Psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, MD actually is an expert on how the connection works. He's extremely well-versed in the way that various nutrients (and toxins) affect the brain, and has created an entire science-packed program and virtual cooking class to help people change their brain chemistry through food. (Although it's important to know he also advocates for therapy and prescription drugs, when necessary.) One benefit to being a brain health expert is that he can apply what he knows to his own life, too.
- Drew Ramsey, MD, psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University
Even psychiatrists aren't immune to anxious thoughts. They have work stress, family stress, and are living through the pandemic just like the rest of us. And also just like the rest of us, psychiatrists often head to the kitchen looking for something to feel better. (Hey, stress eating is a term for a reason.) The difference is that unlike the average person, Dr. Ramsey knows exactly what foods can literally help quell anxiety in the brain on a chemical level.
"When it comes to a snack for anxiety, first I think about what can help keep my blood sugar levels steady," Dr. Ramsey says. This is important, he explains, because when your blood sugar levels are going up and down, it means your energy and mood will go up and down, too—not great for when you're feeling anxious. One food that does just the trick? Nuts. "There are a lot of nutrients in nuts, but one in particular that helps to stabilize your blood sugar levels is the fat content," he says. For the record, unsaturated fats are great for the brain.
While a handful of nuts is a great snack for anxiety if you're out and about, if you have access to a kitchen you can whip up a kefir smoothie. This, Dr. Ramsey says, is what he prefers to make in anxious moments. "Besides being full of nutrients that benefit the brain, I like that it gets me away from my desk. I can step away from work and mindfully focus on the steps to make it," he says.
Here's what Dr. Ramsey puts in his kefir smoothie (the recipe is also below and in his book, Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety): kefir, white beans, frozen blueberries, banana, spinach, almonds, and pumpkin seeds. "One reason why I love this snack is that it's delicious. Smacking my brain with pleasure helps get me out of that anxious mood," Dr. Ramsey shares. Real talk: If your snack is bleh, it isn't exactly going to do wonders for your mood.
Besides ensuring the smoothie is rich and creamy, Dr. Ramsey says the kefir is great for the gut, and anything that ups the good bacteria in the gut is going to benefit the brain as well. Scientific studies have shown a connection between low bacteria diversity in the gut and rates of depression and anxiety.
The white beans are a bit of a wild card; you may not expect to find them in a smoothie, but including them not only adds creaminess, but Dr. Ramsey says they pack tons of plant-based protein and fiber. Protein provides the body with energy, notorious to dip when you're feeling down; fiber is just one more nutrient that's critical for gut and heart health.
"The sleeper nutrient in beans that helps with anxiety is potassium," Dr. Ramsey says, adding that the banana in the smoothie is also a good source of the nutrient. Studies have shown a connection between potassium and lower levels of cortisol, aka the stress hormone. So you definitely don't want to nix the white beans or banana when blending this up.
The spinach, nuts, seeds, and berries are other excellent sources of fiber and Dr. Ramsey says each one boasts its own list of nutrients linked to benefitting the brain. For example, the almonds and pumpkin seeds both have magnesium, another nutrient that has been scientifically linked to helping lower mild anxiety. The berries are high in antioxidants, which help blood flow better to the brain, crucial for thinking clearly. They also are a key ingredient for adding sweetness and they do so without spiking blood sugar levels.
As you can see, literally every single ingredient in the kefir smoothie has brain benefits. It's worth reiterating that even though it can be made quickly, the process of working through the steps requires mindfulness and provides the opportunity to step away from whatever it is that's causing you anxiety. And of course the delicious taste activates the pleasure center in the brain, working to reduce anxious thoughts as well.
Sipping a smoothie certainly can't solve all your problems, but it can give your brain a little extra support. And a tasty one at that.
Dr. Ramsey's kefir smoothie recipe
3/4 cup plain full-fat kefir
1/3 cup white beans
1/3 cup water
1 1/2 cups frozen blueberries
1/2 large banana
1/2 cup chopped spinach
2 Tbsp raw, unsalted almonds
2 Tbsp raw, unsalted pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
1. In the following order, put the kefir, beans, water, blueberries, banana, spinach, almonds, and pepitas into a high-powered blender. Blend for 30 to 45 seconds, until all the ingredients are incorporated. Pour into a glass and serve immediately.
Get more healthy snack ideas in Well+Good's Cook With Us Facebook group.
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