Butter: New Antidepressant?

Ever since I found that pork fat improved my sleep, I’ve tried to eat a substantial amount every day. A few months ago, I knew I couldn’t eat any that day so I had a lot of butter at lunch (about 30 g). About 1-2 hours later, I felt in an unusually good mood — in particular, unusually calm. I hadn’t noticed such an effect with pork fat, perhaps because it is digested more slowly. (It’s easy to see that pork fat melts more slowly than butter.)

Now a friend has reported a similar effect:

My mood is better with the Straus butter, but I am concerned about my cholesterol, so maybe I’ll just use it when I feel depressed.  But it does work.

I’d guess that Straus Family Creamery butter, which is from grass-fed cows, has more omega-3 than other butter but I haven’t noticed mood elevation from flaxseed oil, so I doubt that’s involved. Moreover, I’ve always been drinking plenty of flaxseed oil so I doubt I’m omega-3 deficient.

Maybe this has something to do with why certain food is “comfort food”.

A new study found that consumption of unprocessed meat was not associated with more risk of heart disease but that consumption of processed meat (such as bacon) was associated with greater risk of heart disease. The whole American fear of animal fat (including butter) may be due to an unrecognized confounding: those who ate more animal fat also ate more bacon.

19 Replies to “Butter: New Antidepressant?”

  1. I use lots of unsalted butter with my pan-fried wild salmon, with my fried omega-3 eggs, and drizzled all over my steamed veggies.

  2. Seth: Your new idea about butter is innovative! You didn’t note that your friend has schizoaffective disorder, which is a combination of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. So the butter is not just dealing with normal sadness, in this case. I believe the butter can save suicidal, depressed people from going to the psychiatric hospitals, which cost way more than Straus butter. I will tell my friends in the depression group about it. I am interested to know about their experience eating it. I will bring my Straus butter to them, so they don’t have to buy it. Straus butter is cheaper at Whole Foods than at Berkeley Bowl.

  3. About that new study linking bacon and other processed meat to heart disease, Gary Taubes’s comment about earlier epidemiological studies seems relevant:

    . . . in observational studies, such as the ones used to indict processed meat, the statistical significance is not nearly as meaningful as the confounders — those other factors that might explained the statistically-significant effect observed. With cigarettes and cancer, it’s virtually impossible to imagine anything that could explain the 20-fold increase in lung cancer among heavy smokers (not that the tobacco industry didn’t try). With these smaller relative risks, even those considerably larger than 2, it’s all too easy to imagine confounding variables that the researchers either didn’t measure or didn’t properly assess . . .

    Imagine for instance all the possible ways that the highest quintile of processed-meat eaters in the 1990s or 2000s might differ from the lowest quintile, particularly considering the fact that processed meats have been generally perceived as carcinogenic for thirty years or more. What you’re comparing are people who don’t seem to give a damn whether something is healthy or not (or people on the Atkins diet who are predisposed to gain weight easily) to health-conscious, quasi-vegetarians. The latter are probably better educated — a typical finding in all these studies — of a higher socioeconomic class; they go to better doctors, get better medical care, eat generally healthier diets (whatever that means), etc. etc. The reason to do randomized trials is to render irrelevant all these possible confounders — disseminate them equally among all the arms of the study. Without randomization, that an effect is statistically significant says virtually nothing at all about whether or not the cause of that effect is what you set out to study. The fact that RCTS are effectively impossible to do in these kinds of situations . . . doesn’t negate the fact that they’re necessary to learn anything meaningful.

    Meta-analysis can be meaningless in this context because it’s quite easy for every study done, in every population, to have the same confounders. The only way to learn anything meaningful — short of getting an effect as large as the lung-cancer/cigarette association — is to do a randomized trial.

    One of the lessons I learned from my early life reporting on high energy physics is known in that field as Panofsky’s law (after Pief Panofsky, founder of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Laboratory): If you throw money at an effect, and it doesn’t get bigger, it means it’s not really there.

    In nutritional epidemiology, if you throw money at an effect and it doesn’t get bigger, you do a meta-analysis. It always struck me that the very fact of having to do a meta-analysis is pretty compelling evidence that the effect you’re trying to nail down isn’t real. I may be wrong, but I’ve yet to meet the epidemiologist who could explain why.

    from “Diet and health. What can you believe: or does bacon kill you?”

  4. Thanks for posting that, John. Taubes’s argument cuts both ways. Surely people who eat a lot of (unprocessed) meat are different from those who eat much less, such as vegetarians. Yet in spite of all those differences, no difference in heart attack risk. That means something — which is what I was trying to say. This contradicts Taubes’s claim that RCTs are “necessary to learn anything meaningful.”

  5. Seth,
    The authors of the study write that lumping red meat and processed meats together is a mistake. I think it may also be a mistake to lump together luncheon meats and bacon. An article of a study by Shawkat Razzaque, M.D., Ph.D., from the Department of Medicine, Infection and Immunity at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine published on the Science Daily web site (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/04/100426151636.htm) finds that phosphates found un processed meats and sodas shorten the lives of mice by as much as 25 %. I have not found phosphates in bacon.

  6. I think it should also be noted that the cow’s stomach has already done the work for you and changed the grass into beneficial Omega-3, DHA/EPA. Whereas, the ALA in flaxseeds & its oils is not as easily converted in our bodies to the more desirable Omega-3.

  7. Flaxseed oil (if I am not mistaken) has a lower bioavailability than omega 3 from fish oil. So, it would be interesting to test that. Perhaps with Krill oil as opposed from fish that tend to give you the headaches?

  8. I suspect that pork in China is different than pork in the USA. The Chinese frequently feed their pigs sweet potatoes (but sometimes wheat or corn). The Americans feed pigs corn. Feeding pigs sweet potatoes will result in the pork having lower omega 6 and higher saturated fat compared to corn feeding.

  9. Strauss is unique in that it is barely pasteurized and not homogenized. Pasteurization is a process which slows microbial growth, while homogenization keeps fat globules from separating out from the rest of the milk.

    Maybe these are also factors?

  10. I have found a huge personal correlation between my mood and my fat intake. I experienced severe depression after dieting and losing 60 pounds. It wasn’t the weight loss, even after I regained most of the weight, but maintained my low fat diet I was still depressed. I started a high fat low carb meat based diet, and my mood improved greatly.

    Now, there are plenty of confounding issues, higher fat, lower carb, resumption of meat eating, etc. But it really seems to me that there is a great improvement in my mood with fat consumption. (My sleep disorder has improved as well.) I am experimenting with different kinds of fat, coconut vs. grass fed butter, etc.

  11. Rachael, I’d be very interested in your self-experimentation on the effects of coconut fat as compared to butter. I don’t eat butter, but I’m looking for some plant-based substitute that has comparable beneficial effects. Can you e-mail me at alexc@aya.yale.edu? Thanks!

  12. I’ll second Seth on the butter … I’ve felt positive results (calm and happy state) after having several meals with large (a quarter stick) amounts of butter.

  13. Hi Seth

    After reading about using butter to “feel better” in your forums somewhere that mentioned this blog post, I decided to look into it. I read that butter is actually pretty good for you, assuming of course it’s “actual” butter (not a veggie spread) and organic, raw is best if one can get it.

    Aside from it including vitamins A, E, K and D(!) it is apparently also rich in Selenium and Iodine (another !), not to mention the Omega 3’s and 6’s you already brought up.

    So, coupled with what you stated and what I found, I was convinced enough to give it a go. For the past couple of days (not much time – I know), I used a couple of straight teaspoons and noted that I am much happier and accepting than before – I laugh more too. Also, I seem to be sleeping better, but not if I take it right before bed time, which simply had me awake after roughly a 40 minute nap. I “feel” like I have a more energy, but want to wait a little longer to see how all this works out in the long run.

    I did find an interesting way of taking it though. The Tibetans apparently make a butter-tea in large quantities and are said to drink upwards of 40 cups a day as it provides them with a large amount of energy, esp. during the winter months.

    I gave it a go in regular black tea, by melting a tablespoon into it and adding just a smidge of creamer for colour. To my surprise it’s actually really good! It’s a rich, creamier texture and I will have no problems drinking this on a regular basis. I did use salted, non-organic pasteurized butter for this as it was the only type I could find on short notice – but will check out our local natural food place soon.

    I have also wondered if using butter, in a non-tasting way (somehow), could be a different way of taking in non-flavoured calories? I may have read this somewhere though. The thinking is that, esp. with the Iodine, butter may be a decent way of bringing the weight down with your method. Any thoughts?

    Anyway, thought I would share and thank you so very much for everything you do!


  14. Bacon is just smoked pork belly. Are saying the smoking makes it unhealthy. Because pork belly is what you used to improve your sleep, right?

  15. Does smoking make pork belly unhealthy? I think there are other differences between bacon (the stuff you buy in stores) and unprocessed pork belly. Processed meat contains other preservatives, namely nitrites and nitrates.

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