Emerging evidence suggests that nutrition plays an important role not only in our physical health but in our mental health as well. Over the weekend, I attended a seminar on Nutrition and Mental Health. The information provided covered the full spectrum of mental health disorders from autism, to schizophrenia, to stress and the potential role of nutrition for either prevention or treatment. Here’s the Cole’s notes version for you from Dr. Bonnie Kaplan and Dr. Julia Rucklidge’s presentations. If anyone is interested in a more detailed report, I believe the seminar organizers are going to post the PowerPoint slides on the Autism Calgary website in the coming weeks.
Bonnie Kaplan, PhD, Professor at the University of Calgary
Dr. Kaplan set the stage for the presentation with an overview of the current understanding of nutrition and mental health. The most striking results (in our opinion) are as follows:
- The prevalence of mental health issues is increasing with 1 in 5 Canadians reporting some form of mental health issue according to the 2013 Report from the Mental Health Commission of Canada (1). Consequently, mental health is having a significant impact on the quality of life of Canadians and is burdening the health care system.
- There is a correlation (note: not CAUSATION) between increased mood disorders, depression and anxiety with the highly processed, generally nutrient deficient “Western Diet”; whereas, the opposite is true for an unprocessed, healthy dietary pattern (2). Our Note: The role of the diet in mental health issues is still unclear as a more recent systematic review by the same group did not find conclusive relationships with all dietary patterns (3).
- An emphasis should be placed on overall dietary patterns rather than any specific vitamin, mineral, fatty acid etc.
- The actual mechanisms of action require additional research; however, some potential reasons for the link between nutrition and mental health include: alterations in neurotransmitter synthesis and function, poor gastrointestinal health (enter the gut microbiota), increased inflammation, and alterations in mitochondrial (the cell’s battery or powerhouse) function.
- We need to consider not only what we are eating (processed foods, high fat, high sugar etc) that could be causing health problems but also what we are NOT eating (fruits, vegetables, lean meats etc).
Julia Rucklidge, PhD, Professor at the University of Canterbury
Dr. Rucklidge focused on vitamin and mineral supplementation and mental health. She provided examples from a variety of different types of studies including case studies (involving just one individual) to higher impact studies using blinding and placebo trials. A cautionary note, although we don’t argue that vitamins and minerals may play a role in the following mental health issues – the evidence is far from conclusive and much of the data is preliminary.
- There is preliminary [emphasis ours] evidence to suggest that vitamin and mineral supplements could be considered in the treatment of autism (4).
- Vitamin and mineral supplementation has been found to reduce stress and anxiety in individuals with ADHD (5).
- Long-term vitamin and mineral supplementation may be more effective than a placebo in those with ADHD and have fewer side-effects than currently prescribed medications (6).
- Vitamin and mineral supplements could be investigated as a potential treatment for children with bioplar disorder (7).
No Baloney’s thoughts? Research into the impact of nutrition and mental health is in the early stages and more needs to be done. If (note the if) there are improvements with dietary interventions and/or supplements AND fewer side-effects, that would be wonderful. HOWEVER, there are many limitations to this research of which the most glaring are:
- Much of the research is correlational and thus we can’t be certain what is causing the mental health issues. There could be another factor affecting both diet and mental health, it could be that poor mental health negatively impacts diet etc.
- Diet interventions are lacking; supplementation seems to be without consideration of the current diet quality or the identification of potential vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
- A lack of control of other factors that could be confounding the studies.
- Supplements used in these studies are not an over-the-counter multivitamin/multimineral; they tend to use relatively high doses and make their own formulations. There is a lack of consistency and evidence for the dose, formulations, and which vitamins and minerals are required.
A healthy diet, physical activity and adequate sleep certainly cannot impair health and are mostly likely beneficial on several levels. We wouldn’t go so far as to say that vitamin and mineral supplements are the panacea for all mental health issues; however, and would not recommend anyone self-diagnose or “self-medicate” with supplements. Always consult with a physician and other health care practitioners.