Dr. Christopher Palmer on Is Mental Illness a Metabolic Disorder of the Brain?

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Katie: Hello, and welcome to the Wellness Mama Podcast. I’m Katie from wellnessmama.com, and this episode is all about mental health, and especially, is mental health a metabolic disorder of the brain. It’s a very fascinating episode whether you have a particular mental health focus or not. But I really learned a lot in this one, and I think it parallels a lot of things that we’ve been talking about for years that other guests have said as well.

I’m here with Dr. Christopher Palmer, who is a Harvard psychiatrist and researcher who is working at the interface of metabolism and mental health, and I personally find his work very compelling. He is the Director of the Department of Post Graduate and Continuing Education at MacLean Hospital and Assistant Professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. And you’ll hear his interesting story of how he almost dropped out of high school and then has now been working at Harvard as a professor of psychiatry for over 20 years. And for the past 25 years, he has held administrative, educational, research and clinical roles in psychiatry at Harvard. And he has been pioneering the use of medical ketogenic diet in the treatment of psychiatric disorders, conducting research in this area, treating patients directly, and then writing and speaking around the world on this topic.

And more recently, he has proposed a comprehensive theory of what causes mental illness, integrating existing theories and research into one unifying theory, which he calls the Brain Energy Theory of Mental Illness. And we go deep on this today. Like I said, he is a leading researcher in this area. He’s extremely well educated, but he also has a lot of direct personal and clinical experience here. And he talks about the metabolic link of mental health and why a lot of the existing treatments are not taking this into account and potentially doing people a huge disservice.

And he talks about how when the brain is malfunctioning, the only way to understand this is to understand metabolism and how mitochondria come into play. He also talks about things like, of course, trauma and stress, light, sleep, nutrition, all the things that we’ve talked about. But he puts a very specific focus on the metabolic mental health side. And I feel like he’s one of the few voices that’s really explaining this well and talking about it at a large scale. I will link to more resources in the show notes if you want to find them, but he is definitely a wealth of knowledge, and I hope you will learn as much from this episode as I did. Without any further ado, let’s join Dr. Palmer. Chris, welcome. Thanks for being here.

Christopher: Thank you, Katie, for having me on.

Katie: Well, I am excited to learn from you today. And before we get to jump into mental health, I also have to hear a story because I have in your bio that you almost dropped out of high school and then ended up being a Harvard professor. And I just have to hear this story.

Christopher: Oh, it’s a long one, but the quick version, the very abbreviated version, is that I actually suffered from mental illness when I was even a little kid. I had OCD when I was a teenager. Some horrible stuff happened with family, my mother developed, became a chronic psychotic disorder. It started as depression with psychotic features, and that led to a horrible divorce. I have seven brothers and sisters, but I left them to go live with her for a while, hoping to protect her or save her because she was suicidal, depressed, psychotic, impoverished, probably going to die. She and I ended up homeless for a while together. At some point, she made me go back and live with my dad. I left high school early. That’s when I was almost going to drop out of high school. I was doing horribly in high school.

And somehow or another, through lots of reasons, by the time I got to college, started pulling myself out of all of that mess, started slowly but surely getting better, but was doing extraordinarily well academically because I kind of had to work my butt off to save money to go to school. I wasn’t getting any financial aid, wasn’t getting any help from my parents, and again, I’d left home before I even finished high school. So I kind of figured if I’m going to work this hard to go to school, I’d better, like, get straight A’s. And so, got straight A’s, ended up in med school, did extraordinarily well in medical school, Harvard, didn’t look at my high school transcript, so they let me in. And I’ve been there for over 27 years now.

Katie: Wow, that truly is an incredible story. And you also are an expert in the field of mental health, and I got to delve into some of your work in preparation for this interview. And I’m so fascinated. I’d love to start really broad because I think your approach might be a new concept for a lot of people listening, but maybe just walk us through the background of some of the problems we’re seeing right now and the way we think about mental health.

Christopher: So on the surface, most people know mental health. Mental illness is a growing crisis in the world today. So mental disorders are on the rise, and it’s really across the board. It’s not just depression and anxiety, but yes, depression and anxiety. It’s also ADHD. Autism spectrum disorders, those rates have tripled in 20 years. Bipolar disorder, those rates are going through the roof, doubling in adults and skyrocketing exponentially in youth. And so we’re seeing across the board increases in mental illness. And the sad reality is that although our current treatments absolutely do work for some people psychotherapy, medications, electroconvulsive therapy, ketamine injections we’ve got so many treatments. There’s no doubt that these treatments save people’s lives. These treatments work for a lot of people.

The sad reality is that for more than 50% of people who seek treatment for a mental health condition, more than 50% end up with a chronic mental disorder, meaning that their depression might get better with an antidepressant. But then at some point a year or two into the treatment, the depression comes back and they have to switch pills or they have to increase the dose or something.

People with bipolar and schizophrenia have lifelong chronic disorders. Symptoms are always coming and going, even when they take their pills every day. People with substance abuse disorders, they often end up with chronic disorders that are very difficult to treat. And the sad reality is that mental disorders are now the leading cause of disability on the planet. And although on the surface, most people think, well, we know so much about these mental disorders, schizophrenia is definitely different than bipolar, and that’s definitely different than depression, and that’s different than anorexia nervosa.

The shocking thing to a lot of people is that our diagnoses, those diagnoses that I just mentioned schizophrenia, depression, bipolar, anorexia, they’re actually not as different as most people probably realize. And there’s an overwhelming amount of scientific literature, clinical evidence, epidemiological evidence, even basic science evidence, neuroimaging evidence that these disorders are not as distinct as we think they are. And a lot of people, although that sounds shocking or maybe radical or maybe crazy, the National Institutes of Health actually abandoned our diagnostic labels over ten years ago because they recognized we’re not making progress in the mental health field because these labels don’t really mean anything. They tell us about symptoms, but they don’t really tell us about the underlying disorders.

Katie: That’s fascinating. And my background is more in the nutrition side of health, and it seems like we’re seeing these rise, especially in chronic related diseases across the board. I mean, it’s no secret that we’re seeing this in obesity and diabetes and heart disease and cancer as well. And what I find really fascinating about this, I would love to hear sort of how you got to this metabolic approach and some of the core pieces of that. Because I have heard similar things from, for instance, cancer doctors and leading cardiologists. And it seems like maybe there’s a common thread here that we’re ignoring, and maybe it’s doing a disservice to a lot of people in the process.

Christopher: Absolutely. So to cut to the chase and say the sound bite that you hinted at is I’m exactly saying that it is not a coincidence at all. That is, the rates of diabetes, obesity are skyrocketing. It is not a coincidence that the rates of mental disorders are also skyrocketing. And this is really important information. These are really important clues can enable us to be more effective in our treatment and possibly even prevention strategies for serious mental illness.

I’ll give you the quick version of how I got to this. So the quick version is that I mentioned that I had my own mental health history over 30 years ago now. When I was in my 20s I was diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, and year after year, I kept being cold, like diet and exercise. You need to do something about this. I was doing everything supposedly right. I was on a super low fat diet. I was exercising. Nothing was working. And I ended up trying the Atkins diet, of all things, in a desperate, last ditch attempt, tried to improve my metabolic health before I went on medications. And lo and behold, it completely reversed all of my metabolic syndrome.

So I got rid of my metabolic syndrome, which was my goal, but I noticed dramatic improvements in my mood, energy, concentration, and sleep. And so I start recommending this to friends and family. They, too, are noticing changes. Within a few years, I start using this in patients with fear resistant depression, personality disorders, and other disorders, and some of them are getting dramatically better with a change in diet. The thing that completely upended everything was when I helped one of my patients with schizoaffective disorder, a cross between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I simply wanted to help them lose weight. And we decided, for a variety of reasons, to try the Ketogenic diet. Even though I’d been using this for 20 years in patients with depression, I had no expectation this was going to help him because he’s got schizophrenia, and that’s not at all the same thing as depression. And within a couple of months, his symptoms of schizophrenia began melting away. His chronic hallucinations that were tormenting him started going away. His paranoid delusions started going away.

That man went on to lose 160 pounds and kept it off to this day, was able to move out of his father’s home for a period of time, was able to perform improv in front of live audience, was able to do things he had not been able to do. And that made me go on a search, because that made me start to question what is schizophrenia? Can we make schizophrenia better even in one person? What could this tell us about the cause of schizophrenia? Fast forward to today. I have now used this treatment in dozens of patients. I’m aware of well more than 100 patients who have put their chronic debilitating bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, chronic depression into remission using dietary strategies and other lifestyle strategies. And that essentially made me go on this deep scientific journey to try to put this all together.

Katie: Yeah, that’s so fascinating to me, and it seems like it makes sense when you start explaining it like that. I would love to understand a little deeper of what, from your understanding is going on in the body and the brain physiologically that is contributing to that, because it seems like this worked in someone or people with different types of conditions. So this wasn’t specific to just depression or just anxiety. So I’d love to understand, like, physiologically, what is your theory on what’s happening that’s letting this be so effective for these people?

Christopher: At the end of the day, the sound bite conclusion overarching theory is that mental disorders, I’m arguing that mental disorders are metabolic disorders of the brain. And so in the same way that people can have metabolic disorders and develop heart attack or develop diabetes or have obesity, those are all metabolic disorders in the same way that metabolism can affect those things, metabolism can also affect your brain and the way it functions. And what I’m arguing is that in its simplest form, when your brain is malfunctioning, which results in what we call symptoms of mental illness, the only way to understand that malfunction is by understanding metabolism.

And in order to understand metabolism, you have to understand these tiny things in our cells called mitochondria. And once you do a deep dive into the science of that, you can actually start to begin to connect the dots of the mental health field.

So the beautiful thing about this theory is it’s not kind of coming up with something brand new. Instead, it’s putting together over a century hard kind of science. It’s putting all of the science together. So what’s shocking to a lot of people is that we’ve known for over a century that people with mental disorders have metabolic problems in their bodies and brains. All these neuroimaging studies that we’ve been doing, they’re all measuring brain metabolism. That’s what they measure. But we’ve seen all sorts of metabolic abnormalities, oxidative stress, higher levels of inflammation, those kinds of things.

The beautiful thing about this theory is that it also helps us understand, because once you understand mitochondria, you’ll understand that mitochondria actually play a direct role in the production and regulation of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. Mitochondria play a direct role in production and regulation of some really important hormones, including cortisol, estrogen, testosterone and progesterone. Mitochondria play a direct role in inflammation. They play a direct role in gene expression, in cells.

They actually believe it or not, so this is all biology and science also play a direct role in the human stress response. When humans have psychological or physical stress, abuse, trauma, childhood adverse experiences, those people are more likely to not only develop mental disorders, which is not surprising to a lot of people, and it’s not just PTSD. Those people are also more likely to have alcoholism and depression and anxiety disorders and personality disorders and even schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Childhood abuse increases your chances of getting schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. But once you connect all of those dots for the first time ever. We can finally connect the mental health field. We could connect all of the science. We can connect the biological, psychological, and social risk factors of mental illness into one theme.

Obviously, the reason I’m super excited about this is it’s not an abstract, scientific geeky theory, which I can do that. I can make it abstract, scientific, and geeky. But it comes with practical solutions. Like if we change someone’s diet, if we help someone develop an exercise routine, if we help someone manage sleep and stress, if we help someone get meaning and purpose in life, we can actually improve their brain disorders. That is what’s so exciting to me.

Katie: And those things are going to have whole body ripple effects and positive feedback loops as well, like in the over 600 episodes. I’m yet to have any expert argue that exercise is not beneficial to get regular movement, or that sleep is not important, or that hydration and solid nutrition are not important. Like, these are well agreed upon things. But you’re saying there’s also a link to mental health here, which I think is really exciting. And I’m curious if you get pushback, because, for instance, when I had the cancer researcher on who said there’s a metabolic component to cancer, I had pushback from people in the oncology field who said, like, no chemo and radiation. These are well established. And he actually wasn’t saying it’s either or. He was saying, even if you’re going to take the other approach, this can help your body during that process. I would guess there’s probably a similar thing here where even if a person is benefiting from a normal treatment or medication, this will be very complementary. But I would love you to go deeper on that as well.

Christopher: So, first of all, I would say yes. I think if people are using medications or getting psychotherapy or doing AA or getting Ketamine injections, and those things are dramatically improving their lives, I’m not here to stand in your way. I’m not here to try to take those treatments away from anyone. I want people to continue to get access to those treatments. But if you’re still having some lingering symptoms, you got some benefit from those treatments, but you’re still having some lingering symptoms, then yes. Now we can start talking about complementary, alternative enhancing additions to your treatment plan, maybe using some of these metabolic treatments.

But in many cases, the treatments actually aren’t helping people all that much. People with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, even chronic depression, you know, depression is the leading cause of disability on the planet right now. Those people are not getting adequately helped by the pills they’re taking. They can’t work. They can’t function. That’s not okay. That is not adequate. That is not sufficient. And what I’m arguing is that those people might actually be better served with a comprehensive lifestyle metabolic treatment plan.

In terms of your question, am I getting pushed them? It’s really fascinating because again, we have decades and decades of hardcore neuroscience, genetic, clinical research all supporting this. I am simply taking all of that research and putting it together in a more cohesive way. That’s all I’m doing. So in many ways, I’m not getting a lot of pushback because the scientists know, well, you can’t really argue with that. He’s right. It is right there. The huge pushback will come. The billion dollar issue in all of this is that we have medications in psychiatry that cause weight gain, that cause diabetes, that cause premature cardiovascular disease, and that at least in the elderly, even cause premature death. Those are all written right on the package inserts of these medications. So I’m not making that up. I’m not being a conspiracy theorist by saying that we’re right there. The FDA has said these are known side effects. People must be worn.

I outline in the book why those medications can reduce symptoms in the short run. But I also raise a very serious concern that those medications might actually be keeping people chronically ill in the long run, or they might be causing even new symptoms or new disorders. And I think right now I am not popular enough, I’m not famous enough. My theory? Nobody knows about it, really. So right now, I’m not getting too much pushback because I’m nobody. If enough people learn about this, enough people really do the deep dive into the science and understand what I’m really saying, and they do their own research even because if they do their own research, they’re going to find out, oh my God, he’s right. Oh my gosh, that’s alarming. At that point, I do think I will start getting pushback from the pharmaceutical industry and we’ll see what happens.

Katie: Well, and the thing I love about your message, anytime I can work it in, I love to say at the end of the day, we are each our own primary healthcare provider, and we absolutely can and should work with people who can help us in a very specific way. But we’re the ones that control the daily inputs and the habits that actually really correlate, like you said, and the data we know really correlate with longevity and health. And so I love that your approach puts a lot of power, it sounds like back in the hands of the person to actually have something that can affect the outcome. And I can imagine one question we may get is if this stems from a metabolic problem or mitochondrial dysfunction, why does it exhibit in different ways in different people? So why might it turn into these different mental health disorders in different people?

Christopher: It’s an important question. I want to start with some kind of obvious facts that we know about. And so let me use the metabolic disorders of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. It is well accepted in the medical field that those are all metabolic disorders, and yet there are many paths to developing a metabolic disorder. It’s not just diet. It’s not just overeating. It’s not just a lack of exercise. Yes, those are big players. There’s a lot more to obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease than just diet and exercise.

Let me give a clear example. People who smoke cigarette smokers on average weigh less than non-smokers. They weigh less. So it’s no longer where you got to take obesity out of the equation. These are just smokers. But smoking actually poisons your mitochondria. Another way to say that is smoking poisons your metabolism. And what does that mean? It means that, independent of whether you’re obese or not, smoking increases your chances of having a heart attack. Everybody knows that. That’s common sense. Everybody knows. So even if you’re thin and you smoke a lot, you can have a heart attack. That’s a metabolic problem due to mitochondrial poisoning from smoke.

What’s fascinating, and a lot of people probably don’t know is that smokers have double the rate, like two diabetes. Even though they are thinner on average than non-smokers. Smoking appears to be a dramatic, significant risk factor for insulin resistance two diabetes, independent of what the person is eating. Now, when smoking has both nicotine and all these toxins in it, nicotine itself is not the toxin. So nicotine is suppressing appetite. Everybody knows when people stop smoking, that’s when the weight gain comes on. So they’ve poisoned their metabolism, and now it happens.

I did want to say all of those are metabolic disorders. People can have different symptoms. Not all diabetics are having heart attacks. Not all diabetics are even obese. Not all smokers are obese, yet they can be having heart. So you can mix and match. Even among the well established, accepted metabolic disorders, different people can have different symptoms depending on the different risk factors or environmental things that they’re doing. So why would people have different mental disorders? The easiest way to explain it and understand it is the brain is a really complicated organ. Different parts of the brain do different things. If different parts of your brain are metabolically compromised more than others, you’re going to have symptoms emanating from that part of the brain. So if the parts of the brain that control depression are metabolically compromised, you might have chronic, unrelenting depression, or somebody else might have metabolic compromise in the OCD pathways of your brain. Somebody else might have metabolic compromise in the parts of your brain that help you with memory or help you with focus and concentration. And if you have metabolic compromise in those specific brain regions, you’re going to exhibit symptoms of those disorders.

Katie: And are things like Add and ADHD also this under this umbrella? Like, do those things also benefit from a metabolic approach?

Christopher: 100%. So what most people don’t realize is that all of the mental disorder, if you have any one mental disorder, you’re much more likely to develop all the other mental disorders. So people with ADHD are more likely to develop all mental disorders. They’re actually also more likely to develop seizures and epilepsy. They’re more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease when they get older. So people with ADHD have a metabolic brain disorder. It just so happens to be prominent in certain regions, at least at those points in their life. But metabolic disorders tend to spread throughout the body, just like obesity. If you become obese and then you become type two diabetic, at some point your kidneys start failing, your liver might start failing, your nerves might start failing, your eyes might start failing. So metabolic problems spread over time, and the same thing appears to happen in the brain when your brain is metabolically compromised from ADHD, for example, you’re more likely to go on to develop other metabolic brain disorders with ADHD. You’re also more likely to develop obesity and diabetes and heart attacks, and they’re more likely to die early death from metabolic disorders.

Katie – Wow. And you make a very compelling case for why this is such a big factor and probably not talked about nearly enough. And maybe this is the first time for some people listening to hear this, and maybe they’re considering for themselves, like, is this part of what’s going on with me? So I’d love to take some time now and talk about, you mentioned that metabolic approach to treatment, maybe understanding some of the details of what that looks like both in your research and when you’ve worked with people. Like, what are some of the pillars of that metabolic approach?

Christopher: So the pillars are the pillars of good health that you just like you said. So we’re talking about diet. Is there one and only one diet for all humans? No, absolutely not. I’m not going to go there. So I could talk about different dietary strategies for different people in general, themes that I am going to highlight. You already know them. Everyone. No processed foods. Get rid of the processed junk food, especially the highly palatable kind of sort of addictive. If the Advertiser is saying you can’t eat just one, don’t eat any. He says, more than likely you’re going to get into trouble. They really did kind of produce an addictive product, and they know it. They’re advertising, that’s diet.

Exercise is essential to human health. We all know it. Good sleep, good hydration, stress reduction. But psychological and social factors play a huge role in mental health and metabolic health. Loneliness. Loneliness definitely increases risk for depression and lots of other mental disorders, alcoholism, other things. But loneliness also increases risk for heart attacks, obesity and diabetes, and premature mortality. Loneliness, meaning and purpose in life, feeling like you are somebody, you have a reason to exist, all of these things play a role in human health. And at the end of the day, what I’m really talking about is both metabolic and mental health.

There are diseases and illnesses like infections that really are about a different process. Anybody can get COVID, for instance, or anybody can get viral infection, whether you’re metabolically healthy or not. So there are certainly illnesses and diseases and problems that humans have that don’t fall into this group. But what I’m arguing is that anything that we call metabolic, we need to start thinking about mental at the same time.

Katie: That makes sense. And I know very much firsthand, that the diet component is very personalized. Like you said, there’s not necessarily one human diet that’s optimal for all of us. However, are there any commonalities along the ones you see that work best? Because I know we have this tendency right now. People tend to go to the extremes, and there’s the eat no meat, eat only meat, eat low carb, eat no carb, eat only carb. Are there any sort of parts of that that you find are more commonly beneficial to people across the board?

Christopher: The unifying themes that I would probably strongly endorse are avoid processed foods, eat real food. The more you can eat real whole foods, the better. What is a real, whole food? A real whole food is something that you kind of know this grew in the ground, and someone did like it’s a potato or it’s a carrot, and I know where that comes from. Or it’s broccoli or fruit or is an animal source food. I know this milk or cream or butter came from a cow. I know this meat came from a certain animal or a fish or whatever. The more you can eat real whole foods, better.

In terms of getting a lot more specific than that, it’s important that people get appropriate nutrients if you are doing a diet that restricts entire classes of real whole foods. So if you’re doing an all meat diet, you might be at risk for Folate deficiency, for example, or some other types of Vitamin C deficiency or something else. If you are a vegan and you’re eliminating all animal sourced foods, you are going to be at higher risk for deficiencies in Vitamin B-12, omega three fatty acids, maybe protein, choline. So if you’re following a somewhat restrictive diet, and I would include a ketogenic diet in this, I do want people to be mindful about getting appropriate nutrients, maybe even working with a healthcare professional or dietitian on getting screened for nutrient status. And if you’re going to stick with that diet for whatever health reasons you have decided to pursue that diet for ethical reasons or whatever reason you’re doing that diet, I’m not saying you can’t do that diet, but I’m just saying be aware of what consequences that diet is having on your body and try to address those concerns with supplements or whatever.

Katie: Yeah. And I think your advice that just eliminating the processed food is such I would put that in the 80-20 category of that step alone is going to make a big difference in how you feel? I know anecdotally and purely anecdotally. That when I sort of reverse diet and realized I had been undereating for a long time, and I actually started making it a point to get enough micronutrients from a variety of food sources and enough protein and healthy fats. I noticed a difference in my energy and how my brain felt. Like I didn’t have a specific mental health condition I was working on, but I noticed my energy changed. My mental health felt like it really increased.

So I’m curious because I know just at a surface level, there are essential amino acids that we cannot create in our body. There’s essential fatty acids we cannot create in our body. And it seems like those also maybe have a link to neurotransmitters. So if a person is chronically not getting enough of those, can that have an effect as well? Would those be good categories to focus on in a positive way to make sure you’re getting enough of these essential categories?

Christopher: Absolutely. And I think you hit the two key nutrients, probably adequate protein. And what is adequate? Quite honestly, it really is going to depend on the person and their circumstances. It really is. If you are a bodybuilder trying to get massive muscles, you’re going to need a lot more protein than somebody who isn’t. If your child who’s growing, you’re going to need a different amount of protein than a young adult who is no longer growing. You are a woman who is pregnant. You’re going to need a different amount of protein than a non-pregnant woman. Why? Because all of those circumstances represent different phases of human beings needing to grow or thrive in certain ways, and they need different nutrients, specific levels of nutrients. Protein, essential fats are essential.

So I mentioned that I was on the low fat diet, and basically it was toxic for me, and I was obsessive about it. I was trying to be healthy and listening to the advice I was getting from my doctor who said, I’m like how much fat? He’s like, get rid of all the fat in your diet. If you really want to get rid of your high blood pressure, get rid of all the fat in your diet. So stupid of me. I listened to them and I did that, and it was horrible. My blood pressure was skyrocketing. And we’ve now had large, randomized controlled trials. The Mediterranean Diet, we had a randomized controlled trial of that. The one essential ingredient that reduced heart attacks in that very large study, it wasn’t the amount of protein or food, certain vegetables, or getting rid of red meat. It wasn’t any of those things. It was consuming olive oil and or nuts. People who ate more fat in the form of olive oil and nuts at lower rates of heart attacks. A very hard, clear end point.

So there’s no doubt fats are essential to human health. And omega three fatty acids in particular are important. They actually are incorporated not only in the cell membrane that helps a cell membrane function more properly, but they are even more concentrated in the membranes of the tiny things in the cells called mitochondria that I mentioned. And they actually help your mitochondria function better, at least I’ll say that. So omega three fatty acids can be important. But this isn’t about going out and overdosing on omega three fatty acid supplements, folks. Let me be clear about that. Don’t go overdose on those supplements because that’s not going to be helpful and it might actually be harmful or something like, need an appropriate amount. And that is just whole food, kind of varied diet is the optimal way to get all of these things.

Katie: And your advice about processed food probably just avoiding that will help shift that fatty acid balance in a beneficial way. Because I feel like processed fats are one of the categories that has been most manipulated in a lab and changed so drastically in the last 50 years. Like, we’re using entire categories of processed fats in our diets that our great grandparents would not have even recognized as food. And these are now one of the most consumed parts of any food group. And so I think to your point of fatty acids are important and we know that they are. It’s not even about that any particular one is good or bad so much as that ratio. And our ratios have gotten really screwed up because we’re consuming so much of these really highly industrial processed fats versus those natural sources that you mentioned, like the Mediterranean diet, ones of olives and things like avocado and from seafood. We know those have gone down in diet and we’ve increased these processed fats. So I think so much goes back to that processed food recommendation.

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I’m also curious if in your research you mentioned sleep is a big factor. And I often linked sleep and light exposure together because I see, looking at the trends, we’ve decreased our amount of exposure to natural light, of course, increased our exposure to artificial light. And this is another change that’s happened pretty drastically in the last 100 years. So I’m curious, are there any signaling cues related to sleep and light exposure that really come into play in a strong way in this theory of mental illness?

Christopher: 100%. I actually have a whole chapter on sleep and light and circadian rhythms. So light is essential to circadian rhythm biology. Light actually stimulates hormones. Light directly stimulates mitochondria, believe it or not. So it is directly changing our metabolism. And if you think about it, so that is science. They can isolate mitochondria and sell light on them and the mitochondria actually ramp up at production in response to light. So we’ve got fairly clear, compelling evidence, though that is just true. But in fact, it makes sense at a physiological level.

So when we wake up, we are normally exposed to light, whether it’s turning on the lights in your bedroom or whether it’s going outside or opening the saints. And that is when we need more energy. We need to start moving, we need to start doing things with our day. And so it makes kind of intuitive sense. Light also helps us get good sleep. It regulates our circadian rhythm. If you get bright dose of light first thing in the morning, that is probably the most optimal thing you can do. Bright exposure first thing in the morning that could be going outside for a walk. If you live in an area where you can do that or some people will even use a bright light therapy box, you can get them on Amazon or wherever you want to get them. People will expose themselves to bright light in the morning and then the other essential ingredient with light is avoid light at night.

So that means reduce your screen time. Don’t be on your cell phones in bed all night. When you wake up in the middle of the night, don’t automatically go to your cell phones. Expose your eyes to that bright blue light. Why? Because that bright blue light is giving your brain a signal that it’s time to wake up and it’s really not time to wake up. You should be sleeping. So your bedroom should be as dark as possible and is safe. But if you can be safe and sound without a nightlight, go without the nightlight. They’ve even done studies looking at light pollution is what it’s called to people who live in urban areas with all the street lights and everything or big building lights. Those people have more chronic health conditions like diabetes, obesity, heart attacks, all those things probably because it’s disrupting their circadian rhythms.

Katie: That makes sense. And again, like you said, some of these pillars are already things we know that are pillars of good health in general. But I love getting to hear the very specific way this affects our brains as well because I think a lot of parents listening maybe have been struggled with some of these themselves or are worried about that for their kids. Which brings me also to the question of as parents or just as people who want to stay in good health and good mental health, are there any other sort of preventative proactive steps we can take even if we don’t have an acute mental illness that we’re working through? Are there things we know that are proactive, in helping ward that off.

Christopher: You asked about parents. So let me talk about prevention strategies in children. And the unfortunate reality is we don’t yet have large randomized controlled trials of the prevention strategies that I’m going to suggest right now. So I wanted to say that. I want to let people know I am speculating these might actually be real authentic prevention strategies based on a study that I’m going to tell you about.

This study actually followed over 5000 children for over 24 years. And they measured their levels of insulin resistance, and they also measured their weight. They measured lots of other things. They measured those things along with mental health metrics for the whole 24 years. The kids who had the highest levels of insulin resistance beginning at age nine were five times more likely that’s 500% more likely to have a psychosis at risk mental state by the time they turned 24. That means that they were at high risk of developing schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. They were three times 300% more likely to already be diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. They were about twice as likely to also have depression. That did not reach statistical significance. The other two did.

The researchers also found that kids who gained a lot of weight around the time of puberty had four times the rate of clinical depression by the time they turned 24. Now, most people, when I say that statistic, one, a lot of people are like, well, that’s fat shaming. You know, the poor kid gained some weight and then they got fat shamed. And of course they’re depressed. What I’m arguing is that if you look at the science of depression and you look at the science of being of a wager of obese it’s not so simple. Yes, I’m not denying fat shaming. I’m not saying that’s not toxic and harmful to psychological and mental health. Of course it is. Of course it is.

What I’m saying is that there’s even more to the story than just that. That being obese leads to higher levels of brain inflammation that impacts the way your brain functions. And so what I would say is that if you are a parent and you are a lackadaisical parent, you’re busy, you’re stressed, just let the kids eat whatever they want. I don’t care. They like the chips, they like the snacks, they like their candy and whatever. It’s no big deal. They’re young, they can run it off. If you notice that your kids are starting to get a little overweight, if you notice that your kids are starting to be prediabetic high levels of insulin resistance, in case you didn’t know, these things are epidemic in our society right now.

You might be able to prevent your child from developing a chronic lifelong psychotic disorder if you do something now. You need to think about addressing this with your child now. Think about changing the food up in the house. Not about a punishing diet, not about shaming your kid. It’s not about telling your kid you’re fat, you lazy, blah, blah, blah, lose some weight. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying the entire family is going to make some dietary changes. We are going to get a little healthier in this family. We’re going to stop buying the cookies and the chips. You need to do a transition to that. That’s fine. Go ahead and do a gradual transition. Maybe start with weekends. You can still have this food, but during school week, let’s start to try to be healthier, work. We as a family are going to be healthier. So I would strongly recommend some dietary changes.

You can pair that also with less exercise. Exercise doesn’t have to be work. Exercise can be, let’s go run in the park. Let’s go play tennis. Let’s go play basketball, let’s go do whatever. So you as a family can start to adopt some of these health and wellness strategies, and you might actually be preventing schizophrenia in your child. You’ll certainly be preventing obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. So why not? What’s not to love?

Katie: Yeah, I speak to moms a lot and from the parenting angle say it always comes back to modeling, too. It’s one thing for us to say these things, but what we model carries so much more weight. And I think kids are so capable of understanding when we have honest, real conversations with them about the nutrients in food or about the potential downfalls of certain foods, not in a way that paints anything as good or bad, but in a way that makes these okay, these are a great choice to eat all the time. These are maybe, sometimes food that we would minimize, but we’re not going to paint anything as a black and white. Like this is now an evil thing.

But one strategy I’ve used that I would encourage with other moms is I do a lot of bulk cooking just so we always have protein and healthy fats available, and those are always available for them to eat. And I view it as my responsibility is to have nutritious food in the house. Their responsibility is to decide at any given meal if they’re hungry for that food or they can choose not to eat. I’m not going to force it. But I also then don’t hover and oversee their food choices when they’re not at home. I know. I’ve educated them. I know they understand. I also know if they eat the occasional cupcake at a birthday party, that’s not going to derail their health. And my hope is that creates a balanced approach when it comes to food without creating like, to your point, we’re not going to shame anyone. We’re not going to make them think all food is bad. We’re not going to invite fear in, but we’re going to take the responsibility for the things in our house that we do have the ability to affect and hopefully give our kids a solid foundation from a young age.

Christopher: Absolutely. I agree.

Katie: Well, and as we get close to the end of our time, a few last questions I want to make sure we have time for. The first being you mentioned your book. Can you elaborate on that a little bit more? And I’ll make sure we have links in the show notes as well.

Christopher: My book is called Brain Energy by Christopher Palmer. And I will admit it is a little bit audacious. It goes through this new way of thinking about mental health as a metabolic problem in the brain. And I don’t know, I think it gives people a lot to think about. I end with lots of ideas and suggestions with science to back them all in terms of diet, exercise, sleep, light, hormones, other things that we might think about assessing and intervening with. And I am really hopeful that it might empower people to take control of their mental health. Again, if you’re being served by the mental health field well, right now if you’re getting therapy or pills and they’re working beautifully for you, I’m not trying to stand in your way, but if you still have lingering symptoms, especially if you have these comorbid problems with obesity, diabetes, anything like that, pre-diabetes. If you’ve got gut issues and you’re really struggling with, how do I feel better. I am hoping that this book will have enough light and connect enough thoughts for people to empower them to take control of their mental health.

Katie: Yeah, I love that. Going back to that idea of being your own primary healthcare provider, and I love that your approach also seems to be like a both/and, even for those people who feel like they’re having good results from their current plan, there’s nothing to be lost from also improving their metabolic health, which we know, like we talked about, ripples over into cardiac risk factors and cancer risk factors and so much more. And in our families, ripples over to our kids potential long term effects as well. So I love how clearly you lay that out and how you bring it into the field of mental health. And I’m very grateful for your work. And speaking of books, of course, linked to yours in the show Notes, I’m curious if there is a book or a number of books that have profoundly impacted you, and if so, what they are and why.

Christopher: It’s really interesting. So this is going to sound corny. If I had to pick one book, I kind of alluded to this earlier when you were asking me my personal history. I would have to say it was the Atkins Diet book. And when I first bought it, I got it when I was in my 20s. When I first bought it, it was almost tainted to me because I was like a medical professional. I was like, this guy is a charlatan and a quack and dangerous bacon eating bacon and eggs that’s not, and everybody knows it. So when I bought the book, I was actually almost like, this is a dirty book to even be reading. But it had such a huge change on my both metabolic health and mental health, and then that led to me using this in so many other people, and it led to my work in this book, ultimately. So probably it is the book that changed my life the most.

Katie: I love it. I’ll link to that one as well and I love that it had a ripple effect that you are now changing so many other people’s lives through your work and I’m so grateful for your time today. Do you have any parting advice for the listeners that could be related to mental health or entirely unrelated, just life advice?

Christopher: I am just going to second what you said, which is if you’re struggling, but I’m going to put it from the mental health. If you are struggling from a mental health problem, please do not go to a psychiatrist or psychologist or therapist and expect them to fix you. If that is your mindset, you’re probably not going to be fixed, they don’t have a magic pill for you. They don’t have a magic therapy session for you. You really want to get better. I want you to still go to those people, but I want you to go to those people to learn information that can empower you to take control of your life and your mental health. And you are the only person that can get yourself better.

You’re the one who has to do the work in the therapy. The pills unfortunately failed to cure most people. So if you’re looking for a magic pill, just let you know now. You can probably stop looking. It’s not that pills can’t help, it’s not that nobody should take pills, I’m not saying that. But if you really want to get fully better, you need a comprehensive lifestyle strategy to adjust your mental and mental health.

Katie: I think that’s a perfect place to put a pin in it for today. But I’m so grateful for your time. Thank you for being here and for sharing your wisdom today.

Christopher: Thank you, Katie, for having me on.

Katie: And thanks as always to all of you for listening and sharing your most valuable resources, your time, your energy and your attention with us today. We’re both so grateful that you did and I hope that you will join me again on the next episode of The Wellness Mama Podcast.

If you’re enjoying these interviews, would you please take two minutes to leave a rating or review on iTunes for me? Doing this helps more people to find the podcast, which means even more moms and families could benefit from the information. I really appreciate your time, and thanks as always for listening.

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