A Buffet of New Research Says We Can Eat Our Way to Better Mental Health

Two bowls of chicken, rice, and vegetables on a table with two forksThere’s nothing mysterious about the fact that a good diet leads to a healthy body. So it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that healthy food also leads to a healthy mind.

Problem is, most of us aren’t eating very healthy. More and more research is revealing that the typical Western diet — comprised largely of processed foods, snacks loaded with sugar, and breads and pastas made with refined grains — is increasing rates of everything from depression and anxiety in adults, to ADHD in adolescents.12

In a recent TED Talk, psychologist Julia Rucklidge of University of Canterbury explains these recent findings, including her own paper, where she reported on using micronutrients to treat adults with ADHD.3

The study, a double, randomized placebo-controlled trial, was published in April in the British Journal of Psychiatry. The subjects given the micronutrients received them during an eight-week period. “Twice as many people responded compared to placebo, twice as many went into remission with depression, hyperactivity and impulsivity were reduced back into the normal non-clinical range,” Rucklidge said.

One year later, those on micronutrients stayed well or showed improvement; those who stopped showed a worsening of symptoms.

Rucklidge stressed that the dosage given was higher than what you would find in a multivitamin at the supermarket. The subjects were given up to 15 pills per day, packed with 36 nutrients. (You should always consult with your doctor before beginning any nutritional supplement.)

In New Zealand, there has been a four-fold increase of people living with a disabling mental illness, according to Rucklidge. Similar trends have been noted in other western societies, such as the US.

“The rate of mental illness is on the rise,” she explains during the TED Talk.4 “Nutrition matters. Poor nutrition is a significant and modifiable risk factor.”

Medication Still an Important Part of Treatment Plans

Rucklidge concedes this doesn’t mean people with mental illness should flush their medications. in fact, some people do far better with medication than with a diet enhanced with micronutrients. But, Rucklidge calls for more research so we can better understand which patients do better with which regimens.

So far, Rucklidge’s team at the University of Canterbury has produced more than 20 papers published in academic journals. One report showed that the rates of probable PTSD after the Christchurch, New Zealand earthquakes of 2011 plunged from 65 percent to 18 percent among those given a one-month treatment of micronutrients immediately following the earthquakes. Even one year later, those who received the nutrients were doing better than those who didn’t, Rucklidge said.5

The results have been replicated in a trial by the University of Calgary after the Alberta, Canada floods of 20136.

“To me, the message is clear: That a well-nourished body and brain is better able to sustain ongoing stress and recover from illness,” she said. “Giving micronutrients in appropriate doses can be an effective and inexpensive public health intervention to improve the mental health of a population following an environmental catastrophe.”

Rucklidge is by no means alone in her views. In a Harvard Medical School blog, Dr. Eva Selhub compares our brains to luxury automobiles. “Like an expensive car, your brain functions best when it gets only premium fuel,” she said. “Eating high-quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants nourishes the brain and protects it from oxidative stress— the ‘waste’ (free radicals) produced when the body uses oxygen, which can damage cells.”7.

Likewise, she said, “Your brain can be damaged if you ingest anything other than premium fuel. If substances from ‘low-premium’ fuel (such as what you get from processed or refined foods) get to the brain, it has little ability to get rid of them. Diets high in refined sugars, for example, are harmful to the brain…. Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function — and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression.”

A Double-edged Sword: Medications Cause Weight Gain

With many psychotropic medications already causing side effects such as weight gain, good nutrition needs to be a vital part of any treatment plan for a person with mental illness, which is something often stressed in inpatient and partial hospital programs.

“The weight gain that can result from treatment with antipsychotic medication may lead some individuals to discontinue medication, inhibiting their potential for improved mental health,” wrote the authors of a study published in Mens Sana Monographs.8 “For those who do continue with their medication, the associated weight-gain can lead to numerous other health and psychosocial problems. Citrome and Vreeland repot that by monitoring body weight early in treatment, practitioners would be able to better predict patients who are at high risk for substantial weight gain. In this way, excessive weight gain can be prevented before it becomes an impediment to the improvement of mental health.”

In other words, not only is eating fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish and unprocessed meats better for your mental health because they are chock full of nutrients, but they also help you control your weight if you are taking psychotropic medications.

“In my 20-year career, I have rarely seen these kinds of dramatic responses from conventional treatments,” Rucklidge said of the power of good nutrition on treating mental illness.

Western Medical Model: Pills First, Then Other Treatments

When Rucklidge gave her TED Talk, she pointed to data showing how in New Zealand, it’s the norm to always try pharmacological therapies first, followed by psychotherapy, and then other treatments. She noted that prescriptions for all forms of psychotropic medications in New Zealand have gone up in recent years. Prescriptions for antipsychotics doubled from 2006 to 2012. Indeed, rates of prescribing such medications have skyrocketed in most Western societies.

“Given that this medical model is fairly universal across all western societies, you rightfully would expect that it was working well. And indeed, in some cases, these treatments save lives,” she said. “And I’m not here to dismiss it altogether. However, if a treatment is truly effective, then shouldn’t the rates of disorder and disability as a direct consequence of this illness be decreasing instead of increasing?”

Indeed, one study showed that long-term outcomes since the advent of pharmacological treatment are no better than they were 50 years ago. “This review provides no support to the belief that pharmacological treatments have resulted in an improvement in the long-term outcome of patients with mood disorders,” concluded a systematic review in Australia New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry.9

Rucklidge said results from her studies have been dramatic “not only in symptoms treated, but also improved sleep, stabilization of mood, reduction in anxiety, and reduction in need for cigarettes, cannabis and alcohol.”

Rucklidge argues that the medications are often very effective in the short-term, but not in the long-term.

“Sixty to 80 percent of people respond to micronutrients (across various studies), showing just how powerful this intervention is,” Rucklidge explains in the TED Talk. “They might even be more cost-effective than current, conventional treatments,” she said.

Does eating better or consuming the right vitamins and minerals seem far too simple for effectively managing a disease as complex as mental illness? In many cases, perhaps it is. But Rucklidge has a message for those who doubt the research that is coming out every week confirming the impact of diet on mental health.

She likens those who think she’s a radical to doctors who laughed at Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis in 1846. “Semmelweis advised that all physicians wash their hands (with chlorinated lime) before touching a pregnant woman in order to prevent child bed fever (caused by sepsis or infection),” she explained. That simple practice, Semmelweis said, would reduce infection rates from 18 percent to 2 percent.

“His medical colleagues refused to accept that they themselves were responsible for spreading infection,” Rucklidge said. “Semmelweis was ridiculed by his peers, dismissed, and the criticism and backlash broke him down. He died in an asylum two weeks later from [infection] at the age of 47.”10

1. Jacka, F. et al. (2010, March). 167(3), 305-311. Association of Western and Traditional Diets with Anxiety and Depression in Women. The American Journal of Psychiatry. Retrieved Feb. 5, 2017, from http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/abs/10.1176/appi.ajp.2009.09060881
2. Howard, A. et al. (2011). 15(5), 403-411. Journal of Attention Disorders. ADHD is Associated with a ‘Western’ Dietary Pattern in Adolescents. Retrieved Feb. 5, 2017, from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=
3. Rucklidge, J. et al. (2014, April) 204(4), 306-315. The British Journal of Psychiatry. Retrieved Feb. 5, 2017, from http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/204/4/306
4. Bundrant, M. (2017). Psychologist Professor Offers Surprisingly Dramatic Evidence of Nutrients for Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 5, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/nlp/2017/01/psychologist-julia-ruckliege-nutrients-mental-illness/
5. Rucklidge, J. et al (2012). Human Psychopharmacology. Shaken but unstirred? Effects of micronutrients on stress and trauma after an earthquake: RCT evidence comparing formulas and doses. Retrieved Feb. 5, 2017, from http://www.psyc.canterbury.ac.nz/research/earthquake%20research/Rucklidge%20et%20al%20Human%20Psychopharmacology%202012%20earthquake.pdf
6. Kaplan, B. et al. (2015, May 24). A randomized trial of nutrient supplements to minimize psychological stress after a natural disaster. Psychiatry Research. Retrieved Feb. 5, 2017, from http://www.mentalhealthexcellence.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/2015-Kaplan-et-al-Flood-study-Psych-Res.pdf
7. Selhub, E. et al. (2015, Nov. 16). Nutritional Psychiatry: Your Brain on Food. Harvard Health Publications. Retrieved Feb. 5, 2017, from http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626
8. Shrivastava A et al. (2010, Jan.-Dec.) Mens Sana Monographs. Weight Gain in Psychiatric Treatment: Risks, Implications and Strategies for Prevention and Management. Retrieved Feb. 5, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3031940/
9. Mulder, R.T. et al. (2013, Nov. 27). Australia New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. Retrieved Feb. 5, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24285565
10. Davis, R. et al. (2015, Jan. 12). The Doctor Who Championed Hand-Washing and Briefly Saved Lives. NPR. Retrieved Feb. 5, 2017, from http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/01/12/375663920/the-doctor-who-championed-hand-washing-and-saved-women-s-lives

Written by David Heitz