Food as Medicine: Deep Dive into Nutritional Neuroscience with Sidney Murray
If you’ve followed the blog for a while now or tune into the topics I discuss on my Instagram, you’re well aware that I’m a firm believer in the power of food and nutrition to feed and heal our bodies. I’m fascinated by how what we eat can make us feel our best or our worst — a reality that greatly influenced my desire to pursue holistic health coaching in the first place.
So when Sidney Murray, a sorority sister of mine from our Wake Forest days (go Deacs!) reached out to me about her own path in the field of nutritional neuroscience, I knew I had to pick her brain (no pun intended). Sidney is currently pursuing her PhD in Behavior, Cognition and Neuroscience — aka how diet and nutrition affect the brain. Her area of focus is the alleviation of psychiatric and neurological disorders through food, as dramatic improvements in people’s lives have been observed without the need for pharmaceuticals.
Below is my Q&A conversation with Sidney in which she dives deep into her experience in the nutritional neuroscience field and shares important, tangible knowledge we can all take into account while filling our plates and fueling our minds.
Q: Tell us a bit about your background, what you’re studying & why you chose this path?
“I majored in psychology at Wake Forest University (where I met Georgia!) and developed a passion for the area of eating disorders and body image. I’ve experienced and witnessed the decimation that eating disorders and body image dissatisfaction have on people’s lives and relationships. So, I wanted to research methods of recovery. I finished my Masters in Experimental Psychology at Appalachian State University this past spring where I researched body image and eating disorder correlates.
I just started my PhD in Behavior, Cognition, and Neuroscience at American University, where I am researching nutritional neuroscience. Our lab investigates the consequences of diet on psychiatric and neurological diseases. Nutritional neuroscience has implications for eating disorders that is still fairly new research. So, that’s exciting for me.”
Q: What do you hope to do with your degree?
“So many things! This early in my career, I’m very open to whatever adventure comes my way. One thing I’ve had in mind for a while is being a principal investigator of a lab for the National Institute of Health or the National Science Foundation.
In these positions, you apply for grants from the government based on research questions you and your lab develop. The creativity and potential to make a difference in this position is really attractive to me.”
Q: What is “nutritional neuroscience”?
“Nutritional neuroscience is the combination of the academic fields of nutrition and neuroscience (shocker! haha). What that means is, this field focuses on how nutrients affect the brain at a cellular level. It also kind of parallels studying the effects of pharmaceuticals in that you’re constantly comparing and contrasting pros/cons of whole food nutritional neuroprotection and pharmaceutical neuroprotection methods.
I would say a goal of most nutritional neuroscientists is to mitigate or, in some cases, completely eliminate, the need for pharmaceuticals in treating psychiatric and neurological disorders through knowledgeable intake of whole, clean food and the elimination of processed foods from the diet. Another big goal is also preventing the onset of these diseases as well.”
“A goal of most nutritional neuroscientists is to mitigate or, in some cases, completely eliminate, the need for pharmaceuticals in treating psychiatric and neurological disorders through knowledgeable intake of whole, clean food and the elimination of processed foods from the diet. “
Q: What is some of the most shocking or interesting research you’ve come across on this topic?
“The most shocking research is definitely among the animal studies of aspartame intake and MSG intake (e.g., Olney & Sharpe, 1968; Olney et al., 1972). Aspartame and MSG are food additives that cause brain lesions in experimental animals in forms of neuronal death and tumor growth. These additives are called excitotoxins, because they literally excite our glutamate receptor neurons, our most prevalent type of excitatory neurotransmitters in the brain, to death.
Humans are actually even more sensitive to overly high levels of glutamate (some of which comes from our diet) than experimental animals like mice and monkeys. So, these lesions we see in the animal subjects are almost certainly happening in us to a greater degree. In fact, as our country increased its use of MSG and aspartame in food and drink, we have seen a rise in psychiatric and neurological disorders — big ones being anxiety, depression, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
“In fact, as our country increased its use of MSG and aspartame in food and drink, we have seen a rise in psychiatric and neurological disorders — big ones being anxiety , depression, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t widely disseminated knowledge as the FDA has declared these products safe enough, which is why they are still on the shelves of our grocery stores. There is a lot of financial interest in keeping these popular food products (i.e., diet sodas, packaged soups, many brands of potato chips, even some breads) that contain these excitotoxins on the shelves. The book Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills by Russell Blaylock is a great read for people with a bit of a bio background who would like to learn more about food additives and excitotoxicity.”
Q: What are the most common nutrient deficiencies people suffer from & what are the repercussions?
“Magnesium deficiency is a huge problem in our country. Magnesium is a natural neuroprotectant, which, simply put, means even in the face of excitotoxins, magnesium makes your brain cells harder to kill.
So, we have a twofold problem in the U.S. of high excitotoxin intake and low magnesium intake. This makes our neurons extremely vulnerable to excitotoxic injury. Unfortunately, the most vulnerable areas of our brain (the areas our blood-brain barrier doesn’t cover as well) are extremely consequential. For example, the hypothalamus is pretty vulnerable to free glutamate. Neuronal death in this area has implications for insomnia and anger. The hippocampus has a ton of glutamate receptors, and death of these results in Alzheimer’s.
So, getting enough magnesium from foods like spinach, broccoli, and bananas are great decisions you can make for protecting your brain. Our brains’ other best friends are Vitamin E, Omega-3s, and Zinc. It’s best to get these nutrients from whole foods rather than supplements. Supplements can be too much (our brains thrive on a delicate balance), and also many come in gels that contain free glutamate.”
Q: What is your perspective on the use of pharmaceuticals versus diet & lifestyle changes in order to improve certain disorders as well as overall health?
“I’m a firm believer that pharmaceuticals should be a last resort. Therefore, probably a pretty small percentage of people should be on them. I think the first area we need to address to protect our health is what we’re eating and drinking. Everything we put into our body is some kind of drug, really.
Overall, research in the field suggests that whole foods free of additives are important for prevention of both psychiatric and neurological disorders as well as the slowing of neurodegenerative disease, and the treatment of psychiatric disease. A good rule of thumb when it comes to ingredients is ‘if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it!’”
“A good rule of thumb when it comes to ingredients is ‘if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it!’”
Q: How can the average person “hack” their health through nutrition?
“Knowledge is power. So, educate yourself through science. A lot of food companies will produce ‘research’ that may be rigged to make their product look safe or even claim that it is ‘healthy.’ These studies are to be treated with caution. Typically, studies done by academic scientists — meaning those not being paid by a food/drink company — are trustworthy.
Of course, many scientists who work for food companies conduct honest research too. And, sometimes non-food company related science is low quality too. You just have to be aware that whoever is funding studies may have more influence than they should.
Along these lines, MSG-producing companies have created ways to hide excitotoxic ingredients in our food by giving them disguise names. For example, ‘Natural flavor,’ ‘Spices,’ and ‘Seasoning’ are common labels that hide MSG ingredients. If you can’t put the ingredient in a recipe from your kitchen (that is, if you don’t explicitly know what an ingredient is) it is often a good idea to steer clear.
The thing about neurological disorders is that they’re probably due to a cumulative effect of excitotoxic assault on the brain. This is why a lot of the neurological disorders are expressed later in life, such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. There has been, say, six to seven decades of MSG and aspartame intake in the typical American diet by the time the disease is expressed. It is actually amazing that our brains hold it together for as long as they do, as often as they do.”