by Bonnie Kaplan, PhD & Julia Rucklidge, PhD

Julia’s TEDx talk, “The Surprisingly Dramatic role of Nutrition in Mental Health,” at the TEDx conference in Christchurch on November 1st 2014, was an opportunity to outline where we are now and some ideas of where we need to go. We are often asked to provide a single overview paper that will summarize everything there is to know about nutrition and mental health. Yet when we send review papers to people, it seems that they often do not have the time or interest to actually read the them.

Here are some of the main points from the talk:

Based on any data from any country it is clear that we have a problem. Mental illness is on the rise.  Rates of people on disability as a direct consequence of a mental illness are also on the rise. We can blame physicians and mental health professionals for overdiagnosing, we can blame our society for creating an environment that is conducive to developing mental illness, but however you look at it, our current approach to treating mental illness isn’t working. If a treatment is really effective then shouldn’t rates of disorder and disability caused by the illness be decreasing rather than increasing? And then there are the countless studies now documenting the role that psychiatric medications might be playing in some of these outcomes.

Researchers in the emerging field of nutritional psychiatry have documented the benefits of micronutrients to treat mental illness, showing that micronutrients can reduce aggression in prisoners, slow cognitive decline in the elderly, help people overcome addictions, and help treat depression, stress, anxiety and autism and ADHD.

People who eat ‘traditional’ or ‘unprocessed’ or ‘Mediterranean’ or ‘prudent’ diets have lower rates of depression and anxiety than people who eat ‘Western’ or ‘processed’ diets. Not a single study shows that the Western diet is good for our mental health.

Many questions remain to be answered by research on micronutrients and mental health. But with all of this rich data highlighting the power of nutrition, we can make some individual and collective changes now:

Rethink our current treatment approach. Prioritize lifestyle factors, healthy eating, exercise and psychological treatments and save medications for when these approaches don’t work. If nutrients work, then can the cost of these nutrients be covered through our public health care systems?

Take universal prevention seriously by optimizing nutrient intake of those who are vulnerable. In the world of physical health, we don’t wait until the heart attack hits to try to modify lifestyle behaviours that we know contribute to heart disease. It should be no different with mental health.

Learn about the risks of eating processed cheap foods. As Michael Pollan stated, “Cheap food is an illusion. There is no such thing as cheap food. The real cost of the food is paid somewhere. And if it isn’t paid at the cash register, it’s charged to the environment or to the public purse in the form of subsidies. And it’s charged to your health.”

Julia’s TEDx Talk

All children need to learn how to cook. All children need to know that food doesn’t have to come in a packet. Schools could reflect on the contents of their lunch menus. Children are too frequently rewarded with processed foods for good behaviour. Parents/teachers need to rethink whether this pairing intuitively makes sense. Ultimately, we have a responsibility to teach our children that every time we put something in our mouths, we make a choice to offer ourselves something nourishing or nutritionally depleted.

Nutrition matters. And if we’re really ready to get serious about mental health, it’s time to get serious about the critical role played by nutrition.

For those of you who might find the time to read a few key overview papers, we are taking this opportunity to recommend a few:

In 2013, the two of us published a systematic review of multinutrient treatment – Rucklidge, J. J., & Kaplan, B. J. (2013). Broad-spectrum micronutrient formulas for the treatment of psychiatric symptoms: a systematic review. Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics, 13(1), 49-73. doi: 10.1586/ern.12.143

More and more people are interested in inflammation as the underlying mechanisms relevant to many forms of ill health.  Here’s an excellent resource – and the title says it all: Berk, M., Williams, L. J., Jacka, F. N., O’Neil, A., Pasco, J. A., Moylan, S., Allen, N. B., Stuart, A. L., Hayley, A. C., & Byrne, M. L. (2013). So depression is an inflammatory disease, but where does the inflammation come from? BMC Medicine, 11(1), 200.

You have also heard terms (and not just from us!) like microbiome, oxidative stress, and mitochondrial function. The two of us have coauthored a paper which was published by Clinical Psychological Sciences:  Kaplan, B. J., Rucklidge, J. J., McLeod, K., & Romijn, A. (in press). The Emerging Field of Nutritional Mental Health: Inflammation, the Microbiome, Oxidative Stress, and Mitochondrial Function. Clinical Psychological Science.

We have told you previously about the formation of a new international society that is relevant to all of us: the International Society of Nutritional Psychiatry Research (ISNPR.org). Julia is a member of the ISNPR executive committee and has co-authored a statement about the mandate and scope of ISNPR which was published in The Lancet Psychiatry. Here’s the reference: Sarris, J., Logan, A. C., Amminger, G. P., Balanzá-Martínez, V., Freeman, M. P., Hibbeln, J., Matsuoka, Y., Mischoulon, D., Mizoue, T., Nanri, A., Nishi, D., Ramsey, D., Rucklidge, J. J., Sanchez-Villegas, A., Scholey, A., Su, K. P., & Jacka, F. N. (in press). Nutritional Medicine as Mainstream in Psychiatry: A Consensus Position Statement from The International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research (ISNPR). The Lancet Psychiatry.

First published in Mad In America

Bonnie Kaplan, PhD. Bonnie has published on the biological basis of mental health – in particular, the contribution of nutrition to brain development and function, micronutrient treatments for mental disorders, and the effect of intrauterine nutrition on brain development and maternal mental health.
Julia Rucklidge, PhD. Julia’s interest in nutrition and mental illness grew out of her own research showing poor outcomes for children with psychiatric illness despite conventional treatments. She has been investigating the role of micronutrients in mental illness.