How does our food affect our brains?
How can we eat so we feel good, consistently?
Jason Wrobel is the bestselling author of the cookbook and lifestyle guide, Eaternity, and the first plant-based chef with a primetime TV series. However, after struggling with depression, Jason narrowed his focus to the nuanced effects of food on our biology and psychology. What he discovered changed everything.
Jason: My name is Jason Andrew Wrobel. I do many things.
Probably most known for and celebrated for being a chef, TV host, cookbook author, foody, lover of flavor, lover of bringing people together in celebration over the act of nourishment, standup comedian ... which I've been doing for the past two years, which allows me to do things unrelated to food, which is great. And I can talk about all kinds of subject matter beyond that.
And just recently got back into music. Music was actually my first love, and I sang for years in punk bands, funk bands, soul bands, all kinds of different stuff. So food is still paying the mortgage, feeding the cats and the dog, buying new motorcycles and all other kind of fun material fetishes, but, you know, I like to unleash and do the comedy and the music too.
Jeff: Well, when I think of you, Jason, I think of that like exuberant, happy, healthy funk singer. Can you give me like just a taste?
Jason: Yeah, so there's so many songs I could sing, and you know, I grew up in Detroit so the Motown thing is there. (singing) Yeah.
Jeff: Man, you're crushing it. You are from Detroit.
Jason: I am, born and raised in the city! In the city, man.
Jeff: And then I've seen you at events, and you're like doing like jumping jacks and hopping up, and people are going crazy and screaming, and yelling, and there's this like exuberant enthusiasm that's just like oozing from you. But that's not always the way it was.
Jason: No, you know I've always been an extrovert. I think, first of all, because that was my natural default as a child just to jump out on a stage, even at a young age. When my mom got my into theater and acting, when I was really, really young, probably about three or four years old, I had this innate ... not only fearlessness being in front of large groups of people just being myself ... but I loved the natural interplay on a live stage, of the energetic exchange.
Like, that I would make somebody laugh or entertain them, or cause some sort of emotional response in them, and seeing that live and in person and in real time, even as a kid, was such an interesting exchange. But for me, there's been an aspect of playing the entertainer, or playing the hype man, or the guy in the room who raises the roof on the energy, that for years was kind of hard to maintain because I was struggling with my own emotional issues, and clinical depression, and suicidal tendencies.
And about four, five, six years ago it was a dark, dark time in my life, which was ironic in a way, because it was also one of the most successful times in my life career wise.
Jeff: And I mean you're not alone. This has kind of grown into an epidemic. There's 50,000,000 people in the United States, one out of every five adults, more or less, that suffer from mental health issues or depression. So, but you have to often tackle it and confront it, at least at the beginning, alone.
So I'm curious, like kind of take us back there four or five years ago, when you were really kind of in the depths of it. And how did you began to address the issues of your depression?
Jason: Right around 2012 probably, when I got my TV deal with Food Network and Cooking Channel, this was a humongous moment for me professionally, so something that I had dreamed of for, at that point, probably ten years, of, "I really want a TV series and I was to bring this food, and this entertainment, and this positive energy to the world!" But it's an interesting thing, you know, they always say be careful what you wish for, and what brought a lot of financial and career success also brought a lot of really huge challenges emotionally and spiritually for me. Because I started to choose to take on a lot of pressure in my life. Of now the stakes are a lot higher because there's a lot more money involved and the platform is bigger.
And I felt creatively ready for it, and I felt mentally ready for it in certain ways, but just the amount of pressure I felt to do a good job and have this dream of ten years finally come, and I had to knock it out of the park and I had to do a good job ... and what basically happened was all of the insecurities that I had not dealt with in my life, all of the abandonment issues that I hadn't dealt with from my relationship with my father from childhood, all of the ego of me thinking like, "This is a career-defining moment, don't screw it up!"
There was such a perfect storm of mental and spiritual considerations and challenges that, as I was shooting the series and working on my first cookbook, I was just in a spiral. And I was working so hard and so focused on the outcome of making these things successful, like we got to have a ... it's not just enough to have a TV series, it's got to be a hit! It's not just enough to have a book deal with Hayhouse, it's got to be a best seller.
And I put all of these expectations on myself and there was so much pressure from my manager, and my agent, and everyone involved, and in early 2014 after two years, they canceled the series. And the first book deal I had on the table got yanked, and my manager dropped me, and my agent dropped me, and my partner of three years dumped me. And this was all in a 60 day period.
And I found myself in my kitchen finally after just not even being able to get out of bed, thinking, "You know what, I'm done." And I thought it was this really kind of twisted, macabre, poetic way to kill myself by just stabbing myself repeatedly with my own chef's knife. It was this bizarre romantic notion I had of, "Okay, everyone's killing themselves in all these other modern ways. What if I just take my favorite chef's knife and I started writing this note, and I had the knife in my hand?"
And I remember this moment, I don't know what it was, spirit, God, angels, I don't know, but a voice and a presence other than my own posited a question and said, "Do you really want to die?"
And it gave me a moment of pause as I was contemplating doing it. "I'm just gonna do it now." And that moment created a very important distinction for me, which was I didn't want to die, I didn't want to leave this reality and actually kill my physical body. I just wanted my suffering to end. That was a massage distinction. And from that point forward it was like, "What does that even mean?"
So I'm suffering physically, I'm suffering emotionally, I'm suffering spiritually, so I have to figure out some sort of protocol to address every single one of these areas of my life, because I am at the lowest point I've ever been in my life right now. So I mean, that was really the thing that kicked off this exploration into brain health, and how nutrition and food affects our brain chemistry, and our gut, and our emotions, and the role of really taking psychotherapy and somatic experiencing seriously, and looking at a lot of these traumatic incidents from my past and trying to heal them and integrate them into being more present in the moment.
And having a daily meditation practice. I mean I went full on, because it was like if I don't do this I'm going to kill myself. So it's either I'm going to kill myself, which I'm clear now I don't want to do. I just don't want to suffer.
Jeff: Yeah, you gave yourself a stay.
Jason: That's it. I have to figure this out, there's not other choice. As much money or time or effort as this takes, I have to finally ask for help and not isolate myself anymore. That was a massive thing, because until that point it was like, "Ah, I can just figure this out. I got this. I've been studying nutrition for 18 year, I can ... Nah, I got this."
So honestly after creating that distinction, Jeff, it was just asking for help. That was a huge part of just moving out of that isolation and darkness, was just having the courage to say, "I am deeply suffering, and I have been wanting to die for a long time, and I need help."
Jeff: And so you're a chef, and so part of your exploration is naturally gonna be about the thing that you're closest to, right? Food. So talk to me a little bit about that, about how you began to create the connection between food and eating habits with your emotional wellbeing, and how those things are linked, and that's a lot to talk about there.
Jason: Yeah, when it comes to the physical part of this healing protocol that I wanted to explore, and with all the research that I had done, I was and still am not necessarily an expert on brain health, because that is such a massive, wide open field that even the experts acknowledge, like, "We are just barely scratched the surface on understanding neurobiology."
But to me it was clear that perhaps instead of automatically turning to a pharmaceutical approach, there was a way that I could optimize my nutrition or my eating, or eat certain things that could influence my brain chemistry.
But I needed to know exactly what was going in my body, because I didn't want to take an approach where you go to the natural food store and they've got the giant supplement section. And it's like, "I have low energy. I don't know. It could be B vitamins. I can't sleep at night. I don't know, maybe it's magnesium." And I feel like a lot of people in this world kind of take that approach, where they put the blindfold on and they throw darts at a dartboard, trying to hit the bullseye.
I thought, if I'm going to start to optimize this, I need to know exactly what's going on in my body. So the first thing I did was found a holistic doctor, an integrated medicine doctor here in Los Angeles by the name of Dr. Allen Green, he's in West L.A. And I went to him and I gave him my whole story. I said, "This is what's going on." And we ordered a full blood panel screening. We ordered a neurotransmitter test to get a very clear snapshot of exactly what was going on, not only with my physiology but my brain chemistry. That allowed us to create a supplementation plan and adjust my diet accordingly. But not knowing those specifics, it's very hard to dial in what your body actually needs.
Jeff: Right. So this is something that's a very, very clear actionable takeaway for people who want to explore kind of what's going on in their brain chemistry, and potentially make changes, whether that's in their diet or with supplements, or with other things. But in order to actually understand, you need to do that blood work to understand where you're deficient, is that right?
Jason: Yeah. That's my personal experience. It's also the experience of other people in this field who have adjusted their nutrition and lifestyle. As much as I'm a super creative, you know, wild entertainer, I'm also very analytical and I love science and I'm a nutrition geek. To me, once we got the results back, as an example, with my life, you know, we looked at all my primary neurotransmitters, and I think only two were moderately functioning.
He looked at me, and Dr. Green said, "Well, it's no wonder you've been wanting to take your own life." He's like, "You are scientifically, clinically depressed and we need to do something to boost your neurotransmitter function." My vitamin D was low, my vitamin C was low, my EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids, my magnesium. And he started to describe these corollaries of, "Okay, here's what these nutrients do for your chemistry of the body. Here's how they affect your mood and your brain. Here's why we think your neurotransmitters are low."
It wasn't just a nutrition thing, it was like, "Look, you need to go see a psychotherapist and work on a lot of these trauma points that are causing you stress and anxiety." At that point I was meditating casually. I was a casual meditator. I was going to yoga. But he's like, "Look, try daily meditation. Before you turn the cell phone on, before you start getting roped in to all the responsibilities of your career, carve out at least a solid half hour of silent reflection for you."
And I took it like gangbusters, because my back was against the wall. It was literally do or die. Like you're either going to do this and heal and pull yourself out of this dark pit, or the alternative is gruesome. So I was very motivated-
Jeff: Yeah. Wouldn't it be-
Jason: ...to [crosstalk 00:17:31] my life.
Jeff: Wouldn't it be great if we didn't have to sink to this crazy inflection point to actually take care of ourselves? Because it's so often that that's the way it is.
Jason: It's odd, right?
Jeff: So, in our society and in the newspapers today, we hear a lot about opioids. But mostly these are synthetic opioids that are being overprescribed. Oxycontin, Fentanyl, that have led to kind of this epidemic. But there are naturally-occurring opioids that can fire in your brain, that make you happy. So can you talk about that, what those are, and how they are associated with what you eat.
Jason: Yeah, yes, absolutely. Yeah, so the beauty of the human body is that we have the ability to manufacture all the chemicals we need, right? The body is this brilliant machine that again, we have such a basic understanding of. But what we do know, is that if we take something like dopamine, for instance, as you mentioned.
You know, dopamine is this neurotransmitter that's responsible for drive, and focus, and like the get 'er done, and "I got this," and, "The world is mine." And that very motivating, positive, forward-moving emotional state, when you're just on fire and you feel like you're crushing it in life. And you wake up every morning with purpose and passion and focus. That's a healthy dopamine function.
So, if we're feeling low on dopamine, conversely, we're not going to feel motivated. We're going to feel like, "God, what's the point? You know, every time I try something, it just fails. I'm a piece of crap. They've got a million followers on Instagram and I've got a thousand." You know, those kind of thoughts, and those kind of debilitating, lack of motivating type of thought forms could be related to a dopamine deficiency.
If we're talking about things that boost dopamine, we know that along with endorphins, pretty consistent physical exercise has been shown to boost endorphins and dopamine. Sort of that rush you get after you go the gym, or have a really hot yoga class, or go running. Great for that rush, makes you feel like you can conquer the world. That's a really easy thing. And that's one thing I wasn't doing. If I go back to my self-care routine in terms of my depression, was, I wasn't moving my body at all. So it was like no wonder your endorphins are low. No wonder your dopamine is low, because you're just not moving, dude. So that's a really easy way.
You know, you mentioned serotonin, huge one. That's this feeling of calm and all is well, and everything is going good in my world. It's the sense of peace and serenity and connection and everything is going wonderfully. Those are the primary emotions associated with good serotonin levels. And you know, if we eat things that are super healthy, like cacao is good, blue-green algae, spirulina, chlorella. These are all really high protein, highly nutrient-dense blue-green algaes. Things like hemp seeds, things like sprouted organic nuts, things that are really healthy in monounsaturated fats that nourish the brain chemistry.
That's the big thing with this, is I think low fat diets can actually restrict a lot of brain growth and brain development, so fat is actually your friend. I'm a big, big proponent of eating fats for brain health. So if we're talking about generalized boosting of these opioids, these natural opioids and neurotransmitters, there are specific foods we can incorporate into our diets right now, that can help to optimize our function.
Jeff: And so, on your journey, you started to integrate a lot of these foods based upon the kind of diagnosis that you were getting from your doctor and from tests. So, how did your diet evolve over the last four or five years?
Jason: I started supplementing. I was never supplementing prior to that, and there's two reasons for that. Number one, a lot of people in the natural food or wellness worlds are like, "Ah, you don't need to take supplements. They're toxic, they're bad for your liver, and you can get all the nutrients you need from food."
I think that that is a noble aim, but I think with the amount of topsoil erosion and mineral depletion in most of our soil where our food is grown, unless you are growing your food in your own backyard, and you know what the mineral content is, and you're feeding the soil yourself, the amount of nutrients in the soil are horrifically depleted compared to not only our parents' generation, but our grandparents and great-grandparents. So I think food was naturally more nutrition, you know, two to three to four generations ago, simply because the soil was richer, because we weren't destroying it with synthetic herbicides and pesticides.
So when people say, "Oh, you can get all the nutrients you need from food," I think it's a misnomer because by and large, from a nutritional density standpoint, most food is not as nutritious as it used to be, because of the erosion of the soil and all the pesticides we've used. But I also think there ... you know, for me, the reason I started supplementing three, four years ago, Jeff, was in the tests that I got, there was genetic testing.
And I'm going to geek out pretty hardcore right now, but there was a gene mutation that we discovered called the MTHFR gene. And what this means is that my body is not able to efficiently extract, assimilate, and utilize folate, vitamin B9 from food. Well, that's important because folate is really important for neurological development, brain health, in particular, pregnant women or women that are expecting have to have higher amounts of folate. So getting an MTHFR gene test is crucial.
So what this means is, because I'm genetically not able to utilize folate from food, I need to be on a folate supplement the rest of my life. Now there's no way, there's no possible way I could have known that unless I went and invested in a test. And now I know, great, well I've got to be on certain supplements, this one in particular. I do take a B complex vitamin supplement because that's harder to get on a primarily plant-based diet. I do take a DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acid supplement because I don't care to eat fish because of the toxicity in fish, and also been vegan for a while.
So I do take about five or six supplements every single day that I feel are healthy. And the interesting thing was, I was not a vitamin or supplement guy before this. I was on that train of like, "I'm just going to get it from food." But I remember about two weeks into the supplement routine, after I started seeing Dr. Green. I'd never felt this before. I was taking my supplements, about an hour after, it felt like fireworks were going off in my brain. It was such an odd and interesting sensation. It was almost as if my brain chemistry was like, "Thank you. We've been wanting this." So I think the supplementation's been one thing.
Eating much cleaner, simpler, more nutritious foods. Whereas I don't default to as much sugar or junk food anymore. I mean, sugar was my Achilles heel for most of my life. Sugar fiend right here. Like just, anytime I'm feeling stressed or lonely or sad, just reach for the sugar. So I've done a lot of adjustments to feel better, but those are the big ones.
Jeff: Yeah. So I wanted to follow up on what you just said, because I think a lot of people talk a little bit about the association between particular emotional states and particular consumption patterns. Right?
Jeff: And maybe the first step is generating the awareness to be able to say, "Okay, well, when I'm stressed, I eat cookies." Or whatever. Right?
Jeff: That's basic. But can you elaborate on that a little bit, and also kind of give us some techniques. Like journaling, for example. Of like literally having that awareness of like, "Okay, well, whoa, look, I ate this when I was feeling this way and now that's a pattern."
Jason: I think the resistance to change is a real thing for all of us.
Jason: It's resistance in general. It's a whole 'nother conversation. But in relation to this, how I started creating steps was ... You mentioned creating a food journal. I actually had a tiny journal that I kept in and still do ... Well, it's in my living room now, but in my kitchen where every time I would eat a meal, it wasn't as important to me to write down, say, the macro nutrients or the micro nutrients. I wasn't focused on that, per se. I wasn't really worried about calorie count or protein. A food journal's great for that, though. And there are online calculators you can use to do all that stuff. But I was more importantly focused on what I was eating and why I was eating and how I was feeling. That's what I was focusing on.
I started noticing ... You talk about patterns, right? We're so in our mode. We get in our modes in life, that we're ... One of the things I love about all the work that we're doing and we've done the past few years is that it's all about this conscious awareness and presence of, "Can I really be focused on my hand is on this matcha, and I'm really being present to the weight of it and the feel of it and the sip of it." I'm gonna take a sip right now, actually. How present can we be?
It's this thing of, "Wow." When I'm feeling, to be blunt, lonely, horny, needy, heartbroken, I noticed that every time I would wolf down an entire chocolate bar, or plow through an entire pint of ice cream, and this is not the stuff that goes on social, right? It's like ... I think there's a lot more vulnerability now, authentic vulnerability showing up on social, but four or five years ago, no. And it was just highlight reel, right? I was caught in that, too. It's like, I'm not gonna sit here on my Insta story and be like, "Hey guys. Yeah, I'm lonely and horny and depressed and heartbroken. Guess what I'm eating tonight? Arctic Zero. They have a new vegan one." It's like, these are not the things that I was sharing back then.
But I noticed that that was the trigger point for me, those specific emotions. It wasn't stress around money. It wasn't stress around career, it wasn't ... It was just this idea that, this lie of the mind that I'm gonna end up alone. I'm never gonna find my partner. I don't have any inherent value as a man or a boyfriend or a ... And then it spirals into, but I'm so successful and I have all this money now, and I'm on TV and blah. Why don't I have? Why am I ... I'm screwed up. I thought that when the money and the success and the fame and all this stuff came, that would be the answer to everything. And it's so interesting, because we hear this from Jim Carrey and, recently, Demar Derozan, this NBA player, that they're like, "Dude. Fame and money is ... Wake up. This is not gonna cure everything in your life and suddenly make you not feel less than." And I had my own experience of that.
Once I started noticing in my journal, okay, feeling less than. Feeling like a failure. Feeling like I'm not a man. Feeling lonely. I'll never have a life partner. In those moments, I was getting better at, instead of reaching for the cookies, ice cream, and chocolate bars, having a presence practice of asking myself what do I really need right now? Literally stopping myself from grabbing the sweet thing and saying, "What do I really need right now?"
And sometimes, it was literally texting a friend and being like, "You know what? This feels really weird to request this, but could you just come over and hold me for a little while?" And for me, as a man in American society, the way I was raised, to request that from a person, a non-sexual thing. I just need to be held right now and cry in someone's arms. That took ... Oh, God. It was like at first I felt like I was dying inside. But to have the presence to know that I just needed human touch and human interaction, not the sugar, that to me was the value of that practice. It still is.
Jeff: Yeah. Becoming vulnerable, it's the hardest thing in the world.
Jason: Yeah. Yeah.
Jeff: That would also be a really good ice cream brand. It could be called, "What do I really need right now?" I mean, you wouldn't eat much of it, but there might be a pint in every freezer.
Jason: With tiny bites taken out of it, just tiny.
Jeff: Tiny little bites.
Jason: Back-dated to 2016.
Jeff: Yeah. What do I really need right now, vanilla.
Jason: Freezer burn.
Jeff: Freezer burn. Now, for people that are feeling depressed and over the last year, there's been some high-profile suicides that, I think, have brought, honestly, needed attention to the issue of depression
Jeff: What's your message for them, for folks?
Jason: You're not alone. It may feel so deep in every cell that you are going through this and you're the only person going through this. And it may feel terrifying for you to admit that this is where you're at. Because there can be so much shame. I mean, deep, deep, deep shame and deep guilt.
But admitting that we need support and we need help and we cannot do it alone is a critical, critical first step. And I can tell you from direct experience that once you actually acknowledge the truth of that and how you're feeling and you make a choice that you don't want to suffer anymore and you don't want to die, asking for help, it's necessary.
And I feel that once you do so and you are determined to find the puzzle pieces that work for you, the right diet, or the supplements, or the right kind of therapy or workout routine or a community of supportive, open-hearted people ... Like I said about my back being against the wall, you have to reach a point where it's like, "I'm going to figure this out. I don't know how. I don't know how long it's gonna take."
But just knowing that there are so many people who have been through it and pulled themselves out of the darkest imaginable place, the place that you may be at right now ... I'm doing what I'm doing now, Jeff, and really just offering this to the world because my heart feels so big and open to anybody who's going through this. Because I know how deeply painful, excruciatingly painful this is.
And I feel like I never expected that this was going to be a part of my Dharma or my mission. I mean, these things happen in life. But I want to do everything in my power just to let people know they don't have to suffer in silence. They don't have to suffer alone. And there are people and resources and knowledge and love just ready right here, right now to support you with this.
Jeff: Thank you.
Jeff: Wondering if you could leave the show today with maybe one more little riff, one more little vocal riff.
Jason: Oh my goodness. What would be appropriate? Oh, I've got one. [singing]
Jeff: Thanks, man. You're a beautiful dude.
Jason: You too, brother.
Jeff: God bless you.