Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
12 Apr

Your Brain and The Primal Blueprint

Hi folks! I’m Emily Deans, M.D., a psychiatrist who normally blogs over at Evolutionary Psychiatry and at Psychology Today. However, Mark Sisson was kind enough to ask me to do a guest blog for Mark’s Daily Apple, and of course I am thrilled to oblige. My main interest is to explore how the differences in our modern lives and diets compared to a traditional/evolutionary experience may influence how our brains work and leave us more vulnerable to mental illness. If modern diets and lifestyle do leave us ragged in brain as well as body, The Primal Blueprint, being a practical diet and lifestyle that specifically emulates evolutionary conditions, would then theoretically be part of an antidote to modern mental health problems.

Certainly there are a number of anecdotes in the MDA forums of these Primal changes improving mood and anxiety problems, and some other anecdotes where mental state had no change or became worse. Of course, by the time our brains are strained enough to begin experiencing psychiatric symptoms, the problem can be complex and hard to undo. For now, let’s examine how a Primal Blueprint lifestyle and diet would presumably help the brain be healthy and resilient. Oftentimes diet and lifestyle changes are most effective as a preventative or protective measure, and treatment requires diet and lifestyle changes as well as more specific and personalized interventions.

To understand how Primal living would protect and nourish the brain, it’s important to understand a few things about how the brain works and what makes it vulnerable to modern diet and stress. First, the brain is very fatty (60% dry weight) and needs lots of the proper fatty precursors to work to the brain’s design specifications. That means having enough cholesterol and long chain omega 3 fatty acids (specifically DHA). A Primal Blueprint diet will supply these building blocks in spades. In fact, very low cholesterol is associated with violent death, accidents, and suicide, which I discuss at some length in this post, Low Cholesterol and Suicide. The association does not prove causation, of course, but I find it makes common sense and would be prudent to make sure we have the appropriate building blocks available for our nerves and synapses to work properly.

The second thing to understand about the brain is that it is hungry. It uses energy like gangbusters. Depending on what source you read, the brain makes up between 2.5-5% of our total body weight, but it uses around 20% of our energy. The reason it uses so much energy is because thought is expensive and basically runs on electricity. All this energy is used to pump ions across membranes, rather like ski lifts taking skiiers to the top of the hill. Once you have enough skiiers at the top, open a gate, set them loose, and they use all the stored energy to zip to the bottom. Thought runs the same way – ions are pumped against a charge gradient, so that when the proper signal comes, you have a whole host of ions to release and start that spark of nerve communication. But it takes a lot of energy to get those skiiers to the top of the hill, and it takes a lot of energy to keep the brain primed and working at maximum efficiency.

And here is where the problem with energy efficiency comes in – the brain uses so much energy that it is vital for brain health for the energy systems to be working at tip-top efficiency. If you start to overtax the systems, you get build-up of metabolic byproducts. Ion gradients discharged aren’t replaced as fast as they ought to be, and you end up with toxic brain signals being perpetuated, and inflammation gumming up the works. And it is not as if we can really decrease our need for our brains – we can’t just voluntarily stop all thinking, after all, and conscious thought is only a small part of the whole. We do use all of our brain – most of it for involuntary actions like breathing or posture control. Things we can’t just put a stop to when we need our brains to rest and recover. Poor energy efficiency and metabolic garbage building up is thought to play a part in a whole host of brain problems, including psychiatric disorders, migraines, autism, and dementia.

Fortunately, there are all sorts of things we can do to help with cellular energy efficiency in our bodies and brains. I don’t think it is a coincidence that these things line up with a Primal Blueprint diet and lifestyle – the Primal lifestyle is meant to mimic what our systems are “designed” for, after all, so it would make sense that our cells would work efficiently within a Primal paradigm. Energy for our animal cells is made primarily in the mitochondria – the power plants of the cells. Mitochondrial researchers (who, I’m guessing, know nothing about a Primal Blueprint lifestyle and diet), have come up with the following list of things that keep mitochondria happy and promote efficiency and clean energy:

  1. A high-fat diet and utilization of ketones – ketones require a bit less processing by the mitochondria to make energy than glucose does.
  2. A ready supply of energy and mitochondrial cofactors such as the animal flesh-derived carnitine and carnosine, along with the cholesterol buddy ubiquinone (CoEnzyme Q10), vitamin A, and the crew of B vitamins which are also utilized in the respiratory chain.
  3. Protein and/or calorie restriction which promotes the activation of PPAR (that is peroxisome-proliferator activated receptors). See, the mitochondria have two major types of garbage containment facilities, the lysosomes and the peroxisomes. They are the waste clean-up crew, and they become more active in states of protein restriction and ketosis. In addition, the old and inefficient mitochondria spewing more reactive oxygen species than they ought get properly decomissioned in states of protein restriction. This is one part of a positive clean-up process called “autophagy.” The Primal Blueprint diet, with the recommendation of intermittent fasting, will promote autophagy.
  4. Aerobic exercise seems to stimulate the creation of new, shiny, efficient mitochondria.

What sorts of things promote mitochondrial inefficiency and general dirty cell-killing, dementia promoting badness?

  1. Hyperglycemia
  2. Inactivity
  3. Micronutrient deficiencies
  4. Never dipping into ketosis

I find it striking how well a Primal Blueprint diet and lifestyle converge to make happy mitochondria (and by extension, a happy and efficient brain). Intermittent fasting combined with eating plenty of fat will promote ketosis and autophagy. Primal Blueprint dieters will be focused on eating whole, natural foods and nose-to-tail consumption to improve the chances of getting all the vitamins and micronutrients our mitochondria love. In addition, the amino acids such as creatine and carnosine that make mitochondria hum can be made from other essential amino acids, but are readily available from eating meat directly. And of course a key part of the Primal lifestyle is activity in reasonable levels of exertion and meaningful quantity. The Primal Blueprint diet, being antinflammatory and muscle-sparing, is the perfect fuel to spur activity.

In contrast, the Standard American Diet du jour will promote inflammation, hyperglycemia, weight gain, fatigue, and sedentary living. Micronutrient deficiencies will be the rule, unless one is exceedingly careful. One is told never to let 3 hours or more go by without eating lest the metabolism sputter to a halt. Restricting calories to the point of avoiding obesity only while eating 5-6 times a day is no picnic. Welcome constant food with constant hunger and constant restriction. One could hardly think of a more unnatural way to eat, or a better way to make for miserable free-radical spewing mitochondria, and eventually a cranky brain.

When you have a happy brain, you will still (and should still!) experience sadness when things go bad, or stress in hard times, but you will be more focused, energetic, and motivated. You will be resilient and should be able to relax easily. To me it seems a Primal brain is more likely to be a happy brain, and the first prescription should always be whole, nutrient-dense food, avoidance of inflammation, appropriate exercise, sleep, and play.

Read more articles written by Emily Deans, M.D. at Evolutionary Psychiatry

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Thanks to all for the interesting post and comments! I love the MDA community. Could I ask a question?

    Generally, since giving up grains and starches, my experience has mirrored other MDA readers: more calmness, more energy, more focus, just more JOY. But….

    If I eat low carb (under 30 grams/day) for more than six or seven days, I experience strange, vague feelings of fear or dread, out of the blue. They go away if I raise my carb intake by eating more vegetables or having a cheat day. What does this mean?

    I read somewhere that when the body isn’t getting glucose from diet it makes its own, and that this process uses or produces adrenalin, which can cause anxiety.

    Is this true? Has anyone else experienced this? Thank you!

    A Reader wrote on April 13th, 2011
    • Low carb flu? Carbs can also increase intake of tryptophan into the brain (precursor for serotonin) – before things equilibrate there can be some anxiety.

      Emily Deans wrote on April 13th, 2011
  2. I am happier too, particularly since ditching PUFAs, including nuts. But. I am not necessarily calmer. I was saying in the forums that sometimes I am filled with a kind of righteous indignation that feels like lava flowing up in my body. It feels like some kind of power, not exactly pleasant but not unpleasant. It happens when a powerless person is being mistreated. Sometimes it’s me: it happened when I was being sexually harassed along with other women in the ‘hood, last summer. I finally felt that lava flow one day and let the main perp have it! It worked.

    At my job there are some serious injustices. Recently I called out those perps also. I am going to leave this job soon because of all the problems, but I’m not worried: I think I can find a better one. Before, I probably would have thought that I had to stay at a job I didn’t like because I couldn’t find another one.

    shannon wrote on April 13th, 2011
  3. Fantastic article. Glad to see the connection between ketogenic diets and dementia getting some press. I’ve spent the last few weeks going through dozens of articles on Pubmed relating to studies conducted on Alzheimer’s patients and the possible correlation between insulin resistance, hyperinsulinemia and Alzheimer’s.

    Countless studies have shown dramatic increases in cognitive ability when Alzheimer’s patients are put on a ketogenic diet high in MCTs. The general con-census for this being that people who are insulin resistant have a pour ability to utilize glucose for energy; putting them into a ketogenic state allows for their brain to utilize ketones as a source of energy, restoring some function that was previously inhibited by pour glucose tolerance. I’d love to hear some professionals weigh in on this.

    Stefan wrote on April 13th, 2011
  4. OUTSTANDING post! As an educational psychologist and part-time psychology instructor, I actually teach a unit on primal living, and have my local crossfit coach, Jason Seib, come and speak to my students. This article confirms what I have been telling students in terms of the mind-body connection and the relationship to mental illness symptom mitigation through lifestyle.

    Cheers Mark for bringing in more expertise to confirm what we experience!

    Michael wrote on April 13th, 2011
  5. As usual, excellent piece. As a regualr reader, my advice to anyone who *isn’t* reading Dr. Deans’ blog is they are missing one of THE best of the best in the ancestral health world.

    Interestingly I came across this “paleo diet assessment” in a WebMD email today.It is good in that it get more word out there and also in that they didn’t go what I’d call crazy-negative in the assessment. However, it is always back to the same-old, same old with claims for the need for grains and the claim that your diet will somehow be deficient producing the need for careful monitoring and supplementation…ARGH..

    mem wrote on April 13th, 2011
  6. mem wrote on April 13th, 2011
  7. I have been primal for over a year now and noticed that on my recent trip to Europe, my jet lag was minimal. I figured I was finally getting good at doing things to prevent jetlag, but after reading this, I think the PB lifestyle is more to blame. While there, I made sure I walked a few miles every day and that is a big part of it and is a big part of PB. Thanks Mark for another great one.

    Joe wrote on April 13th, 2011
  8. Great article – guest writers for the blog is a great idea.

    I love your analogy of the ski lift too. I’m a medical chemistry major and a psychology minor. Fascinating article!

    Drama wrote on April 13th, 2011
  9. This is exactly what I want to study when I graduate from college… I’d really like to be able to read the original research article. Do you think you could link it or at least name the title and author? I’d love to read further!

    Agatha wrote on April 13th, 2011
  10. I feel like my brain is waking up. I feel so much more focused! The Primal lifestyle has me sailing through my husband’s deployment without depression or anxiety. (I have a history of depression, which is why this is remarkable!)

    Jessica wrote on April 13th, 2011
  11. Thanks for sharing? I was happier just reading this. Very interesting all around.

    Lauren wrote on April 14th, 2011
    • Sorry, I didn’t mean to put a question mark after sharing but a period. I really did like the article!

      Lauren wrote on April 14th, 2011
  12. Hi Melissa, discovered your blog a few months ago, so I was excited to see you over here on the Daily Apple! Enjoyed the article and am fascinated with the relationship between food and mental health.

    I was wondering what you think of whey protein? I have been reading lately about whey protein fractions and some of their specific effects:

    Attention Span


    Also, Trans-palmitoleic acid from whole milk seems to have excellent anti-inflammatory/cardiovascular effects:

    I would be interested to know more about your take on dairy…

    Mark Anderson wrote on April 14th, 2011
  13. This one is going to my archive for sure. It couldn’t be more concise and, for someone like me who became interested in the human psyche first before human physiology, nutrition, and biomechanics, this is a very nice “round-trip” for me. Everything makes so much sense.
    Bravo. Thanks Emily and Mark for posting this.

    Jess wrote on April 14th, 2011
  14. Excellent article! I had some pretty horrible depression issues in my early 20’s and I am convinced much of it was related to my diet at the time. Since going Primal, balancing Omega6:0mega3 intake and removing grains my life has literally changed. It improved both my mind and my body.

    Nina wrote on April 15th, 2011
  15. Who benefits most from the recommendation to each five small meals a day?

    The snack food industry!

    Yes – the Primal lifestyle enables people to be more resourceful and resilient.

    GWhitney wrote on April 19th, 2011
  16. I wish there was an unspoken rule here at MDA that all posters inform us of (1) how long they have been living primally and (2) how serious their commitment has been, e.g., on a percentage scale. The problem is that people get very excited by major life changes and that excitement in turn may produce a sense of euphoria and inner peace. This is a wonderful thing, but I think that even a conversion to, say, veganism, or christianity, or islam, etc, no doubt may produce the same feelings of control and peace, at least in the short term. And of course the very reason placebo controls are used in clinical trials is proof of the power of the mind to affect physiology and metabolism in novel situations. If we here are interested in truth rather than dogmatism, then we really need to know how much we can attribute an individual’s positive changes to primal living versus a more general effect of major life changes per se.

    I raise this issue because I have been primal for 2.5 years with a 95% commitment on average, and I too experienced a wonderful sense of peace and strength in the first 10 months or so. Unfortunately, those feelings have been gone for quite some time now and my life-long struggles with depression and anxiety have returned with full force. I am at a rock-bottom low in my life and I must say that it is difficult to even find the strength to post my comment. I am trying very hard not to be a ‘drop-out’ blogger. If other depressives who go primal have similar difficulties then blog comments will be strongly biased towards the fortunate euphorics. Moreover, the comment bias can make those struggling feel, unfairly, like odd-ball outliers and only blame themselves for their problems and make depression all the worse.

    So please read comments with caution (including this one) and in the future let us know how long and how deeply committed you are to primal living. Maybe then we can get a little closer to understanding cause and effect.

    mike o'malley wrote on May 16th, 2011
    • I have been Primal for 1 year and 6 weeks.
      I did not change my eating habits because I was vain and just wanted to look good naked.
      My goal was to heal my severe digestive problems and fatique. I tried everything from cardio, starvation, ditching eggs, ditching wheat, eating organic, I even tried vegetarianism…which lasted 4 weeks until I passed out on the toilet.

      I did not know that ALL grains (I ate sesamebread), veggie spread, marmalades, chocolate, ultra-heated milk + all the other garbage the food companies put into packaged (even organic) foods now would cause me such great harm. And I thought I was eating ” healthy”.
      I also had ‘mini heart attacks’ several times a year.

      No more ‘mini heart attacks’due to lack of saturated fats, no more brittle nails and hair, no more digestive problems, no more PMS, no more muscle aches, no more joint pain, soft spots on teeth healed up, teeth are whiter, eyes are brighter, no more slime build up in my throat, no more sinus problems, no more sneezing, no colds ever, no more fatique, no more sugar cravings, no more temper fits and the list goes on.

      I am 99% committed…the 1% is when I get invited to someones house and get ‘healthy organic home-made carrot cake’ offered…for the sake of a couple friendships I have to give in. This does not happen often, maybe 4x a year total.

      Eating primally has not affected any other aspects of my life. I have several other goals in life and I’m looking forward to achieving all of them. I needed my health to do all those other things and I’ve achieved that to where nothing else stands in my way now.

      Suvetar wrote on May 16th, 2011
    • And…sorry I forgot to make the most important point of my post…I have no chance of going back to my old eating habits because even 1 slice of that carrot cake or 1 slice of pizza or 2 slices of bread plug me up so bad that I’m miserable, bloated, have hard stools and be constipated for 2 weeks…it’s that bad. This ‘Diet’ was the cure for all my health problems.

      Suvetar wrote on May 16th, 2011
  17. My brain is defo loving the new high fat way of eating. I too used to suffer from brain fog, poor motivation, lethargy, a habit of feeling like I just wanted to fall asleep all the time. Added to that I had to eat really regularly or I would feel sick and shaky and have weird palpitations. I feel really focussed now. I used to need ten hours of sleep a night at least. I got up at 8am today and went to the gym. I was also focussed enough to go to the supermarket after. My head is so clear that I can deal with being a bit tired when that happens. I seriously think I may have been heading for some sort of insulin issue, maybe even headed for type II who knows. My Mum gets the low blood sugar thing as well. I no longer get it since being primal. Low carb helped but primal was the key.

    Polecatz wrote on May 21st, 2011
  18. I find it very worrying that so many people are trying to lose weight by going on a low fat diet. No wonder there are so many brain-related diseases on the increase such as Alzheimer’s and Autism.

    April wrote on May 28th, 2012

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