The Inextricable Link between Nutrition and Psychological Functioning

As the health of U.S. population continues to rise to the forefront of discussion, increased evidence is finding that paying attention to what we eat is not just important for how our bodies function, but also for our minds. More and more, research is indicating that the food we consume affects how we feel, think, pay attention, and even regulate our behaviors. This is especially important for youth and young adults, whose brains continue to undergo maturation that affects the rest of their lives.

Given this, I sat down with one of the world’s foremost experts on nutrition and mental health, Dr. Bonnie Kaplan, to discuss this critical topic. Dr. Kaplan is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Calgary and has an appointment at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute. She has published countless articles on this topic, and has spoken to audiences all over the world.

Schroeder: Dr. Kaplan, what do you think that the average person would be surprised to learn about how what we eat affects brain functioning, especially as it relates to psychological health?

Dr. Kaplan:   There are two basic facts that are important for all to consider. One, every minute approximately one quart of blood passes through each of our brains. This blood brings oxygen and nutrients to every tiny part of this amazing organ. Nutrients come from what you eat each day, so in essence, our brain is being bathed in chemicals derived from the food that we consume. Two, although the brain is only 2% of our body weight, it uses upwards of 20-40% of our metabolism. In other words, the brain disproportionately demands oxygen and nutrients when compared to other parts of the body. Even more than our muscles and other organs, our brain depends on constant access to minerals and vitamins to function well.

Schroeder: So, in essence, what you are saying is that if we repeatedly ingest foods that are low in critical nutrients, we should expect that our brain won’t function as well as it could. But is there research to provide evidence for this theory, especially when it comes to mental health?

Dr. Kaplan: Absolutely. We now have at least 12 large population studies demonstrating the relationship between poor diet and poor mental health. Unfortunately, a number of these studies have also found that the typical, highly processed Western diet is associated with some of the worst psychological outcomes.

Schroeder: Interesting. So it appears that what we eat really does have a lot to do with how we feel, and not just in the short-term. But if this is true, what about the inverse? Is there evidence that eating a healthier diet alone can actually improve mental health difficulties?

Dr. Kaplan: Yes, there is. Two randomized controlled trials (considered to be the most rigorous research design) have found that when adults diagnosed with depression improved their diet, their symptoms also improved. Studies suggest that what we eat really can change our mood, and for extended periods of time.

Schroeder:   Given this, are we reaching a point where you feel that nutrition should be an integral part of mental health treatment?

Dr. Kaplan: I believe we are. As a couple of examples, it has been documented in more than 35 peer-reviewed studies that using a full spectrum (at least 30 or more) of minerals and vitamins reduces symptoms across all psychiatric categories. Whether it is mood dysregulation, ADHD, aggression, anxiety, or other classifications, it appears that a full spectrum of nutrients can really improve mental health. Similarly, 8 high-quality studies worldwide have found that supplementing with just B vitamins improves resilience in those people who report high stress levels. This includes findings that supplementation after natural disasters is associated with a better crisis response.

Schroeder: So, it is safe to say we should be paying a lot more attention to nutrition. But as you know, the “bottom dollar” often guides what consumers will do. What do you have to say in regard to the financial implications of focusing on nutrition?

Dr. Kaplan: Interesting you ask. In two recent publications of cases evaluated extensively by health economists, nutrient treatment cost less than 10% of each patient’s previous (and often ineffective) conventional care. It appears that it really does pay to focus on nutrition.

Schroeder: So, ultimately, what do you think is the message with all of this?

Dr. Kaplan: We as a society are spending billions of dollars on psychiatric medications, and yet signs sadly indicate that the psychological health of our population is only getting worse. Clearly, conventional treatments are not working sufficiently. There are thousands of professionals researching psychiatric medications all over the world; in the meantime, there are a remarkably few of us researching how nutrition affects mental health even though everyone is affected by nutrition. Although improved nutrition isn’t the answer to everything, it has undoubtedly been neglected for a number of reasons. The only way that this will change on a large scale is if consumers demand a more holistic approach, and don’t simply take a psychiatric medication before considering how lifestyle factors (not just nutrition, but also sleep and activity level) might be affecting our mental health. Together, we can make a difference, but only if we are open to more natural alternatives. In a clinical setting, this means that lifestyle treatments and education about nutrition should be offered first, especially for children, so that exposure of their developing brains to medication can sometimes be delayed or avoided.

Schroeder: It all makes sense. Before we and our kids ingest something that is supposed to address psychological issues, it serves us all well to make sure that what we ingest every day is serving us well and not doing harm.

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