New findings suggests low-carb diets help.

In mid-May The Economist reported about studies that linked mental illnesses like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Schizophrenia to autoimmune disorders. For instance, Pediatric Autoimmune-Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcus (PANDAS) led to symptoms of schizophrenia: psychiatrists mistook a dysfunction in the brain for one of the mind.

Yes, those two are different: the brain is our hardware; the mind is our software. Yet since the 1950s, when the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatry was first published, the two — along with our bodies — have been viewed separately despite the obvious: it’s all embodied. Furthermore, as the article reveals, “there is so much overlap between the symptoms of depression and anxiety, for example, that some wonder if these are actually even separate categories of illness.” And there are so many subcategories of these diagnoses that drug trials are widely diverse because “the cohort being studied has too little in common.”

In 2007, the University of Pennsylvania showed how 100 patients with “psychiatric symptoms and cognitive impairments actually had an autoimmune disease” and by “removing the antibodies, or using immunotherapy drugs of steroids” treated them successfully for mental illnesses. Researchers are finding that because the brain is such an “energy-hungry organ and metabolic alterations related to energy pathways” there are connections between the brain, mind and gut. Thus, treating people with diet and lifestyle changes has proved — shall we say— fruitful.

Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett’s research — compiled in an accessible book, How Emotions are Made — refers to this as “body budget,” the way in which our bodies regulate chemicals and hormones, including ones associated with how we feel, think, and behave. If emotions are the value-appraising part of cognition, then Barrett’s research suggests we use them to predict how to regulate and allocate energy to keep ourselves safe and in homeostasis. From a process called interoception your brain makes basic emotions from “sensations from your internal organs and tissues, the hormones in your blood, and your immune system,” allocating energy throughout your body.

For example, when we drink coffee, our body-budget regions make alterations to homeostasis. Cortisol, a hormone, does what it’s supposed to do, giving a burst of energy, much as it does when we are stressed. That leads to a rise in glucose, causing cells to expand and contract; breathing and heartbeat increase just like when we run. As our body budgets itself it sends signals to the brain which we then use to make sense of things in ways that are “personally meaningful.”

These findings align with cognitive theory, where body sensations like hunger, sleepiness, etc, influence our feelings. Given that we are meaning making creatures, we attribute unpleasant sensations to unpleasant emotions, which trigger unpleasant thoughts, which influences and/or is influenced by our beliefs about what is happening. But if our interoceptive network is misfiring due to a trauma or an autoimmune disease, then so too are our senses to make sense of what’s going on in our bodies, so what the experience means might not be on the nose (again, a pun, because allergies also have a role in our emotional state, so next time you’re feeling anxious or depressed, ask yourself: is it allergy season?).

Studies show that allergies correlate with autoimmune diseases, too, so often our mental wellbeing can be compromised by an allergic reaction. Autoimmune diseases are wide ranging and impact a variety of organs, tissues, and muscles and cause inflammation, all of which impacts our inner ecosystems. Just as an unbalanced ecosystem becomes diseased so too does our body, which these studies reveal impacts how we feel and think.

As Barrett says, “you feel what your brain believes. Affect primarily comes from prediction.” This isn’t to invalidate bad feelings. Trauma can disrupt a person’s interoceptive network so they perceive threats where none exist (an issue of context Barrett covers). But so can an autoimmune issue, which often stems from a Standard American Diet, termed SAD because the overly processed, high-carb intake is linked to wide-ranging health consequences, which impact how we think and feel. (We got to this SAD state because of how we subsidize food thanks to large food conglomerates like McDonalds; for more on that, read Michael Polan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma). Barrett illustrates this thusly: when we exercise, we get the same sensations of labored breathing and an exhaustion of energy (stress) akin to test takers, whose memory is taxed to the point of exhaustion and who feel terrible despite doing well. But given that “you are the architect of your experience” and “believing is feeling,” we can see how context dependent things become, especially when all meaning is ultimately derived from cultural contexts.

Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride is pioneering research and interventions in Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS), and has shown that using diets that limit carbohydrates, sugar, and dairy lead to reduced symptoms of ASD, dyspraxia, ADHD, depression and schizophrenia. Neuroscientist Kirk Nylen, of the Baszucki Group, has been studying metabolic therapies on serious mental illness, concluding that ketogenic and low-carb diets showed “huge improvements in mood. These randomized controlled trials were done with folks who had limited success with medications, talk therapy, trans-cranial stimulation and electroconvulsive-shock therapy.”

So how does one achieve a balanced body budget? First, by improving your interoceptive skills via mindfulness, which increases your self-awareness and capacity to direct mental energy towards surfing urges and changing behaviors. Second, by improving the way your body balances itself through sleep, exercise, and diet. Simply moving has shown to help people change how they feel, as does a good night’s rest.

Focusing on one of the following diets could help elevate your baseline. Alone this wouldn’t alleviate the pain of a trauma or augment the automatic negative thoughts arising from feelings of low self-worth; however, it will provide the physical bandwidth to see through those experiences and perhaps even silence them. Here are several diets proved effective at treating autoimmune disorders, which coincide with diets recommended to reduce symptoms of mental illnesses, as researched by Integrative Medicine, A Clinician’s Journal:

A Contrarian Conclusion

Keeping with the culinary puns, it’s important to take all the above with a grain of salt. Science, like our sense of awareness, is constantly evolving, which is why the process of science (testing hypotheses, and replicating results under controlled settings with controlled groups) is so important — we’re irrational, meaning-making creatures prone to cognitive distortions and dissonance. To wit, consider that Blue Zones, places where folks live to be 100 years old, are found in the Mediterranean and Japan. Health experts thus concluded (by correlations, not causation) that we should eat a similar diet. However, The Economist also detailed how these places are actually terrible at keeping records. That’s because during World War II record-keeping spots were literally destroyed; because folks wanted to get their pensions early, they lied about their age. Translation: all those centenarians are actually much younger. Thus, the key to longevity is fraud. Jokes aside, the point is to keep it all in perspective, take care of yourself with plenty of movement, consistent sleep and a healthy, low-carb diet. For that, one cannot go wrong adapting Michael Pollan’s haiku: eat food, mostly plants, not too much.

Article by: Reuben Brody, LCSW – Asheville, NC

Rubin Brody - I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker Associate (LCSWA),

Reuben Brody – Reuben is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker Associate (LCSWA), and received his Master of Social Work from the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work. His modalities include cognitive approaches like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), mindfulness, narrative therapy, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I).








Works Cited

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Harcourt, 2017.

Campbell-McBride, Natasha. Gut and Psychology Syndrome. Cambridge, Medinform

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Guilliams, Thomas G., and Jill Weintraub. “Implementing Personalized Dietary Interventions for

Immune-Mediated Inflammatory Diseases.” Integrative Medicine A Clinician’s Journal,

“How Seasonal Allergies Can Affect Mental Health.” New York Times [New York], 8 May 2024,

Accessed 6 June 2024.

“Many mental-health conditions have bodily triggers.” The Economist, 24 April 2024,

ditions-have-bodily-triggers. Accessed 6 June 2024.

“Places claiming to be centenarian hotspots may just have bad data.” The Economist, 28

September 2023,

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Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Penguin Publishing

Group, 2007.