November 14, 2012
Q&A, Dr. Drew Ramsey, Columbia psychiatry professor and co-author, ‘The Happiness Diet’
Our October trend report, “Health & Happiness: Hand in Hand,” examines the idea that happiness is increasingly coming to be seen as a core component of health and wellness. As part of our research, we spoke with Dr. Drew Ramsey, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, who is one of psychiatry’s leading proponents of modulating diet to help balance mood, sharpen brain function and improve mental health. His clinical work focuses on the treatment of depression and anxiety with a combination of psychotherapy, lifestyle modification and psychopharmacology. Ramsey is also co-author of the 2011 book The Happiness Diet with Tyler Graham. He explained his views on the connection between health and happiness and how diet comes into play.
Do you see a trend toward connecting health and happiness?
I don’t think you can have much happiness without health, and I don’t think people really are healthy if they’re not feeling happy. It’s not just having a huge smile; it’s feeling satisfied and fulfilled and connected to others. Almost always it stems from a sense of connection with my work and with other people.
I think [connecting health and happiness] is a trend. I certainly see it in the food industry, where increasingly there are ingredients being added for the reported brain benefit. But part of me always gets concerned when people are trying to market stuff as happiness. There’s a huge trend where people are thinking about their health as more than just being in good shape. People are thinking more about their emotional health and more about their brain health. And, in particular, as the Baby Boomers are easing into the dementia age, there’s a huge interest I’m seeing both clinically and in the media about brain health, brain fog, senior moments.
In the last decade, how has the role of diet changed as it relates to health as well as happiness?
It’s changed significantly. Probably one of the biggest shifts in neuroscience happened maybe 10 or 15 years ago. When I went to medical school, I was the class of doctors who learned that you did not grow new brain cells as you got older. What’s really shifted is an idea of brain growth and what’s called neuroplasticity, which is basically that that your brain cells are constantly growing and changing and making new connections and getting rid of old connections. So that’s been a huge shift in terms of fundamental brain science.
Over the last five years, really for the first time now, there is a significant collection of studies that look at what people eat, and they’ve all basically said the same thing, which is that people who eat a Western diet, or modern diet, have an increased risk for depression, anxiety and ADHD. And then there’s been a huge interest in food, stemming both from a lot of cooking shows and a huge interest again in farming, where people are actually connecting to their food, connecting to the people who produce their food. What I’m hoping to add to it is to help people understand some of the brain science and why that’s important, what you get from those foods.
How does the brain science factor in to diet and happiness?
Food choices are the foundation of good brain health. Your brain is made of food. Every molecule in your brain started out on your plate. And just like any chef will tell you, the most important thing about being a chef is getting the best ingredients. I think that’s true with the brain as well. When I think about happiness, I think about a brain that is able to regulate its mood. There are three or four areas in the brain that are connected to food and connected to symptoms. A brain that is a well-nourished brain is going to be free of certain types of anxiety.
One of the most important things people miss when they think about a bad mood is that we always look for the reasons why we’re feeling down. Is it because I got in an argument with my wife? Is it because my latte was too hot this morning? But those are all psychological reasons. What was missing in the happiness literature was the notion that some symptoms and the state of our brain depend on dietary choices. So people were saying the way to feeling happy was to give more gratitude, to think more positive thoughts. What I felt was missing in that message was that if you don’t feed yourself correctly, this changes your mood. That’s what I thought was important for people to connect—connect their forks to their feelings.
Can you reverse the potential damage that’s done from a poor diet?
I don’t think having a bad diet over 10 years leads to permanent damage. Anybody can change their diet and improve their brain health. That’s actually one of my favorite parts of this business, doing interviews where people call in and I prescribe brain food swaps. For instance, if a kid loves Twizzlers, try dried cranberries and dried goji berries. Same texture, same color, but instead of getting gluten, sugar and red dye, you’re getting lots and lots of vitamin C, lots of fiber, a whole host of vital nutrients that are very good for general health and great for the brain.
Antidepressants are the top prescribed class of medications in America, but I also try to be clear that The Happiness Diet isn’t just a book for people who are depressed to replace their medications. Whether you have already done psychiatric treatment or not, everybody’s brain needs the same food. When people start making changes, you see an almost immediate effect.
Do you think happiness is becoming more prescriptive than it was in the past?
People have always wanted to pursue happiness, but it seems there are more prescriptive ways to do that than there ever have been, ranging from the way you should eat to Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project.
Happiness has always been a universal human goal, but do you think it’s more important to people today than it was five years ago?
One of the real repercussions of the financial recession is that people have begun to re-examine what makes them happy. The happiness literature shows that once you can pay your bills, more money doesn’t make you happier. What makes people happier is connection to their community or family, marriage, giving back, receiving. So there’s certainly a shift afoot in terms of how people think about overall happiness.
Do you think there’s a difference between the type of happiness people experience from a material purchase versus an experience?
Yes, I do. One is an experiential happiness that’s usually shared with another human being. Those are the most significant and grounding events for people’s emotional experience—to do something with other people. To go have a nice picnic or go to church. That’s a fundamentally different type of happiness than the happiness I get when I buy myself a new pair of very nice shoes.
What do you see as the connection between lasting happiness and how people perceive good health?
I think about it in two ways. One way I think about it is how it connects to the data, that if people have obesity and diabetes, they greatly increase their risk of having a major depressant episode. It’s the same thing with heart disease. So there’s this very intimate connection in the literature between your risk of having clinical depression and your physical health status. And then I think goals are shifting—that everybody’s in the gym wanting to look better, but whenever anybody leaves the gym, they usually feel better.
How do you see perceptions of the connection between health and happiness changing in the future, in the next five, ten years?
If I’m successful, I hope people are going to connect their food choices to their happiness much more. I think there’s going to be a lot of discussion with how technology interfaces with people and what the effects are on how we actually measure and think about happiness. I think there’s going to be an increased interest in how technology and social media affect personal happiness. I really wonder what screen addiction is doing to people’s personal relationships. And I think we’re going to see a trend of people turning to more natural experiences. When people spend time with nature, they tend to be less conflicted.
I think we’re going to see a lot of foods that are fortified for brain cells. You’ve already seen that—Horizon milk is adding DHA, which is an algae oil derivative, and I think if people knew they were drinking milk mixed with algae, that would gross them out. But when it says it supports brain health, people get excited, and they buy that milk. We’re going to see more food fortified with nutrients related to the brain and the brain health claims.
In terms of happiness, there’s going to be this really big question mark that’s happening in the field of, Can you deliver mental health services over the Internet? That’s going to be huge.