable in a high-stress environment. Maybe they’re just not very good at picking up their own cues of what they can cope with. There are a number of variables for why that may happen, but the fact that it does happen is an important thing to keep in mind.
Dan: Some people would suggest that, when we are faced with challenges in early childhood, and these challenges are unresolved – whether they be a dynamic with a parent or a different situation – that we seek a similar experience subconsciously in our adult life to try and resolve that negative experience. I can’t help but wonder if that is part of the driving force behind this perpetuation of self-stressful experiences.
Delia: Absolutely. That may definitely be part of it, but because it’s subconscious. It’s very difficult to ascertain what that is. Also, self-report measures are not always reliable.
I like natural experiments because it shows truly that there was a biological leftover from that experience that didn’t disappear. These people lived with it for the rest of their lives. That, for me, was very sobering because it meant that – no matter what they did, and no matter how their lives turned out – their body basically said, “Look, this is the situation – during those developmental periods – and we’re going to keep you in that state.”
It can be of solace in a way because you now know that you are stress-sensitive, so you can learn to make better decisions and function better in an environment and then go to therapy with somebody who understands how to help you work through that challenge.
Even if you no longer feel that challenge, you know, the body keeps the score, as Bessel van der Kolk says. When that’s the case, even if you don’t remember it, it’s still there deep within your cells, so you can still work your way through that. I think that should give us hope.
Dan: Yes, absolutely.
I’ve seen people make inspiring recoveries from periods of childhood adverse events and a lifetime of adverse events and what the human spirit can overcome. It’s truly – dare I say – almost unimaginable. The longer I do this work, the more I see that.
What is the distinction here in term of developing resilience? What really is resilience? How can we cultivate this?
Delia: This is a good question. I’m actually just working on a post for LinkedIn at the moment with the definition of resilience that engineers give, and neuroscientists use, and environmental scientists use.
Resilience is actually defined as a state of being or a state of a system or a structure being where it can withstand negative events and still maintain functionality. That’s just the broad umbrella. It needs to be able to allow the system to continue and absorb the shock or absorb the negativity that happened and still function.
Engineers want the bridge to stay standing and function even though there may be some cracks. Environmental scientists want the ecosystem to be maintained and not collapse despite what has happened. Neuroscientists say it’s the capacity to absorb bad things that have happened in your life and allow you to move forward across a lifespan. Those are all commonalities to this resilience – the capacity to absorb the negative event and move forward, allowing the system to stay functional.
If we look at that, we can understand that, in our society at the moment – when people speak about having undergone stress in COVID and feeling like their mental health has been compromised and they have no energy – we can see that the understanding of resilience is different because some people are just switched off completely. They’ve just given up. They’re just going through the motions of their life. That means that the system hasn’t stayed robust. There has been an assault or insult, and so the system has broken down.
My aim is to try and teach people to be resilient regardless.
COVID was a left ball out of where? Nobody ever saw it coming. Needless to say, we need to be prepared for those kinds of events in our life because, if we’re not, the system is going to collapse, and we need to maintain the functioning of the system.
Dan: What do you think are the mechanisms at heart that allow us to be resilient? Is it acceptance? Is it the recognition of an imperfect situation and being okay with it? What is it that allows us to be resilient?
Delia: It’s a combination of those things.
It’s a combination of understanding what a human being is and the complexity of the society that we have all collaborated to create. It’s a situation of saying to ourselves, “Look, people survived the World War. People survived concentration camps. People survived the worst circumstances in the world because the human spirit is strong. It is capable of doing that.” Then, you look at other people and you compare. That allows you to draw on reserves within yourself that you didn’t know you had.
When you speak to people who have survived traumatic events and experiences, they will tell you, they didn’t know how they were going to get through it. One of the ways they get through it is to put one foot in front of the other. They don’t anticipate a hundred steps coming. They anticipate the next one.
Living in the moment is very much a part of that. Mindfulness comes into that discussion. But there is a psychological perspective that people need to take onboard. There’s a book that I think you’ll enjoy reading, Dan. It’s called “The Coddling of the American Mind.” It’s by an author called Jonathan Haidt. He’s got a co-author as well.
It is the most amazing book because it speaks to the fact that the current generation is a generation of people who want tablets to fix their anxiety and their depression. They want safe spaces if someone says something that offends them. They want to always feel like they’re good. They want to feel always that “I’m doing well. I’m fine.” Any thought that disturbs them, any emotion that they have, they want to obliterate. That, to me, was a very interesting book to read because it pointed to what I was seeing in society and what I was listening to when I heard people speak.
You know, people will talk to me about self-compassion and stress resilience in the same sentence. I say,
“Look, we need to separate those two because they’re two separate concepts. Let’s see how we can bring them into play, understanding what true resilience is.”
True resilience isn’t sitting back and saying, “Well, you know, the situation is terrible.” What you said – acceptance. Absorbing the challenge like a bridge would absorb it, and then saying, “What do I do going forward?” The mindfulness – one step after the other.
Then, of course, making sure that you have enough nutrients to make both adrenaline and serotonin because it’s all very fine to have this mindset going forward, but if you don’t have the neurophysiology to support you on that, you will end up losing your willpower and your motivation. We need to support it on both fronts. We can’t just have one angle. We have to have both.
That’s when we say, “Under these particular circumstances, these nutrients – on top of your diet – may be really good.” That’s what I spoke to earlier. Doing blood tests. We’re doing everything we can, yes. We’ve got the right mindset. We’re looking at the right people. We’re following the right things. But – hold on a second – there may be something missing. What is that?
Dan: Absolutely. That makes so much sense.
You can see why one of the first things many cults do when they get you into the compound is put you on a low-protein diet. It makes it much easier to mould your mind.
Delia: Absolutely. It’s also like (30:19 unclear) isn’t it? Make it in bulk and feed it to you like the cows.
Dan: In light of our conversation where we’ll go towards nutrition and the production of neurotransmitters and hormones, I’d like to talk a little bit more about what is the mechanism in the body to deal with stress. Obviously, we talk about the adrenal hormones and the importance for the body to be able to produce adrenal hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and so on, and/or to be able to physiologically respond to stress.
Over time, some people experience what is often described in complementary health as adrenal fatigue. Some people might call it adrenal insufficiency. We all see there’s a problem – although sometimes I question whether it’s a problem or actually a solution, but that’s probably not a confession – but the thing about it is we understand how these hormones affect the body in terms of our immune function, in terms of healing, inflammation, and also energy production and metabolism of sugars and all of this type of thing.
But when we talk about adrenaline in the brain, it doesn’t come from our adrenals. Adrenaline in the brain comes from the medulla oblongata. It’s produced locally. As I understand, it doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier. What is going on?
Is it that there is an insufficiency of adrenaline in the brain when people can’t bear the psychological stress or when they have none of that resilience? Because the resilience I’m talking about is not really a psychological phenomenon anymore. When it gets really, really bad, it’s a very real neurological dysfunction. It’s no longer involving anything psychological when it gets to that extent.
Is it an insufficiency in adrenal and cortisol in the brain? What exactly is going on there?
Delia: It’s a good question. I don’t think we actually know what’s going on.
But if you look at the behaviour of people who are used to a lot of stress, they often choose environments that will once again induce that stress. Let’s talk about mountain climbers, people that jump off mountains with paragliders. It may be that the brain gets used to a certain level of adrenaline. Without that level, it now feels it needs to go and be involved in a situation that will let that level rise again.
That’s a good question. I don’t think we have an answer to that yet. I think it’s just a matter of observing how different people behave. It also may be that certain people have maybe more adrenaline receptors or cortisol receptors in their brain than others, and so there’s a need to fill those.
I’ll give you an interesting example between the male and female brain, but it’s not from human brain cells. It’s from rodents. These really smart researchers decided to look and see the difference between the male and female brain when they were exposed to high levels of cortisol. They found that, in the rat male brain, when levels of cortisol were really high, those receptors jumped back into the cell. They didn’t make themselves available. They jumped back in. It’s basically the cortisol swept past them. In the female rat brain, those cortisol receptors stayed open. The brain then hooked onto them. Obviously, the resulting experience happened from that.
They couldn’t understand how that happened and why that was the case. There may be some mechanism that we don’t understand that is at play between the male and the female brain. We obviously find it hard to do ethical research on male and female humans, so we can’t really extrapolate that to the Nth degree, but we are led to believe that it’s similar functioning because of the role that women play in their offspring.
I don’t have an answer for that, Dan. It may just be that the brain gets used to that particular level of adrenaline and cortisol synthesis and then it wants to maintain that. I think that that does speak to the adverse child event and the cortisol level in the World War II adults. It may speak to that as well. It just got used to that level. Maybe it didn’t have anything to do with the amygdala. Maybe it was something else in the organism.
Dan: It’s interesting. It’s great to have the conversation because, obviously, one thinks, “Is it on the level of neurons firing? Or is it on the level of neurotransmitters and hormones?” Obviously, it may simply be that, when we cannot tolerate stress, it is simply a protective mechanism shutting the brain down.
One of the interesting things I’ve come to note – probably in more recent times in my own research – is the experience of adrenal hormones on cognitive function. Along with the inability to tolerate stress comes this brain fog. You might even go so far as to say, “Well, what is it that we say when we have this experience when you just can’t tolerate anything?” Well, it’s like there’s this shutdown in the brain. It’s probably not that different than brain fog.
What do you think is happening when people are experiencing brain fog?
Delia: Good question. I think that it’s a combination of things.
As an organism, and as a brain, I often think of us as brains just with bodies, and that’s not true because I know we have embodied cognition, but if you just think about this brain that is operating in the world, it gets input – from both what’s going on in the body, and it gets input from the environment.
If there’s too much input from either of those two areas or a combination of those areas, it’s very likely that the brain just says, “No, I’ve had enough now. I can only cope with this much input. And so, whatever else is happening is just too much.” That leads to the people feeling a sense of overwhelm. “I can’t cope.”
I have had a similar experience. If you know you’re going to a shopping centre. You’ve got a lot of things on your mind. You’ve got a list. Suddenly, this music is intrusive. You actually just want the music to switch off so that you can focus on your list and focus on what you’re thinking about. I think it’s a natural mechanism that the brain has just to say, “Hold on.”
It can only do one thing at a time, especially when it is overwhelmed and exhausted and it’s not able to synthesise neurotransmitters optimally because of a number of other things which we can get to.
I think it’s just basically a safety mechanism. The challenge is, the longer that safety mechanism is in play, unfortunately, the capacity to focus and concentrate will be compromised because now a neural pathway is being established that says, “When there’s so much information, I’m just going to shut down.” That’s a problem because we don’t wat to keep on reinforcing a particular behaviour. The workaround for that is challenging and I’m sure that you’re busy working on solutions for that.
I speak to people about their values which is just the psychology side. If you know what your values are, you become very focused and concentrated on what your priorities are because your priorities are led by your values. Then, people make conscious decisions about what they are going to expose themselves to, especially when they’re in a hypervigilant state. They want to do that. But it may be that, for a period of time, the brain just needs to calm down. It just needs to be allowed to rest.
Dan: It’s interesting you mentioned the shopping story. I remember at the height of my illness – well, during my illness – one Sunday morning, I went to do our shopping. My wife had given me a list. I went to the shopping centre with this list of items. There I was with all the shelves. You know what you’re supposed to do, right?
I literally stood there for what seemed like an eternity. In reality, it was probably about five minutes, but I simply couldn’t make it happen. After five minutes, I’m still standing there. I’m still looking at the list, I’m looking at the shelves, and my trolley is empty. I couldn’t perform the function of getting these items and putting them in the trolley.
I remember I just left my trolley and I walked out. I was actually quite distressed.
Delia: You would be.
Dan: Because it’s quite shocking when we realise that we are mentally disabled. Nobody wants to think of themselves that way. Suddenly, you can’t manage to put peanut butter in a box.
When people talk about acetylcholine as being an important molecule in the brain – for communication, I suppose – but one of the other things I’ve noticed is the impact of adrenal hormones to give us clarity.
Now, I apologise. It seems a little silly that this seems to be a new revelation for me in the last couple of years because, obviously, we know that adrenaline gives you focus. That’s why people jump out of aeroplanes and stuff.
But I’ve noticed that, also, in a therapeutic setting, when people are experiencing mental distress, depression, brain fog, they have a physiological experience in their body that causes an adrenal surge that they can get this great clarity and all these symptoms suddenly fall away – including depression-like symptoms – for a period of time.
I’m like, “Adrenaline? Depression? Serotonin? Acetylcholine? What’s going on here?” It was getting so confusing.
Delia: Look, I’m very glad you added that “for the time being.” It’s not an ongoing thing because they would suddenly get clarity. You know, you can suddenly get clarity when you snort cocaine. It doesn’t mean that you should be doing that all the time either.
Those moments of clarity are interesting because I think, sometimes, what happens in the brain is – and if we could replicate this, it would be fantastic, although a pharmaceutical company would quickly be on the bandwagon, and then we’d be in trouble, but – there’s a confluence of all of these different neurotransmitters. Some of them are excitatory. Some of them are inhibitory. They just come together in this perfect pattern or perfect moment where it provides something that the brain hasn’t had before.
To replicate that would be very hard because you don’t know what the exact input was from the environment, and you don’t know what the precise input was internally. I’d like to find a way to patent that, but I don’t think it’s possible. I think everybody will find their own way through it, and I don’t think that would be a regular occurrence for people because to align all of those different neurotransmitters in that way is challenging.
It’s the same as when people go to church. This may seem like a strange example, but when people go to church, they are firstly expecting a spiritual experience. They go to church. They’re at a heightened state of expectation. They then start singing which produces a specific hormone response in the body and in the brain. Someone then says something that is very motivating. Their autonomic nervous system balances between the SNS and the PNS.
There’s a very interesting mechanism that happens within that moment. They feel a sense of separation from their body and alignment with a spiritual being or something outside of themselves.
Now, a lot of people translate that as an emotion that is proof that there is something outside of ourselves. They will take that emotion and they will carry it for a lifetime because what they felt was completely and absolutely physiologically real, but what they ascribe it to is something different. I think this is what happens in the example that you provided.
I think there’s just this beautiful confluence of these hormones and these neurotransmitters that work together in a unique way. To replicate it is a challenge, but the problem with serotonin, many researchers call it the neurotransmitter that’s everywhere but responsible for nothing. It’s a wonderful neurotransmitter because that’s the truth. It’s involved with appetite regulation. It’s involved with your ability to fall asleep and feel safe because of its melatonin involvement. It’s involved with gut function.
It’s everywhere, but you can’t pin it down. I think what we’re going to discover with many of these other neurotransmitters is we’ve looked at what their first and primary role is because that’s easy to understand. It’s the low-hanging fruit. But, with more research and more investigation, we’re finding out, “Hold on a second.”
For example, with dopamine, we used to think dopamine was the pleasure neurotransmitter. Everyone used to say that. We now know dopamine is very much involved with motivation. If there is movement involved, then dopamine is there. We are becoming more aware of the complexity related to these neurotransmitters and how they function. I love that question you asked, but there isn’t a solution at this point in time that I know of.
Dan: Look, I appreciate your answer.
I think we tend to oversimplify things in neurology. Or people seek to have simplistic answers to talk about serotonin being the happy hormone, this hormone, that neurotransmitter doing this. Actually, it’s a lot more complicated.
Something you said earlier reminded me of my book that I wrote all those years ago where I said it’s not necessarily about just the level of hormones. It’s about the receptors in the brain and how receptive they are. There are also the feedback mechanisms that we have in our bodies. There are obviously countless feedback mechanisms for all our hormones and many neurotransmitters, but not all which opens up Pandora’s box.
Delia: It does because we don’t understand those.
Dan: Yes. Did you want to speak to that at all – about the brain where there are some of these feedback mechanisms and sometimes there isn’t and how that might create problems?
Delia: I think that’s challenging but, yes, to speak to that may be a little too complex, but I want to just go back one step – actually, two steps.
Firstly, you mentioned standing at the shelves and looking at the items and not making sense of it – not computing. One of the things that I think we have about the brain is we believe that it’s the most sophisticated organ in the universe and it’s the most wonderful organ and it can do anything. I think that that’s a myth because it’s not really true.
It is an input-output system. A very sophisticated, very sensitive input-output system that takes input from external and internal, but it does get to a point – like any system – where there’s a malfunction. I think we haven’t spoken to that enough. Mental ill health is part of when the system malfunctions. Something goes wrong. I just wanted to mention that.
The second thing about different brains and how the feedback works and the receptors when they are open or not, that speaks to genes. We know that some people are born with more dopamine receptors than other people. These are probably people that love jumping out of aeroplanes regularly and look for mountaintops. These are not normal people – or should I say people that normally just want to be relaxed and calm.
There’s a genetic component that we also need to speak to which is very challenging to uncover. If you look at childhood, you could then get some idea. If you look at epigenetics, you could get some idea. If you just looked at family history, you would get an idea. That’s the other thing that I think needs to be addressed. I think people can look back at their family and they can ask a question about that.
For us to think that we’re all the same and we all operate the same, on some level, that is true. On some level, we are system-orientated organisms, and there are certain systems that function in a certain way. We know how many of them work and many of them are still a mystery.
On another level, there is a complexity attached. Just as an example, I’m sure you’re very much aware of the MTHFR gene that codes for folate use in the body. Now, if someone is born with polymorphism in any one of those genes that code for that, they are generally born into a family that has the same challenge which is why they have that.
Now, that challenge may have meant that the people in that family have responded to the environment in a particular way. They have learnt how to deal with this challenge that they have which often results in anxiety and depression. The person has a double whammy. They now have the gene which predisposes them to these affective disorders, but they also have the learned behaviour that’s come from the family.
I hear people say, “Well, you know, depression runs in my family.” The first thing I want to say is, “Hey! Let’s go and do a blood test. Let’s see how much we can improve that situation and then learn new neural pathways.” It’s a challenging issue to discuss how to tease all these pieces apart.
As for the feedback mechanisms that we don’t yet understand, they are there. We just haven’t managed to see them in the way we understand how the others work, and that’s the challenge. I don’t know when we’re going to get past that.
Dan: There’s thing whole thing. Is it a hardware issue? Is it a software issue? While there’s a significant industry that talks about a hardware issue in terms of neurotransmitters, I think seeking to fix and resolve levels to change function is not necessarily the way to go because you’re talking about fixing a system that you don’t understand.
Dan: You don’t understand the brain and how it works, and here you are trying to fix it. It makes no sense.
I can see that you’re very much subscribed to the drum that I’ve been beating for close to a decade now – that is to adopt the whole model of the brain and health that we want to support the mechanisms and we want to support the ability to function correctly.
This has to be done on the physical level to allow the body to produce the hormones and neurotransmitters, and then it has to be on a software level, if you like, which is where brain training – whether it be psychological or whether it be physical brain training – comes into play to help us create those changes. Your work of nutrition really comes into that.
It’s very interesting because I see that the demographics within this community also tend to have a strong leaning often to people who perhaps have a restrictive diet. I think that might also be worth talking about.
Before we go into this, I guess I want to talk a little bit about this whole idea of nutrition and being able to affect the body. There’s a lot of people out there who get really into this. They call themselves biohackers and so on.
Dan: Perhaps early on in my journey here, this is something I was seeking and trying to understand exactly what is going on and what happens. Can you drive neurotransmitters? Can you drive your serotonin levels up with nutrition?
Part of me used to think, “Well, if you have the raw materials, then at least it’ll make it easier for my body.” I recognised that the need for these materials is increased when our brain is in a dysfunctional state because we use up more hormones and neurotransmitters, so there is a shortage.
How did you describe it earlier? You said your brain with a body attached. If I were to look at the physics of the brain and the rest of the body, that sounds like a pretty good description because that thing is burning a lot of energy.
Delia: It is. It’s only two percent of body weight and it uses upwards of 20 to 25 and more percent of the energy that we consume. It’s very greedy. It’s the primary survival organ, so it has to be greedy.
Dan: That’s it.
Delia: We can’t get away from that, but I think you answered your own question.
I always smile at the biohackers – you know, these people that are hacking themselves. There are some very famous ones out there who have made a small fortune on biohacking themselves. The only thing that I can say to that is N equals one. You don’t really find a robust research study with one case study.
You have to investigate how most people are going to respond. That’s why observational longitudinal studies have taught us an enormous amount about the general diet that gives the best cognitive outcome which naturally supports the brain and the body. We know that the diet that has been studied the most is the Mediterranean diet and the mind diet which is a subset of the Mediterranean diet where they just focus on a few more nutrients. Those are the studies that I would refer to.
For example, a lot of people are following the ketogenic diet, the paleolithic diet, and the vegan diet which we are going to speak to just now. Nutrients are information. We consume nutrients and they get used in a particular way for a particular function. We can look at it from a very clinical perspective.
If you have a production line and you have something that needs to be at the end of that production line and you don’t have the components that are required as that production line is moving along, the end product is going to be faulty. That’s just the way it works. It doesn’t matter what your opinion is and what your belief is. You are not going to be able to make serotonin if you don’t have enough of the components. It’s the same with adrenaline, cortisol, acetylcholine, dopamine – the whole lot. It needs specific components.
Different people will need more of those components at different times in their lives. For example, when they are very stressed and when the system is under stress for whatever reason. Some people will need more from a genetic perspective than other people will ever need. We have that to take into account. Then, age – does age impact that? Yes, it probably does.
We need to take all of those things into account. For example, the MTHFR gene – people can consume 500 times the amount of folate but they’re still not going to be getting what they need. They rather need activated folate, then they would have to take a specific nutrient for that.
Guess what? Then the production line runs smoothly because now they’re getting a component in the unique form that they need it in. 22 percent of the population has a problem with that. Then, you say to yourself, “Wow! That means 22 percent of the people could be battling with anxiety and depression because of a simple genetic anomaly.” Wouldn’t it be good to just solve that problem? Because then the neural pathway of that particular behaviour isn’t established later on in life.
All of those components speak to the fact that we are definitely all similar in a lot of ways, but the ways that we are unique and different is very important. There’s even some research to show that females suffer from nutrient deficiencies quicker or that nutrient deficiencies are noted more quickly in women than they are in men.
If you look at that from an outside perspective, you’d say, “Now, why would that be the case?” But then, you go, “Oh. Hold on a second. Women are also making hormones. Women respond differently to stress. If that affected their hormone production, that would mean that their hormones would be a bit wonky. That means that serotonin and progesterone and GABA and estrogen would all be affected as well. You go, “That makes perfect sense. We just listen to what the science tells us.”
That’s kind of like an explanation for why we are different, why we are similar, what happens in the brain, what doesn’t happen, why it happens. It is very complex, Dan. I think one of the problems that the human brain has is probably related to metacognition.
You know, the human brain much prefers dichotomy. It prefers up/down, yes/no, black/white, right/wrong. It much prefers that because it uses less energy when something is really simple. That’s one of the problems we have with social media and the world in general today. People want things to be as simple as possible.
A lot of people haven’t been trained in critical thinking which introduces complexity. A lot of people don’t have the neural energy to be able to investigate something and think about it and its complexity because they eat rubbish, so they don’t have the neural capacity.
There are a few reasons behind why people want to simplify everything. Some of them are related to our society. Others are just related to not having neural energy. It’s just not there. I think I went around and about in answering your question.
Dan: I do understand where you’re coming from.
We’re going to touch on nutrients and what we eat in a moment in terms of a sensible all-around diet, but the question I have is can we drive specific neurotransmitters or hormones with specific nutrients? I guess I’m leaning towards the possibility of saying yes because we’ve seen the power of molecular medicine. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Walsh Protocol.
Dan: If I give you a bucketload of B5 every day and you’re eating them like Smarties, you watch what happens to the corner of your lips and your fatty acid metabolism. Something’s going on. It’s not simply that the body just uses whatever it gets.
People with mood disorders who look at supplementing with things like 5-HTP and also for sleep if they can methylate the serotonin for the melatonin, these things seem to have an impact, but they can be such rabbit holes, Delia.
Delia: That’s the problem, Dan.
Dan: I was wondering what you think. Is it worthwhile exploring these? Or do you think having a well-rounded diet is the better option?
Delia: Look, I sit on the fence with this, but not in the sense that I haven’t made my mind up.
I think that there’s nothing to replace the best diet that you can find. There’s nothing to replace that. On top of that, you build in the unique nutrients that you need for your own metabolism, your own life stage, your own energy level, and your own cognitive capacity.
If someone came to me and said they were battling with sleep, I’d say, “Let’s have a look at 5-HTP. Let’s see if it helps you.” For many people, it causes an upset stomach. That’s a problem we want to avoid. Then, we’d say, “We’re not going to try 5-HTP. Let’s try some John’s wort because that actually helps with 5-HTP as well. Let’s try that as a different protocol.”
There are lots of different ways to tweak the system. I think we need to be very clear about the fact that we can do that and that it is possible for some people to benefit. But for people to be living on Macca’s and Coke then swallow 5-HTP to sleep is a big mistake because they don’t have the foundation.
We’re going to speak about nutrition a little bit more, especially about the essential fats because, without the right essential fats, we have a cascade of disaster that goes right from the cell membrane, that goes right from the fat molecule, all the way through the cell membrane, all the way to the synapse.
Dan: I might clarify this first, if I may, Delia. I’m going to clarify this a little bit for people listening.
When you make choices about what you eat, there are all kinds of things. There’s lifestyle. There’s the joy of certain foods. There are ethical reasons, personal reasons, and health reasons. Sometimes, people get these things a little bit confused, I think.
I think it’s important to recognise that these things should be honoured.
Dan: A lot of people are very prescriptive. “You have to eat this. You have to eat that.”
I think there’s always more than one way. Specifically, we’re talking about vegan diets and vegetarian diets. The reason we’re talking about it is because I think we’re about to delve into the importance specifically of fatty acids and proteins for cellular health and for the production of hormones and neurotransmitters as opposed to carbohydrate diets.
These can be lacking. They don’t have to be, but they can be lacking in vegan and vegetarian diets, just like they can be lacking in other diets. It’s about having a good diet – not whether it’s vegan, vegetarian, or something else. I wanted to pre-empt that so that people don’t get offended or concerned about that.
Let’s start with the signs. Let’s start answering what we need. Then, we can say, “Based on your own preferences, how can you build a diet as such?” and we can talk about what we want to eat for our brain to be healthy.
Delia: I need to address the vegan/vegetarian diet.
I agree with you completely in relation to what our ethics are and what we believe we’re contributing to on the planet. There is a tendency, however, for people to follow a very restrictive diet who also have the kind of personality where they want to control things.
When that is part of the whole parcel, sometimes, they can be nutrient deficient but refuse to accept the fact that they are because they want to cling to their ethics very strongly. That’s not a problem because it’s very easy to find out what they’re deficient in. Mostly it’s B12, iron, or zinc.
When we solve those problems, they can happily consume what they need to as long as it does tick a few boxes that are important, but they don’t have to eat animal flesh, so that’s fine. I just wanted to point to the fact that that does often have a psychological component to it.
Interestingly, about 150 years ago in a British hospital, women were presenting with a problem called anorexia hysteria which today we know as anorexia nervosa. There was a very smart – obviously, pioneering – doctor on site. He decided to give all of these women oysters to eat. Oysters are very, very high in zinc and DHA – the most sophisticated essential fat we know about. All of those women walked out of the hospital.
We know that zinc and DHA is extremely important in dealing with people who don’t want to eat anymore. The reason they stop eating and become restrictive is a psychological component, but that psychological component ends up having a physiological response which we can then address and then address the psychological component. I just wanted to mention that because I think it’s important and it speaks to why certain people choose certain diets.
You then have people who are on the paleo diet when that was fashionable. Now, they are on the keto diet because that’s fashionable. These are people that are not finding a solution in any diet. The solution mostly is weight loss, so they pursue that with a passion until the next diet comes up. That’s also a challenge because they could be missing out on certain nutrients.
To get back to your original question, the best diet for the brain that is very well researched is the Mediterranean diet. That includes animal flesh made up of chicken, red meat, and fish. It includes legumes. It includes grains. It includes olive oil. It also includes a wide variety of coloured vegetables and fruit. It basically ticks all the boxes for what the body and brain need.
Some people find that they want to avoid maybe the grains with gluten in them. That’s fine. They can take them out and use another grain like quinoa which isn’t actually a grain. It’s a seed, but they can use that in place of that.
Something else to add to that diet is fermented foods because that supports our gut and that supports optimal digestion of the food and also the health of the digestive lining which then means inflammation is reduced. That’s a bit of another conversation, but adding fermented food is important.
If people want to avoid all animal flesh, they can do that, but they may need to make sure they’re getting enough legumes and grains to provide the right mix of amino acids that we need. Although there is research coming out that says, if we eat a very heavy plant-based diet, you still get enough of the amino acids to make all the neurotransmitters and whatever else you need.
However, I would caution that, if you’re very active and you’re still developing or you haven’t reached your full body physical size, then that may not be the best solution. It may be that you have to keep your protein intake high because you’re still busy developing, but that is something that can also be addressed if someone has strong ethics around eating animal flesh, but that is the most well-researched diet.
That means that there isn’t processed anything added to that. No processed protein powders that have got isolated amino acids which we think could cause a problem from an excitatory perspective because of being the foundation of excitatory neurotransmitters like glutamate. That would be left out of that diet. A good mix of nuts and seeds to give us good fats.
Obviously, that diet contains a lot of fibre which means there will be a lot of prebiotics in the diet to support good probiotic proliferation in our digestive system. That is the most well-researched diet we know about. When we look at the longitudinal studies, we see people that follow that diet from all of the blue zones in the world and the Mediterranean region that was well-researched.
Those people live long and healthy lives. They also walk a lot. They also have really good community and relationships. They also have close family structure. Those are other things that you add on top of the diet. But that’s the foundation.
Obviously, people in those environments could have an MTHFR gene anomaly. Then, it would be better for them to have an activated form of folate. Some of those people could still suffer from an iron deficiency even if they ate a lot of red meat or included it two or three times a week. Those are things that one tweaks in the diet as you go along. But that’s the foundation, Dan.
Dan: Yes, it comes back to eating food.
Delia: Absolutely, yes.
Dan: Here’s the thing. Basically, if your grandparents recognise it, it’s a step in the right direction.
Dan: I guess the point I always make is that the diet that may be okay for a healthy person is very different from the diet for somebody who is suffering from a severe chronic illness where there are all kinds of insufficiencies in terms of our hormones and insufficiencies in terms of our neurotransmitters.
Opening up that vegan question again, if somebody has a vegan diet that’s not rich enough in the proteins and fatty acids, maybe that would still be okay for a healthy person, but when somebody has that additional need, it can become a problem. In fact, there are some people who are coaches in this space who say they won’t work with someone if they’re vegetarian or vegan because their experience has shown them that, until they make that switch to eat more cholesterol and more of these other foods that are required for hormone production, they struggle with their recoveries.
I’m not trying to subscribe to that or necessarily say, “Hey, that’s how it has to be!” because I know that’s not true, but I’d strongly encourage people to eat a diet that is very rich in these foods. My question to you is, if you have a person who is chronically ill like that, and we looked at their plate, what does it look like? What’s on their plate?
I’m not talking about all the different foods and getting all the details. I’m just talking about macronutrients – our main food groups. How much? Half the plate? Three-quarters of the plate? What should be on it? At the risk of oversimplifying something very complicated.
Delia: Well, we have to simplify it because it is really complicated, but let’s say that person isn’t well, so their digestive system isn’t working well either. It really goes together. For them, a lot of raw food may not be the solution. Maybe for them, they would have to have some food that was juiced. They might have a green juice and they’d sip it slowly and they’d make sure that it’s covered in digestive enzymes as they’re swallowing it so that that helps. Maybe they have those two times a day.
When you look at their plate, they would probably have lightly steamed vegetables – colourful vegetables. That could be some broccoli. That could maybe be some sweet potato. Maybe some carrots. These are foods that are not dead. They are not grey from being boiled to death. They have been steamed so that they are easier for the person to chew and easier for the digestive system. Maybe they even open up a digestive enzyme over that food to facilitate digestive processes further. That’s something that I often suggest to people when they’re really battling.
Whatever the protein is, it needs to be as close to nature as possible. Whatever the protein is, it needs to be as close to nature as possible. We’ll discuss fish in a moment, but whether it’s a piece of red meat or it’s some lentils, I would prefer the lentils in the real form – not in a burger that comes from a packet in the store.
Dan: Sorry to roll my eyes.
Delia: Yes, I saw your eye roll.
We don’t want that. It’s highly processed. Even though it’s good for vegetarians and vegans, we want those lentils as close to nature as possible.
Then, always good fats with that food. It doesn’t just help digestion. It also increases the flavour of the food because flavour molecules disperse optimally in fat versus water. One of the reasons that the low-fat diet failed so abysmally is they had to keep on adding additives to the cardboard-tasting food because there was no fat. That’s what the plate would look like.
It would be colourful. It would be nutrient-dense. It would have good fats. If someone wanted to add some butter, they could, or some olive oil, or some other essential fats, yes, but not just a focus on saturated fats or monounsaturated fats because the body can make them from carbohydrates.
If the person isn’t well, maybe there would be a breakdown in that process, then you would add them, but you also have to have essential fats. People can also add some spices – something like curcumin or some herbs which can be useful.
That is basically an example of a plate of food. People that are not well and just want to live on salads are not going to get the best solution because the nutrient density from that salad isn’t available.
Dan: You’re going to starve to death.
Delia: They will starve to death, absolutely.
Dan: And they’ll look like they’re starving to death.
Delia: And they’ll look like they’re starving to death. They don’t look healthy. This is where someone’s idealistic perspective – maybe their perfectionistic tendencies or maybe their obsessive tendencies – can lead them down a path of really bad, bad health.
If someone was in that situation and they didn’t want to change, I would suggest to them specific nutrients – one of which would be zinc because zinc is involved in tastebud regulation and it’s also involved, as you well know, in serotonin synthesis. A deficiency in zinc is also very noticeable in people who have eating disorders because, without enough zinc, there’s body dysmorphia, there’s a sense of bloating, there’s a sense of digestive discomfort, and a lack of taste. Then, I would say, “Let’s start you on a zinc supplement and see how you feel.”
In time, that person may start thinking differently because now they’ve got zinc for all the different components that it’s involved in. Also, they go, “Ah! Food actually tastes quite good.” Then, you can have the discussion of what to introduce. If they’re not prepared to introduce anything else, unfortunately, the end result won’t be a positive one because we’re a system that needs these nutrients. Without these nutrients, we’re going to end up with a problem.
The real challenge comes. This is where I get concerned about social media and its influence. A lot of young girls are following influencers who focus on maybe a vegan and vegetarian diet. They’re telling them, “I know. You can get B12 from mushrooms. Just lie in the sun and you’ll get enough Vitamin D.” They’re giving them information which is not based on knowledge and evidence, so maybe of these young girls are becoming iron deficient.
When you become iron deficient, your body cannot make myelin optimally. Now, we’re talking about a developing brain. If a developing brain cannot make myelin efficiently, that means that the neuron and its development is curtailed. You don’t get those windows of opportunity back.
It’s not like you can get to 55 and say, “Wow! I was a foolish teenager. I want to go back to that cognitive window of development.” It doesn’t happen that way. That is now going to be a compromised brain for a lifetime. That I find very concerning – when a very compromised diet like a vegan diet hasn’t taken the science into account at specific periods of development. I just wanted to mention that because I see a lot of young girls trying to follow that path. You know, an undeveloped brain listening to a big influencer doesn’t take into account the science. I think that is a huge challenge.
I’ve had mothers phone me really upset saying, “You have to talk to my daughter. She will only eat raw foods and nothing from an animal.” That’s sobering.
Dan: Yes, it’s scary.
When we’re talking about the science of things, sometimes we just need to look at very basic, colourful content – vegetables. Non-starchy vegetables and salads? You might as well be drinking water. There are no calories in that. You would have to eat so much to get the appropriate calories. It’s impossible. You’d be chewing all day like a cow. That’s why cows chew all day.
Obviously, starchy foods and carbs play a role.
Rule of thumb. If I say protein food, carb food, and vegetable or salad foods, what do you reckon is a good proportion? I’d say probably a quarter of the plate dedicated to protein. Maybe a little bit less. But that, once again, does depend on age and energy level. If you have somebody who is 23 years old and is going to the gym four or five times a week, he is going to want more protein, especially if he knows that protein powders aren’t ideal for health. He’ll have some more. If you’re an elderly person, you probably won’t have as much.
Carbs? We all need for energy. Starchy ones? Fine – if you’ve got a lot of energy that you’re expending every day. You’re not going to have a whole lot of carbs if you’re not very physically active because then you’re just going to store them on your body. As far as the lettuces and the tomatoes and the cucumbers go, you can have as much of that as you enjoy and that fills you up after you’ve had the others, but don’t rely on that. You can have nuts and seeds on top of that. That adds more nutrient density. That adds more variety and more fats.
When I look at a plate, I’ve got a meal checklist. On that checklist, I give the amounts – the quantities that people should look at when they’re looking at their food. And then, I say, “You add pesto. You add in nuts and seeds. You add some spices. You add it to the whole mix then you get a nutrient dense meal.” But obviously, if someone is putting on weight, they’re eating too many starchy carbs. If they’re losing weight, they’re not eating enough food overall.
We have to become our own investigators in our little way. There’s not one particular option that’s going to suit every single person – although my checklist does take into account that we’re different – but you should be ticking all the boxes just to a degree. The amount or the percentage is where you have to just use your own wisdom, if I can use that word.
Dan: I think it’s really important to be practical. It’s so easy to get carried away in the details and be like, “Oh, my god, I don’t know what to do.” That’s why I talk about these overarching things of what to eat. People always focus on what they don’t eat which really can be quite distressing and quite unhealthy because then you do eat them because you’re focusing on them and then you feel bad about yourself.
I think the shift should always be about what you should eat.
At the end of the day, you mentioned the Mediterranean diet – you know, you should eat food. I think the issue around the vegetarian and vegan diet is the amount of nutrients that are involved for healthy brain function and the levels that we need when we are in a state of dysfunction. I would suggest we need much more protein and much more fats than a normal healthy person and getting that from a diet that is restrictive – or a diet that is full of junk food, if it’s non-restrictive – is very, very difficult.
I noticed when I looked at your book here, the first recipe that you have in your book was for breakfast – the breakfast cereal. We’re talking about quinoa, sunflower seeds, walnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts. All of these are really great sources – especially if someone is vegetarian or vegan – to try and increase those fats, to get some proteins with things like the quinoa and some other grains. But I just want to point out that, even with the best diet, when you are restrictive, it’s still a challenge.
One of the important nutrients I would imagine would be linoleic acid which we get from butter. Hopefully I’m not saying something incorrect here. This is stretching my memory a little bit. But again, where do we get such a thing from a vegetarian diet? Is it possible?
Delia: It is a challenge, but just to give you an example, my fat and oil lecture takes 3.5 hours. You’re right to say it is a complex conversation. Saturated fat which we find in butter, and monounsaturated fat which we find in olive oil, the body happily makes those saturated fats from carbs, but they’re not essential which is why polyunsaturated fats are called essential.
But what’s in butter, for example, is something like Vitamin K – which is hard to find in other foods – so you would have to track down Vitamin K in another form if you don’t want to eat any butter. That’s a case in point of limiting the animal product.
I think what you’re saying is spot on. However, if someone has been following a restrictive diet for a period of time – for example, not eating any flesh – when they do eat flesh, they’re going to have a problem with their digestive system because they now have lost the capacity to digest complex protein adequately.
Then, I say to them, “We’re going to take a digestive enzyme. You’re going to open it and you’re going to put it on every single meal you eat because that’s going to help you digest that animal protein.” Then, we are going to look at transit time which no one is excited to talk about, but which is very important. We need to see how long it takes that food to move through your digestive tract. If it’s moving too fast, you’re not absorbing nutrients optimally. If it’s moving too slowly, it starts putrefying which is another problem.
Those are other challenges that have to be addressed when people change their diet drastically. People that have been eating a lot of flesh and suddenly start eating more fibre go, “Wow! Now I go to the toilet more often!” Yes, you do because that food is moving through your body at a different pace.
One of the things that a lot of people say to me when they look at my books is, “Oh! You support a vegan diet for the brain because my books are entirely vegan and gluten-free.” I say, “No, it doesn’t mean I support a vegan diet for the brain. Most people need to know how to make vegetables taste good because it’s not that hard to make a steak taste good. Most people know how to do that.”
I focus on plant forms of protein, but I do speak to what can be missing in my second book. I say to people, “Look, there’s a reason that, in traditional diets, it was always lentils and rice. In traditional vegan or vegetarian diets, you always have your corn with something else so that you had the right mix of amino acids. You’re not going to have one alone – not that we have to combine them at each meal which is what we previously used to think – but we need to have them in our diet generally to be able to get a full complement of amino acids.”
But what you said is 100 percent right. If a person is not well, their health is very compromised, they would need to look at their diet very carefully and increase certain aspects of that. The protein and fat would definitely be part of that discussion.
Dan: It can just all be very daunting. Like I said, I think forcing yourself to eat meat or animal flesh – if you have a very strong aversion to it – can create problems in its own. We are seeking to, of course, be in a low-stress environment and to recover. And so, these are not easy choices.
But if you are going to go down the road, if you want to maintain that, then I guess my message is you better know what you’re doing because this stuff is really, really complicated.
One of the reasons I don’t speak so much about diet is that, even though I’m a nerd, I look at diet and I just go, “You know what? This is more complicated than people always make it out to be.” Whenever you go on a restrictive diet, I think it becomes much more so.
My advice is to always eat all the different foods and eat more protein and fats than perhaps you have been used to because we have all been conditioned to eat a lot of carbohydrates that are very low in nutrients. For people who want to stay with the vegetarian diet, I would urge them to check out your book so that they can get some resources and some planning on how to make this happen because I know people have done it. I know people have recovered using a vegan diet, but they were really on top of it, and – I’ll tell you – nuts and seeds were everywhere.
You can’t ignore them. They are very nutrient dense. They contain a lot of very valuable nutrients.
Dan, you’re spot on. I think you have to be on it. That’s what I say to people. If you want to pursue this path, you have to be vigilant. You have to be going to have your bloods done every three months. You can’t be saying, “I’ll be all right.” You cannot do that. This is something that is like a research project on yourself. You are watching the levels.
You are seeing, “What is my energy like today? What did I eat yesterday?” You have this chart. We go through this chart together. If you don’t do that, you’re not going to end up with a good result, and that’s just for an ordinary person. For a person who’s not well – and that’s generally the people that approach us – you have to be extra vigilant.
Yes, spot on.
Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom. I love how you focus on the science and the details, but you like being practical about it all. I think this is really, really important for people because you can get so bogged down that you end up not eating anything.
Delia: Yes. Or eating the wrong things just because you get so frustrated that you say it’s all rubbish. It is complex because doing nutritional research is hugely complex because, for every single person, how do you control for all the different variables? It’s like Pandora’s box. But from what we know, what I’ve told you today, the evidence supports that.
I would suggest that people forget about the N equals one. When they listen to this person that says, “I biohacked this and I did this.” Forget about that because that’s one person. He’s an individual or she’s an individual. Follow the science and you will find that you will have a very good outcome.
Dan: On that note, Delia, thank you so much again for sharing everything today. I will put the appropriate links so people can find your wonderful resources.
Delia: Thank you very much, Dan. I sincerely enjoyed chatting to you. It was good to have a bit of a deep dive.
Dan: Fantastic. I encourage everyone to check out your books. Your second book is primarily a recipe book. Is that correct?
Delia: Yes, I took the science and I said, “Let’s convert the science into recipes that people can use in their kitchen.” It is a vegan and gluten-free book, but it’s not because that’s what I’m promoting. I just want people to understand they can get a lot of variety from that kind of food and how to make it taste good. One of the ways is with lots and lots of good fats.
Dan: Yes, I guess the idea was really – for the people who are having those sort of diets – that they are doing it as well as possible because their need to be vigilant is much higher, isn’t it?
Delia: Absolutely, and they need to be vigilant about the right things because it’s no good just being vigilant to avoid something. You need to be vigilant about what you should be including as which is what you pointed out earlier.
Delia, I loved talking with you today. Thank you very much for coming to Wisdom from the Other Side.
Delia: It’s an absolute pleasure. Thank you, Dan. Enjoy the rest of your day on the same continent!
Dan: Yes! Thank you!
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