Eating processed foods with little nutritional value may be making us mad as well as sick, new research shows.
Canterbury University psychologist Julia Rucklidge says the decreasing nutritional value of our food may be contributing to an “epidemic” of mental illness, with one in every eight NZ adults now on anti-depressants.
Research has shown that eating more fresh foods consistent with a Mediterranean-style diet, and eating less Western foods, could reverse spiralling rates of conditions such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety and depression.
Eleven years ago, when Rucklidge started using vitamins and minerals to treat mental illness, she says people were “completely uninterested”.
“Many didn’t believe there was a possibility that nutrition can influence your mental health,” she said.
But she was in Auckland this week for her second workshop for professionals at Massey University’s Albany campus after a first workshop in June sold out, and she now gets so many inquiries about her work that she has had to set up a standard email reply.
Next week she will speak at three conferences in three days – dietitians on Thursday and psychologists on Friday, both in Wellington, and the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association in Sydney on Saturday.
“Suddenly there is an insatiable demand from people to get this type of information,” she said.
Community mental health nurse Olivia Sheehan said she had always encouraged her clients to exercise and eat well rather than relying on medicines, but after attending Rucklidge’s workshop she would put much more stress on nutrition.
“I actually hadn’t considered that aspect before but I certainly will in the future,” she said.
Dietitian Anna Sloan said Rucklidge’s research was proving the link that dietitians had always understood between diet and mental wellbeing.
“The more people can move away from processed foods, getting back to those whole grains, fruit and vegetables, small amounts of nuts and healthy oils, the better,” she said.
Rucklidge has conducted a randomised controlled trial of adults with ADHD which found that 64 per cent of those who received extra vitamins and minerals showed significantly fewer ADHD symptoms after eight weeks, compared with 37 per cent of those who received an inactive placebo.
But her most remarkable study was done with 91 Christchurch people with high stress levels immediately after the February 2011 earthquake. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder dropped from 65 per cent to 19 per cent among those who received extra vitamins and minerals, compared with a slight increase from 44 per cent to 48 per cent of a control group that did not get the supplements.
She believes governments should consider issuing nutritional supplements to everyone in any future area affected by an ongoing disaster like the Canterbury quakes – or at least make sure food handouts are nutritious.
“A lot of the food that may be given out is not food that is actually going to nourish the individual and sustain them in order to get through this,” she said.
She says our shift from natural wholefoods to packaged processed foods and takeaways has likely played a vital role in the increasing rates of mental illness that have coincided with an increase in patients on Pharmac-funded anti-depressants from 8.4 per cent of all adults in 2006 to 12.7 per cent this year.
“Our diet has changed so rapidly over 50 years that it’s hard not to believe that it’s having some impact on our mental health,” she said.
“My work shows that, because we show an impact of using vitamins and minerals on mental health, it simply proves the point that the diet these people are eating is simply not adequately meeting their nutritional needs.”
Read more: www.bit.ly/UCnutritionresearch
Foods to reduce
• Packaged processed food
• Refined sugar and sugary drinks
Nutrients that can help
• People need enough of all vitamins and essential minerals
• Individual needs vary, so get advice before taking supplements
Foods with good nutrients
• Fresh fruit and vegetables, especially leafy vegetables
• Fresh meat, especially fish
• Nuts and seeds
‘Treat your food as if it’s your medicine’
Twelve years ago, when she was 30, Taimi Allan laid out all the psychiatric medications that she was taking and turned to her husband Stewart.
“I said to my husband: ‘I started on one pill when I was 15 and I’m on 10 at 30, what is this going to look like when I’m 60’?” she asked.
“And he said: ‘I’m not living with the person that I married any more, I’m living with this half-zombie person. Do you want to see who the real Taimi is underneath all this? Are you willing to take the risk’?”
It was a crucial turning point. The “real Taimi” who met Stewart 15 years ago has acted on stage and screen since she was 15. Her credits include roles in McLeod’s Daughters, Step Dave and Shortland Street, and today she and Stewart run their own production company Tigerstew Productions and performing arts school The Green Room as well as being chief executive of the mental health advocacy agency Changing Minds (Taimi) and music director at St Cuthbert’s College (Stewart).
For 15 years before that turning point, Taimi’s life was a psychological rollercoaster that “sent me into these spirals of very, very deep depression, and then high levels of functioning and high working and not sleeping very much”.
“Every time you go into hospital you are put on more drugs and given more treatment, and that sets up a real cycle of hopelessness, or it did for me anyway. I’m getting all this help, but actually I’m not getting any better, I’m getting worse.”
Desperate for a way out, at 23 she accepted a course of electric shock treatments. The shocks left her with awful migraines and permanently wiped some of her childhood memories – but had absolutely no effect on her mental illness.
“Those were my worst moments,” she said.
What finally worked was changing her diet. At 28, someone suggested that she should get her thyroid gland checked. She found that it had “died”. In fact it had probably sputtered out, producing spurts of hormones that may have explained her highs and lows.
She found a doctor, Titirangi “anthroposophic physician” Dr Ulrich Doering, who was willing to support her in trying dietary and lifestyle changes enabling her to gradually reduce her medications over two years.
Dr Doering introduced her to amino acids, which she still takes to supplement her diet. And that reminded her of a book her father had given her, Patrick Holford’s Optimum Nutrition for the Mind, which mentioned amino acids.
“So I went home and started reading it and it opened this amazing world to me,” she said.
“I started being really mindful about what I eat, knowing that the things I was eating and drinking and what I was doing with my body had a direct effect on my mind.”
She found she was allergic to wheat and dairy products, and cut them out of her diet. She cut back on sugar and ate more fish and leafy green vegetables.
She endured intense pain which felt like electric shocks in the back of her neck as she came off her psychiatric medications. Her parents were worried, but Stewart supported her.
“I had my husband saying, ‘I don’t want you to die either, honey, but you’re not really living, so can we try and find a way where you are just enjoying more of life’?”
Now she feels that diet has put her back in control of her own life.
“You need to treat your food as if it’s your medicine,” she said.
“I’m not saying it’s the total answer, but I’m sure for most people it’s a piece of the puzzle, and for me it was a huge part of the puzzle.”
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