Mental Health Benefits of Red Meat

Mental Health Benefits of Red Meat

Updated: Mar 26, 2024Veronika Larisova

Here's an interesting talk from CarnivoryCon by Dr. Georgia Ede, MD, a Harvard-trained, board-certified psychiatrist based in Massachusetts, USA. Her interest in nutrition arose after discovering a new way of eating that reversed several bewildering health problems she had developed in her early 40′s, including fibromyalgia, migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome and IBS. We've included the transcription below the video.

Show of hands, how many people here have noticed an improvement in their mental health on a carnivore diet? Wow, even I am blown away by that.

Let's pretend for a minute that all of you are telling the truth. If you are, why would that be? The brain is supposed to love colorful fruits and vegetables full of antioxidants, and it's supposed to love the Mediterranean diet, if I'm not wrong. And it's supposed to hate saturated fat and meat.

Well, to begin to answer this question of why carnivore diets might be helpful with mental health disorders, we must dare to ask a different question: What causes mental illness in the first place?

Modern lifestyle may have quite a lot to do with it. We know, for example, that psychosis was exceedingly rare in traditional cultures before the introduction of modern foods. What exactly it was about those modern foods, we can't be entirely sure.

We understand a lot about the underlying biochemistry of mental illness, believe it or not. We understand mechanisms like inflammation, oxidation, and neurotransmitter imbalances, and we use drugs to try to manipulate these things. But I would go even one step further and ask what causes those biochemical disruptions.

These root causes of just about any disease are deficiency, toxicity, and metabolic mayhem. Nutrient deficiency is a good place to start, definitely a root cause of mental illness. To understand how to avoid nutrient deficiencies, we must understand what nutrients the brain needs and which foods are best at delivering those nutrients.

The brain is made of mostly fat, about two-thirds fat, and contains lots of protein, cholesterol, and a tiny bit of carbohydrate. Then there are the micronutrients, the vitamins, and minerals, because the brain is an energy hog. It needs lots of energy to extract from molecules like glucose and ketones.

It's clear that we have a problem with maintaining adequate levels of nutrients. There's controversy about how much we actually need, but it makes sense to wonder why some of us, for example, are so low in omega-3 fatty acids. These three — zinc, vitamin B6, and iron — if you're low in any of these, you're going to have trouble making the neurotransmitters that your antidepressants are trying to boost. So these are important connections.

Macronutrient quality affects micronutrient availability. If you're getting your vitamins and minerals from the wrong place, they may not be as effective. We all know this, but contrary to popular belief, meat contains every nutrient we need in its proper form and without any anti-nutrients to interfere.

Plant foods, however, are missing certain key nutrients, some of which are in the wrong form and harder for us to use. They also contain anti-nutrients which interfere with our ability to absorb or utilize them.

There are many examples of these anti-nutrients, but a few to call to your attention are phytic acid, which is a mineral magnet and interferes with our ability to absorb minerals, and these minerals are really important for brain function. Phytic acid is particularly rich in grains, beans, nuts, and seeds, the staple foods of plant-based diets. But there are a couple of others to call your attention to: carnitine and choline.

Carnitine is a conditionally essential amino acid. We sometimes can't make enough to meet our needs. To make carnitine, we need two amino acids, lysine and methionine, which are the most difficult to find in plant foods. Carnitine is very important for energy balance and regulates the fluid and electrolyte balance in the brain.

Choline is an essential nutrient responsible for the integrity of cells and for building the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, important for neuromuscular function and in the brain for things like learning and memory.

Both carnitine and choline are easier to find in animal foods and much more difficult to find in plant foods. Remember, the brain contains a lot of cholesterol. Despite being only 2% of the body's weight, the brain contains 20% of your body's cholesterol. But cholesterol is a big, bulky molecule that can't cross the blood-brain barrier.

This means that every single molecule of cholesterol in your brain comes from your diet. You can eat a cholesterol-free diet and still have plenty of cholesterol in your brain because the brain makes all of its cholesterol on-site. It's that important. Why would the brain go out of its way to make something that's bad for you? It wouldn't. It's really smart.

Protein, you can get your protein from plants or animals, no argument there. It's just a little more difficult because all animal proteins are complete. They contain every amino acid we need and in the proper proportions. Animal proteins are denser sources of protein; you have to eat a lot less to meet your requirements. They're more digestible than most plant proteins and more bioavailable because the anti-nutrients in plants interfere with our ability to extract all of that energy from food.

The brain is about two-thirds fat, and you'll notice that about 25% of that fat is saturated fat and another 25% is monounsaturated fat, mainly oleic acid, the kind you find in olive oil and lamb. The other 50% is polyunsaturated fatty acids, sometimes known as PUFAs. But it's not canola oil in your brain. It is these two really important essential fatty acids: DHA, an essential omega-3 fatty acid, and arachidonic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid.

DHA is irreplaceable in the brain and other parts of the body. It has a special configuration that gives it quantum mechanical properties, allowing it to buffer electricity. You find it in places where electrons are very busy, like mitochondrial membranes and the retina, and synapses of the brain where cell communication takes place. DHA comes from animal foods. Plant foods contain a different omega-3 called ALA, but it's actually very difficult for us to convert ALA into DHA.

Arachidonic acid is an omega-6 fatty acid and does many amazing things. It's important for cholesterol metabolism, reproduction, inducing labor, brain development, endocannabinoids, and more. It also helps with the inflammatory response, giving it a bit of a bad rap among the plant-based community. They say arachidonic acid from meat causes inflammation, so we shouldn't eat meat. But inflammation is important; we need it as the first step in responding to injury and infection. The next step is healing.

Arachidonic acid isn't just involved with inflammation; it's also involved with healing, which means it's complex. These very simple arguments fall apart under scrutiny. Where do you get arachidonic acid? You either have to eat animals or get GLA from certain plant oils or animal foods, but that's not as efficient as getting arachidonic acid directly from an animal source.

For all these reasons, I maintain that the brain needs meat. It's a no-brainer. You can try to supplement your way around it, but evolutionarily, it makes perfect sense that we would need to eat meat for our brains to have developed, formed, and functioned.

But it doesn't have to be red meat. If there are issues with that, you can also get some of the nutrients we think of as enriched in red meat from certain types of poultry and seafood. It doesn't have to be a mammal.

The next root cause is toxicity. Now you've got some meat and you've built your brain with meat, but that's often not enough, mental health-wise. Most people who have mental illness of some kind do already eat meat, so that doesn't often solve the problem. You also have to make sure you're not eating the wrong things. You might need to take a look at the plants in your diet because plant toxins of many kinds can affect the brain.

We're just going to put up a few quick examples: glycoalkaloids are acetylcholinesterase inhibitors found in nightshades. Acetylcholinesterase inhibitors block enzymes required for proper neurotransmitter function, obviously affecting the brain. Oxalates, if the level rises too high in the blood, can form crystals, shards, very damaging shards. They have actually been found on brain images deep inside the brain, so oxalates can penetrate the blood-brain barrier.

Lectins, gluten, and dairy can be problematic for people with mental health problems. They're possible culprits. Gluten, for example, is strongly correlated with mental illness, particularly schizophrenia. People with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and autistic spectrum disorders are more likely to have antibodies to gliadin, a gluten chunk, and casein-derived peptides from milk. Up to 75% of people with autistic spectrum disorders have markers of leaky gut, suggesting some forms of mental illness, at least in some cases, may have a strong immune component.

I think it's always good to suspect gluten, and this is a very beautifully documented case in the literature I just published a few years ago of a fourteen-year-old girl. She had severe psychotic symptoms, complex hallucinations, paranoia, and suicidal thinking. She also experienced weight loss and some GI upset.

Despite a huge workup and numerous tests, she wasn't allergic to wheat and didn't have any celiac disease markers. She went through standard treatments like steroids and antipsychotics for about a year. Then, after losing a bit more weight, she was sent to a nutritionist who suggested a gluten-free diet for her GI symptoms. Miraculously, all of her psychotic symptoms went away.

However, when she occasionally cheated on her diet, her symptoms returned. She was admitted to a facility for a strict gluten sensitivity test, where they compared wheat capsules to rice powder capsules. The symptoms were very specific to her consuming the wheat capsules and would last three days before going away. This girl did not have celiac disease but had non-celiac antibodies to gluten prototypes and was positive for fecal calprotectin, a marker for leaky gut.

So, I think it's always worth it to take gluten out just to see. There's this question of whether a leaky gut implies a leaky brain. The science is emerging and it's actually very difficult to prove that kind of temporality. Toxins from foods can affect the brain directly through the vagus nerve, which connects the gut to the brain. They can also affect the brain indirectly through immune mediators like cytokines. The microbiome can send messages to the brain about what's happening in your gut. There's a strong connection between the gut and the brain.

Then, there's what I call 'plant bias logic'. When discussing plant-based diets and their drawbacks, like the lower bioavailability of plant-based iron compared to heme iron, proponents often blame an essential nutrient for potential problems. There are many examples where plant-based diet advocates glorify anti-nutrients and toxins in food while dismissing the importance of nutrients found in meat. The third root cause I'll mention is metabolic mayhem, which includes inflammation, oxidation, neurotransmitter imbalances, and insulin resistance.

Inflammation and oxidation are well-established root causes of various mental illnesses. We often think of mental illnesses in terms of neurotransmitter imbalances, like problems with serotonin or dopamine. However, other neurotransmitters like glutamate and GABA are also crucial. The balance between these determines brain activity.

The kynurenine pathway is an important one to understand in this context. Under stress or oxidation, which can be caused by modern diets rich in refined carbohydrates and seed oils, the pathway is altered, leading to neurotransmitter imbalances. This can't be fixed with medication alone. Eating the wrong way can lead to insulin resistance, which is emerging as a potential factor in mental health disorders. For example, people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder often exhibit insulin resistance.

A ketogenic diet can address many of these root causes. Studies have shown its effectiveness in mental health disorders like autism, bipolar disorder, and Alzheimer's disease. While the science is still early, there's evidence to suggest a link between diet and mental health.

Lastly, the carnivore diet for mental health is worth considering. This hypothesis is based on the idea that some people may have lost their ability to tolerate many plant toxins. A carnivore diet, though extreme, follows biology to its logical conclusion. It includes everything you need and nothing you don't, making it an effective elimination diet for some mental health disorders. 

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