A Dietary Treatment for Depression

wikimedia commons
Source: wikimedia commons

A randomized controlled trial shows the right diet can improve depression.

For the past seven years, I’ve been writing articles about food and mood, exploring how different diets and types of foods might create or help mental healthproblems. Despite a great amount of interest in this topic spawning dozens of popular books from Grain Brain to Eat Complete, the data we had was always limited. The vast majority of studies about food and mental health are observational, meaning some form of asking people what they eat and then tracking mental health variables. These data are limited by different types of bias, food studies being particularly prone to bias, as they are often done with “food frequency questionnaires” or FFQs asking about how many hamburgers or vegetables you eat. Even one of the most validated FFQs in the world, the one used for the Nurses’ Health study, has severe limitations. People who lied more about hamburger intake were healthier than those who didn’t, for example. With observational data, you usually find that healthy people who care about their health and listen to health messaging are healthier. Large observational studies are mostly interesting if they have findings that are opposite what is expected (for example, coffee drinkers, despite smoking more and drinking more alcohol, score higher on several measures of good health).

The real meat of science is in the randomized controlled trial. That means taking two groups of people, putting one through an experiment and one through a control, and seeing if there is a difference in outcomes between the groups. When it comes to mental illness, we did have some data for the use of randomized controlled trials of certain diets and some mood outcomes. All of these studies had depression as one of the measured endpoints, but none of these were in a group of depressed people trying different diets to feel better. The measures of depression were just collected along the way of a trial looking at something else (such as heart disease). In these trials, changing diet to various options (such as Mediterranean or lower cholesterol) didn’t worsen symptoms of depressed mood, but only diet trials that didn’t restrict red meat or weren’t described as “low cholesterol” diets were effective in lowering measures of depression by the end of the study. Another randomized therapy trial for early depression in the elderly used a nutritional instruction arm as the control (thinking that food instruction was neutral and wouldn’t help mental health), finding it equal to a type of community-based psychotherapy in preventing worsening of depression.

This year, finally, we have the SMILES trial, the very first dietary trial to look specifically at a dietary treatment in a depressed population in a mental health setting. Participants met criteria for depression and many were already being treated with standard therapy, meds, or both. The designers of this trial took the preponderance of observational and controlled data we already have for general and mental health and decided to train people using dietary advice, nutritional counseling, and motivational interviewing directed at eating a “modified Mediterranean diet” that combined the Australian Dietary Guidelines and the Dietary Guidelines for Adults in Greece. They recommended eating whole grains, vegetables, fruit, legumes, unsweetened dairy, raw nuts, fish, chicken, eggs, red meat (up to three servings per week), and olive oil. Everyone in the study met criteria for a depressive disorder…





Source: Steep Hill Labs


The prevalence of pesticides and contaminants in retail cannabis is one of the most important issues facing the industry. As more states require testing, the high levels of pesticides in retail products are causing alarm among consumers and regulators concerned about the potential health effects of these chemicals, especially on medical patients with compromised immune systems.

The extent of the problem was highlighted by Steep Hill Labs, a leading cannabis-testing company. It found that, if California implemented the same testing requirements adopted by Oregon, 84 percent of the products tested in the state would fail—an alarmingly high number for the country’s largest cannabis market. Nor is the pesticide problem confined to California: The Association of Commercial Cannabis Companies estimates that half of the cannabis tested around the country contains measurable levels of pesticides, though the exact number is still not known. As Jeffrey Raber, president of the ACCL, states: “Cultivating-agent contamination is a huge concern.”

Technological advances in testing have enabled us to see the true extent of the problem. As the ACCL reports, “Using state-of-the-art mass-spectrometry-based approaches, we have broadened the ability to detect more of these cultivating agents and have come to understand that this problem is larger and more complex than anyone initially suspected.”

One of the most prevalent pesticides, myclobutanil, is of particular concern in smoked forms of cannabis, because it turns into hydrogen cyanide—a compound that is toxic to humans—when combusted. Sixty-six percent of the cannabis samples tested in California contained myclobutanil, indicating its widespread use despite the health risks it poses.

The intensive use of pesticides in loosely regulated cannabis markets is understandable: The plant is highly susceptible to fungal infections that can damage entire crops, which can be extremely costly to growers. This leads some to overuse pesticides, resulting in residual levels in the harvested plants that far exceed what is considered safe for human consumption. A single joint of contaminated cannabis may not be enough to kill or cause severe harm, but the cumulative effects of ingesting contaminated cannabis may pose serious long-term health risks to cannabis consumers.

The increased focus on pesticides is being fueled by a greater interest on the part of consumers in the quality of the cannabis they purchase. In illicit markets, cannabis consumers had very little access to information about its source, its potency or its quality. With the transition to legal cannabis markets, especially those that now mandate testing, consumers are seeing for the first time the extent of the contaminant problem in cannabis, and are increasingly demanding more information on product quality.

Cannabis testing has become more widespread as recreational and medical marijuana states include testing requirements in their regulations. Under the newly passed adult-use law in California, for example, all cannabis will need to be tested before it reaches store shelves.

While the precise testing requirements have yet to be finalized, the extent of the pesticide problem revealed in Steep Hill’s analysis indicates that many growers will need to change their practices to ensure that their products can be sold. This may make it more challenging for growers, but the public-health concerns raised by unfettered pesticide use are too significant to ignore.

John Kagia is executive vice president of industry analytics for New Frontier Data.



Diseases of the Will: Neuroscience Founding Father Santiago Ramón y Cajal on the Six Psychological Flaws That Keep the Talented from Achieving Greatness

Self-portrait by Cajal at his library in his thirties, from Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal

“Our neurons must be used … not only to know but also to transform knowledge; not only to experience but also to construct.”

“Principles are good and worth the effort only when they develop into deeds,” Van Gogh wrote to his brother in a beautiful letter about talking vs. doing and the human pursuit of greatness. “The great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together.” But what stands between the impulse for greatness and the doing of the “little things” out of which success is woven?

That’s what neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal (May 1, 1852–October 17, 1934) addresses in his 1897 book Advice for a Young Investigator (public library) — the science counterpart to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Anna Deavere Smith’s Letters to a Young Artist, predating one by nearly a decade and the other by more than a century.

Although Cajal’s counsel is aimed at young scientists, it is replete with wisdom that applies as much to science as it does to any other intellectually and creatively ambitious endeavor — nowhere more so than in one of the pieces in the volume, titled “Diseases of the Will,” presenting a taxonomy of the “ethical weaknesses and intellectual poverty” that keep even the most gifted young people from ascending to greatness.

It should be noted that Cajal addresses his advice to young men, on the presumption that scientists are male — proof that even the most visionary geniuses are still products of their time and place, and can’t fully escape the limitations and biases of their respective era, or as Virginia Woolf memorably put it in Orlando, “It is probable that the human spirit has its place in time assigned to it.” (Lest we forget, although the word “scientist” had been coined for a woman half a century earlier, women were not yet able to vote and were decades away from being admitted into European universities, so scientists in the strict academic sense were indeed exclusively male in Cajal’s culture.) Still, when stripped of its genderedness, his advice remains immensely psychologically insightful, offering a timeless corrective for the pitfalls that keep talent and drive from manifesting into greatness, not only in science but in any field.

Considering the all too pervasive paradox of creative people “who are wonderfully talented and full of energy and initiative [but] who never produce any original work and almost never write anything,” Cajal divides them into six classes according to the “diseases of the will” afflicting them — contemplators, bibliophiles and polyglots, megalomaniacs, instrument addicts, misfits, and theorists.

He examines the superficiality driving the “particularly morbid variety” of the first type:

[Contemplators] love the study of nature but only for its aesthetic qualities — the sublime spectacles, the beautiful forms, the splendid colors, and the graceful structures.

One of Cajal’s revolutionary histological drawings

With an eye to his own chosen field of histology, which he revolutionized by using beauty to illuminate the workings of the brain, Cajal notes that a contemplator will master the finest artistic techniques “without ever feeling the slightest temptation to apply them to a new problem, or to the solution of a hotly contested issue.” He adds:

[Contemplators] are as likable for their juvenile enthusiasm and piquant and winning speech as they are ineffective in making any real scientific progress.

More than a century before Tom Wolfe’s admonition against the rise of the pseudo-intellectual, Cajal treats with special disdain the bibliophiles and polyglots — those who use erudition not as a tool of furthering humanity’s enlightenment but as a personal intellectual ornament of pretension and vanity. He diagnoses this particular “disease of the will”:

The symptoms of this disease include encyclopedic tendencies; the mastery of numerous languages, some totally useless; exclusive subscription to highly specialized journals; the acquisition of all the latest books to appear in the bookseller’s showcases; assiduous reading of everything that is important to know, especially when it interests very few; unconquerable laziness where writing is concerned; and an aversion to the seminar and laboratory…





Hot People Can’t Seem to Stay in Relationships

Illustration by Dave van Patten

Tracy Moore

More options, more problems

As the old 1963 Jimmy Soul song advises, “If you wanna be happy for the rest of your life / never make a pretty woman your wife / so for my personal point of view / get an ugly girl to marry you.” While the notion was soon denounced for being retrograde, shallow, lookist and sexist — and the song itself would eventually be banned from the radio — the idea that pretty women are trouble has stuck with us culturally. New research confirms that more attractive people may actually have trouble staying in long-term relationships—but it’s just as true for men as it is for women.

Psychologist Christine Ma-Kellams at the University of California, Santa Cruz, recently published a study of four experiments in the journal Personal Relationships that found a link between being attractive and marriage length, Broadly reported. The four experiments found that men’s faces rated as more attractive (by independent coders) in two high school yearbooks from the ‘70s and ‘80s had briefer marriages; actors and actresses rated more attractive were married for less time; people rated more attractive who are in exclusive relationships tend to show more interest when presented with other potential relationship options; and when you make someone feel more attractive (by showing them pictures of less attractive people), they, too, will show more interest in other attractive people.

“I think attractiveness gives you more options in terms of relationship alternatives, which might make it harder to protect a relationship from outside threats,” Ma-Kellams told Broadly. “In this sense, having too many other choices is likely not beneficial for relationship longevity.”

The idea here is that if you don’t think you’re too hot to trot, you’re likely more invested in doing the work relationships require rather than ditching for sunnier pastures. But there are a few caveats here, which Ma-Kellams notes in the study. With the high school yearbook ratings, they were looking at pictures of 17- and 18-year old men — faces only — with no clear sense of how good looking they were later, or how well they aged.

With the other experiments, people were simply shown photographs of other attractive people, not interacting in any way. So though it’s worth noting that, depressingly, while just looking at other hot people may all it takes to make you perk up about a new romantic avenue, that doesn’t mean the people in those photographs are an actual threat — or that, in the end, you wouldn’t be motivated to make your existing hot-person relationship work.

However, what isn’t hard to understand here is that good-looking people have more options in the sexual marketplace, and when you have more options, you may not always think it’s worth doing the tedious, boring work of making a real relationship with another human last for the long haul. Why would you? There is always another hot person right outside, ready to give this thing a shot.

The idea of too many choices being a bummer instead of a boon isn’t new, either — the paradox of choice idea from Barry Schwartz argues that, at least on a consumer level, too much choice can be bad. The famous experiment involved consumers having 24 jars of jam to choose from versus six. Those staring down 24 options had more anxiety not just over picking one jam, but also with being happy with that choice later. The idea has since been criticized — new studies have found that no one likes just one option, either. And some research has shown that having a lot of choice is great when you know exactly what you want.

But back to that Jimmy Soul song. Another lyric in the song — “ An ugly woman cooks her meals on time / She’ll always give you peace of mind,” suggests that a woman who has fewer options and less beauty capital is going to be more invested in your happiness, more interested in pleasing you. We can assume this is because, ostensibly, she’s actually grateful to have you…