Can Nutrition Prevent Depression and Promote Resilience?: Podcast Review
Julia Rucklidge, Ph.D., is a Professor of Clinical Psychology and the Director of the Mental Health and Nutrition Research Lab at the University of Canterbury. Her career in nutrition research began nearly two decades ago after noticing trends of psychological diagnoses rising with a high rate of prescription medication use, she decided to look into the role that nutrition plays in psychology.
Now, Dr. Rucklidge has published over 100 peer-reviewed studies on the effects of nutrition and mental health.
In her appearance on Dr. Seth Gillian's podcast "Think, Act, Be" podcast, Dr. Rucklidge discusses the negative impacts of the Standard American Diet, the effects of micronutrients on stress and common disorders, and single nutrient vs. broad-spectrum nutrition. To listen to the full podcast, click here.
According to Dr. Rucklidge, currently, one in five Americans are struggling with mental illness. Based on international data, scientists have seen a rise in ADHD, bipolar disorder, autism, and other disorders as well. With that, statistics say prescriptions are rising too.
“Does it make sense that if you’re increasing the number of people who are receiving treatment, that the rates are still going up? To me, that just doesn’t fit very well. If you had a treatment for, say, broken arms and we had an increase in the number of people with broken arms, I would imagine people would pay attention to that and say ‘how well are we doing in terms of treating broken arms?’ When it comes to mental illness though, we don’t seem to have that same conversation. The treatments aren’t working as well as we’d hoped, and I think those data are becoming very clear at the moment if you look at people who have been on medications long term,” Dr. Rucklidge explains.
Dr. Rucklidge cites a study on children who had taken stimulants for 16 years, vs. those who had never been on medications for ADHD. The study found that in the end, there was no difference in results for children who had been taking the stimulants for 16 years compared to those who were never medically treated.
“It should kind of worry us that [psychiatric drugs] are not making a difference in the long term,” Rucklidge emphasizes.
When it comes to anti-depressants, Rucklidge claims the same result. Patients' long-term outcomes are no different for those who have been taking medications for years compared to those who don’t at all.
It’s not to say that medications don’t have a role, they certainly do. Many people benefit from these approaches in the short-term. Dr. Rucklidge, however, is focused on the voice of those calling her for help when the medication approach isn’t working.
“In a nutshell, that’s why I think we need to be exploring other things. The current treatments aren’t as effective as we’d hoped.”
How Does Nutrition Fit With Mental Health?
Through completely independent, privately-funded research, Dr. Rucklidge and her team have found that higher intakes of broad-spectrum micronutrients can positively affect mental health. Why our bodies aren’t receiving the number of nutrients they need is still up for debate, with Rucklidge’s team in the process of a myriad of studies that explore the subject deeper.
One consideration Dr. Rucklidge addresses is that the soil where our food is grown is lacking the nutrients it once had due to overprocessing. Not to mention the herbicides and pesticides commonly used.
“There are a lot of environmental variables out there that influence this," Dr. Rucklidge remarks.
Another influence scientists are considering: genetics.
Dr. Rucklidge makes the point that we all have that friend who can eat terribly but not suffer from any problems. In those cases, she believes they have more robust genetics when it comes to diet than the average person. She points out that scientists are still studying links between nutrition and genetics without any conclusive findings thus far. However, she hypothesizes certain micronutrients can turn specific gene expression on and off and has published a small pilot study on that theory just a few months ago.
“We do know that the environment can influence your genotype. A really good example of this is the honeybee. The queen bee and the worker bee are genetically identical but phenotypically different. So what is different between the worker bee and the queen bee is their diet, what they're fed. That’s a beautiful example of an epigenetic effect that’s caused by diet.”
Her team is also exploring the effects of nutrition on the microbiome through some small pilot studies.
“Other things may be that we influence inflammation. There’s a lot of research that shows a link between inflammation and depression. The more you have inflammatory markers seems to be correlated at least with depression. The Western diet is known to be a type of inflammatory diet, it does lead to greater expression of these markers. So can we reverse that with nutrients? We don't know, but we’re looking into that.”
Last but not least, her team is asking “is it possible that we have deficiencies and then by being given nutrients, we are replacing the nutrients the body needs?"
Dr. Rucklidge says yes, but with some qualifiers, and that it comes down to an inability to fully understand an individuals’ metabolic needs.
“Someone may identify as nutrient deficient, but our research shows that isn’t a great predictor of whether or not you’re going to respond to nutrient supplementing. It’s complicated in that you might be identified as having absolutely no nutrient deficiencies, and yet you respond to being given extra nutrients. To me, that would suggest that those referenced levels are not picking up on your individual metabolic needs,” Dr. Rucklidge qualifies.
Micronutrients for Better Health
Overall, Dr. Rucklidge’s team has published over a hundred papers finding a link between better nutrition for better mental health, including several studies on Hardy Nutritionals® Daily Essential Nutrients, the world's most research-backed supplement for mood and mental health. While her team is still figuring out why there is a rise in mental health disorders and a rise in poor nutrition, they have seen success with supplementing nutrients for better health.
To learn more about Dr. Rucklidge’s nutritional studies, you can find many on her Google Scholar page, or check out her wildly popular Ted Talk “The Surprisingly Dramatic Role of Nutrition in Mental Health.”