Many of the posts on MadInAmerica are devoted to looking at solutions that are more promising than medications. The two of us are so pleased to be able to fill in one of the very large gaps in the topics covered thus far: the role of nutrition in mental health.
As research psychologists (and Julia is also a clinical psychologist) who have spent years studying nutrition in relation to mental health, behaviour, and brain development, we know how beneficial nutrition can be for some people tackling mental health problems. But we also know that many readers are not yet aware of the tremendous scientific inroads made on this topic over the last decade. Julia is faced with this issue when teaching clinical psychology students – many enter the field believing that the only way to influence psychological symptoms is either through talking therapies or through giving a medication that affects the brain. They are typically genuinely surprised that our brains can be influenced by what we eat.
When we give various lectures on this topic around the world, one of the surprising things for both of us is the ‘disconnect’ in the public awareness. Even people who are very knowledgeable about the importance of nutrition and other life style factors for physical health, are not yet aware of the empirical research demonstrating that these life style variables significantly influence brain health. In today’s post, we want to write about why this disconnect is sort of silly.
THE BRAIN IS PART OF THE BODY
It seems inane even to write that statement, especially to this audience, but we know that the lay public tends to forget. Bonnie recalls discussing learning disabilities with a parent group a number of years ago, and being asked by a teacher something to the effect of ‘is it true that learning disabilities come from the brain?’ It seems shocking now, and it was 20 years ago when it happened. But many of us in the health field actually perpetuate this type of thinking by referring to “mind-body connections” and “mind-body medicine” and even by separating mental health from neurological function! Did you know that every once in awhile, a piece appears in a neurology journal, presenting the argument that Psychiatry should not exist as a discipline; that all of brain health should fall under Neurology? There is a point to that argument. It is a reminder to us all that brain health is essential for mental health.
The importance of this issue is extremely relevant to the topic of our blog posts: nutrition and mental health. Nutrients provide the components that enable our metabolism to function properly. So which organ places the greatest demands on our metabolism? The brain (heart is second). Here are two bits of information that we find sort of amazing, and that illustrate this fact:
- The brain is approximately 2% of our whole-body weight, but consumes 20-40% of our metabolism. In other words, it is constantly and disproportionately demanding nutrients (and oxygen).
- Every single minute your heart is beating, a quart of blood passes through your brain. Why? That quart of blood is bringing nutrients and oxygen (and other metabolic products) to every single nook and cranny in your cranium! So ask yourself — what have you eaten in the last day? Those are the chemicals bathing your brain.
Because this is our introductory blog, we would like to end with two additional points:
- Neither one of us is commercially affiliated with any company, and no company has ever funded our research.
- We thought it might be helpful to give you an idea of the types of topics we plan to cover. Some of our future posts will be on:
- The history of nutrition and mental health, going back ~2700 years
- How our immediate ancestors viewed mental health and nutrition, prior to the development of medications that began to emerge in the 1950s and 60s.
- The scope of single nutrient treatments from 1920 to the present
- The emergence of broad spectrum nutrient treatments in the 21st century.
- The epidemiologic data on the relationship between nutrition and mental function.
- The 2013 development of the field of ‘nutritional psychiatry,’ whose hallmark is the new scientific group ISNPR (International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research).
- Nutritional treatment options for various mental disorders.
- The role of microbiota in mental health.
- The psychological effects of starvation: what are the lessons from the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, and the Dutch Hunger winter famine about risk of malnutrition on offspring?
- How our nutrition research in the past decade leads to a new conceptualization of mental illness.
- Whether supplementation is necessary for the “normal” population?
- Contemporary topics like new publications that influence public policy.
- The challenges of studying and publishing on dietary influences on mental health.
- The importance of increased nutritional intake after natural disasters, such as an earthquake.
- And so much more: what do we know about nutrients and addictions? What is the mechanism by which nutrition influences mental health? What does nutrition have to do with inflammation?