It’s common knowledge that a diet of nutrient-rich food is essential for keeping one’s body healthy. Perhaps it’s not much of a surprise, then, that research also suggests a strong link between nutrition and mental health as well. But these findings offer more than just another reason to pass up that extra bag of chips. A robust collection of emerging evidence is driving the growth of nutritional psychiatry, i.e. using food and supplements as part of an integrated approach to remedying depression and other forms of mental illness.
Conventional treatment for depression often involves the use of antidepressants, the effects of which are varied and somewhat unpredictable. It’s true that antidepressants have been found more effective at improving mental states than a placebo in adults, but the improvement often comes at the cost of unpleasant side effects and chemical dependency. In addition, a review of 29 clinical pediatric trials by Dr. David Healy, professor of psychiatry at Bangor University, UK, found that antidepressant use in children under 18 produced more harm than benefits.
In contrast, the connection between mental illness and nutritional deficiency has been firmly acknowledged for ages by health experts, and more recently by psychiatrists looking to augment their approach to treatment. Recent data has linked a variety of mental health problems to an inflammatory response that spreads from the gut to the brain, and begins when the body is deprived of essential nutrients.
Multiple studies have associated a diet supplemented with zinc, magnesium, vitamins B and D3, and probiotics with significant mood improvements, as well as decreases in depression and anxiety symptoms. Alzheimer’s patients have also been shown to benefit from increased nutrient consumption. In addition, symptoms such as low mood, cognitive decline and poor comprehension are observable in individuals lacking Omega-3 fatty acids.
No longer can doctors–or patients–afford to brush aside the mounting evidence that supports nutritional intervention as a valid alternative to conventional treatment. Supplements are generally cheap, and available over the counter almost anywhere (though not all brands are equal). Antidepressants are arguably over-prescribed and under-evidenced, not to mention expensive in ways far more insidious than monetary cost. Nutritional psychiatry, on the other hand, boasts a body of research that should afford it a greater role in conventional mental health treatment.