Nutrition as a First-Line Treatment for Mental Health? Believe it.

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Everyone knows that eating well is good for you, but people (and scientists) are only at the beginning stages of realizing just how important good nutrition is. This is especially true in the area of mental health and mental illness. Dr. Julia Rucklidge, a Canadian clinical psychologist who is a professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, offered a sobering review of her and others’ research demonstrating that nutrition may be more effective at treating depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD and post-traumatic stress disorder than the psychiatric medications Western medicine has relied upon for decades. She gave her talk at a recent TEDx conference earlier in 2014.

Dr. Rucklidge emphasized that in Western nations, the typical treatment for mental illnesses follows the established, ‘medical model,’ in which the usual first-step treatment is medication, followed by psychological therapies, followed – if at all – by other efforts, like diet and exercise. This type of approach has been our standard for decades, and for good reason: It tends to work – for physical illnesses. But Dr. Rucklidge summarizes research from over the past 10 – 15 years suggesting that this may not be the best approach for mental disorders. Citing a variety of clinical studies and the very important work of author Robert Whitaker (see his book Anatomy of an epidemic for a comprehensive and somewhat chilling assessment of the over-prescription of psychiatric medications), Dr. Rucklidge illustrates that despite the widespread use of very common psychiatric medications like the SSRIs and benzodiazepines for depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety, and the antipsychotics for schizophrenia, the prevalence of those disorders and the rates of impairment because of the symptoms of those disorders is going up instead of down! She asks:

“If a treatment is truly effective, then shouldn’t the rates of disorder and disability as a direct consequence of that illness be decreasing, rather than increasing?”

and highlights research findings showing that rates of recovery and relapse from depression are no better now than they were 50 years ago, despite our increasing use of antidepressant medications. If that’s not depressing, what is?

Dr. Rucklidge notes that from the traditional view depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and schizophrenia are viewed as serious conditions that require serious treatments, and nutrition plays only a very minor role, if any at all. Yet, she outlines the findings of a growing body of research showing that giving dietary supplements of micronutrients and minerals as a first-line treatment can yield greater benefits than traditional psychiatric medications. For example, she described her 2014 study of adults with ADHD who were randomly assigned to receive either micronutrients or placebo treatment over an 8-week trial. She found that those adults taking micronutrients:

  • were more than twice as likely to respond to treatment than those taking the placebo,
  • reported fewer symptoms of depression along with their ADHD
  • reported that their symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity reduced to normal, non-clinical levels and they reported their ADHD symptoms were, on the whole, less impairing in their lives.

Importantly, those who continued taking the micronutrients over the following year reported maintaining and sometimes improving on their original gains, and that the symptoms of those people who stopped taking the micronutrients or switched over to traditional stimulant medications worsened.

She also reported on the findings of two recent studies she and her colleagues did following the massive earthquakes in Christchurch, NZ in 2011 where they randomly assigned people struggling with symptoms of post-traumatic stress to receive one of two different micronutrient preparations (one of them at either a higher or lower dosage). Again, their results showed that the trauma symptoms of people all three groups reduced in intensity and, in the case of those people who took the higher dosage, the results were quite significant. The average rate of PTSD in the group at the start of the trial was 65%. After one month of treatment with micronutrients that number dropped to only 19%. Amongst those who chose to continue taking the micronutrients over the following year, the rates of PTSD dropped even further, to approximately 10%. By comparison, the rate of PTSD in those people in the control group (that is, those who did not receive any micronutrient treatments) did not change from its initial rate over the one-month trial. What explains these impressive results? According to Dr. Rucklidge “A well-nourished body and brain is better able to withstand ongoing stress and recover from illness.”

Dr. Rucklidge concludes her talk with the observation that poor nutrition is very likely a key contributor to the epidemic of mental illness striking Western populations. Her suggestion? Maybe it’s time to turn that traditional, medical model on its head: When people begin to exhibit symptoms it’s probably best to start by improving their diet and frequency of exercise first, to continue with effective psychological therapies, including CBT, second and then, if they still need the boost, to supplement with the lowest-possible dose of medication required to finish the job. How’s that for an innovative idea?