This episode of “Mad in the Family” discusses the links between nutrition and mental health, and the science that’s showing that diet may help improve or even prevent mental health issues in children and adults.
Julie Rucklidge: “Taking a one-a-day gummy bear might prevent you from getting scurvy, but it’s not meeting the optimal amount that your brain needs.”
Our guest is Julia Rucklidge, Ph.D. Dr. Rucklidge is a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, where she leads the Mental Health and Nutrition Research Group and serves on the Executive Committee for the International Society of Nutritional Psychiatry Research.
Julia’s interest in nutrition and mental health grew out of her own research showing poor outcomes for children with psychiatric illness despite conventional treatments. In the last decade, the Mental Health and Nutrition Research Group has been running clinical trials investigating the role of broad-spectrum micronutrients in the expression of issues such as ADHD, mood disorders, anxiety, and stress associated with traumatic events such as earthquakes and mass shootings.
With her colleague Bonnie Kaplan, Ph.D., she is the author of a new book, The Better Brain: Overcome Anxiety, Combat Depression, and Reduce ADHD and Stress with Nutrition, which will be published April 20 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Listen to the audio of the interview here.
- The emerging field of Nutritional Psychiatry, which looks at the relationship between nutrition and brain health. The micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) found in natural, whole foods are essential for regulating brain functions including thinking, feeling, and sleep. They also help moderate our energy levels and DNA expression.
- How and why our nutritional status potentially affects our mood, behavior, and thoughts. In order for our body to maintain its basic functions and respond effectively to stress, certain chemical reactions must occur so the brain’s neurons can communicate properly. Without adequate reserves of nutrients in our body, which she compares to having “fuel in the tank,” our mental processes don’t function optimally, with a corresponding decline in our mental health.
- The role of ultra-processed foods in declining nutrition. Modern diets are increasingly centered on highly processed foods, which may provide protein, fat, and carbohydrates but lack significant micronutrient content. This means about half of North Americans aren’t getting the nourishment they need. This trend is compounded by modern, massive-scale farming practices that rob minerals from soil and crops.
- Children’s special nutritional needs at different developmental stages. Diet is important even before birth, when mothers-to-be should eat “nutrient-dense, real foods.” Studies show that when pregnant women eat ultra-processed foods, it increases the risk that their child will be more prone to emotional challenges and behavioral problems. Whereas a diet rich in produce and essential fatty acids lowers the risk for those outcomes. The same principles hold during early childhood development and again during adolescence, when kids need extra nourishment as their brains and bodies grow and change.
- Do’s and don’ts to support children’s mental health through nutrition. Rucklidge recommends serving one’s family the Mediterranean Diet, centered on colorful vegetables and fruits, along with lean proteins like fish or legumes and healthy fats like nuts. It’s important to eat at least five to nine daily servings of produce, which most people don’t, and to transition away from sugary beverages. Sweets should not be used as rewards for good behavior.
- The role of supplements in maintaining and improving mental health. While parents should focus on ensuring kids eat a brain-nourishing diet, supplements may be helpful if quality foods aren’t available, or if the child has a higher need for certain nutrients due to genetic factors and/or environmental stressors. But no individual vitamin has been shown to be a “magic bullet.” The most benefit has been found from consuming the full breadth of essential vitamins and minerals –30 in all— often at doses considerably higher than 100% of the RDA.
- Research by Rucklidge and others that supports the use of diet and supplements for treating children’s emotional and behavioral issues. She notes that 80 percent of 50 randomized controlled trials—the “gold standard” for scientific studies –showed a positive effect of nutrients over placebo for symptoms such as aggression, anxiety, stress, and mood issues in people of all ages. Studies at her lab in New Zealand found improvements in children diagnosed with ADHD, who showed better emotional control and concentration and less aggression, and research on kids with autism in the U.S. had similar results.
- The Better Brain, her new book with psychologist Bonnie Kaplan, Ph.D., which is tailored to a non-scientific audience. It gives an in-depth explanation of the importance of nutrition in mental health, the latest science behind it, stories about life-changing improvements in people treated with micronutrients, recipes, and information on using supplements. (She notes that none of her work is funded by nutrient manufacturers.)
- Case studies from Rucklidge’s book where researchers used higher-than-usual doses of broad-spectrum micronutrients to treat severe mental health issues in children who were then tracked over many years. These include the story of Isaiah, diagnosed with ADHD, who had been expelled from multiple schools. His self-control and behavior improved markedly with nutrients and he is still doing well as long as he takes them. Another boy, Andrew, was hospitalized for OCD and psychosis at a young age. No treatments seemed to help him, but he recovered with nutrients and remains healthy as an adult.
- How a nutritional approach to mental health can reduce healthcare costs. Rucklidge notes that the price of Andrew’s supplements was less than 2 percent of the cost of his inpatient stay. She observes, “We think that this is going to save public health care systems and insurance companies a lot of money because we can reduce that cycling in and out of inpatient care that you see often when people are on psychiatric medications.”
- How parents of children with mental health or behavioral problems can implement a therapeutic approach to nutrition. One place to start is by seeking out an “integrative” physician or contacting one of the supplement manufacturers noted in the book for lists of practitioners who use their products. A careful, individualized approach is needed when combining diet and supplements with, or withdrawing from, any psychiatric drugs a child is taking.
- Practical tips for affording and preparing a whole-foods, Mediterranean-style diet. “Any step in the right direction is going to be beneficial,” Rucklidge maintains. Families can shift away from ultra-processed foods and substitute low-cost whole foods, along with eating less meat and more plant-protein sources; buying produce in season; and joining community gardens. She urges people to consider the long-term costs of an unhealthy diet versus paying a bit more for nutritious items.
- Gaining buy-in to a nutritional approach to mental health from pediatricians and other providers. She says that medical professionals have been resistant to considering the effectiveness of a nutritional approach to mental and general health because it is not part of their training, but that the growth of scientific evidence is changing minds.
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Mental Health and Nutrition Research Group, University of Canterbury
TEDx talk: The Surprisingly Dramatic Role of Nutrition in Mental Health (and her thoughts on “Why Scientists Should Reconsider Presenting with TED”)
Online course: Mental Health and Nutrition (credit or non-credit)
Read Julia’s MIA blogs here.