Julia Rucklidge, Ph.D., has been researching the impact nutrition can have on mental health for the past twenty years. She hypothesized that thanks to the introduction of processed foods, our brains were no longer receiving the nutrition they need in order to function properly. As a result, humans are experiencing radical changes in diet and suffering from higher rates of mental illness than ever before.
“At least 20 percent of our population struggles with a mental health issue each year,” Dr. Rucklidge told STUFF Magazine. “And yet, when we talk about nutrition, we only focus on our bodies. We recognize the impact of diet on obesity, diabetes, teeth, and heart health. But we never talk about how our food affects our brains. Why not?”
She goes on to explain that in the last 100 years, humans have experienced a major change to their diet, without any time for our bodies to adapt. The introduction of food coloring, preservatives, emulsifiers, and other chemicals are making our food last longer, but are they helping our health?
The studies show the answer is a resounding no. As recently as 2012, a study published in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found several food coloring products in our food today cause cancer, hypersensitivity reactions, and genotoxicity in animals. Other additives have been found to increase weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease.
With physical health issues aside, Dr. Rucklidge explains the replacement of our whole foods diet with this “western diet” is, at the very base, providing us with fewer nutrients than ever.
“Half of your plate should be fruit and vegetables – a range of colors and varieties. Eat what is in season, to make it cheaper. Use shortcuts, like eating frozen peas or beans that come in a can. These are perfectly fine options. Choose foods that are nutrient-rich. It’s not complicated, but if it feels too tough, start with baby steps,” Dr. Rucklidge tells STUFF.
Why Aren’t Clinicians Talking About This?
We’re in what STUFF calls a “pharmaceutical revolution.” Starting in the 1980s, new drugs like Prozac hit the market that promised to cure depression and mental illness. Over time, clinicians learned that these pills are not actually a cure-all. But independent researchers like Dr. Rucklidge are struggling to get studies funded that might lead to other potential treatments.
That’s all a result of pharmaceutical companies paying large sums of money to push their studies through over independent research and greasing the wheel along the way.
For example, The Washington Post found that in one year, the New England Journal of Medicine published 73 studies on new drugs. Turns out 60 of those studies were funded by pharmaceutical companies, 50 had drug-company employees among the authors, and 37 had lead researchers who had accepted money from a drug company.
STUFF reports that Dr. Rucklidge’s challenges being heard about the impact nutrition can have on mental health have spanned the duration of her entire career. In 2014, she posted a TEDx Talk that now comes with a warning on it due to “oversimplified” research.
“She accepts that some of her studies – like those conducted in the aftermath of disasters – were not perfectly controlled, because she was responding to a real-life event, rather than designing a study in a lab. But Rucklidge believes health officials just aren’t interested in finding alternatives to psychiatric drugs,” STUFF writes.
“I feel absolutely dismissed. When I’ve applied for grants, I’ve often been turned down. I’ve had problems getting my research through ethics approval. It has been really hard to get the data published in good journals,” Dr. Rucklidge shares.
“When you look at the entire body of worldwide research, you can’t ignore how important nutrition is. The fact that our public health leaders continue to ignore it is really frustrating.”
Is Better Nutrition the Quick Fix?
Dr. Rucklidge’s science shows that a lack of mineral and vitamin consumption can be affecting our mental health. From PTSD survivors to individuals dealing with a bit of anxiety, it’s all a spectrum.
We must consider that each of us has different genetics. Dr. Rucklidge explains that some people will struggle to absorb certain vitamins and minerals that their brains need, whether or not their diet is perfect.
That’s why consulting your doctor and taking a broad-spectrum micronutrient blend is actually the best route to take (in addition to giving your diet a glow-up). In fact, Dr. Rucklidge and her colleagues have researched specific formulations of micronutrients that are proven to help the symptoms of mental illness and have published multiple independent studies on these formulas.
“We need our health professionals to ask their patients about their diets. It should be included in every single assessment. We need to increase the number of dietitians in our mental health clinics. And we need to teach people how to shop and cook better. People know how to microwave, but they don’t know how to cook,” Dr. Rucklidge implores.
Altogether, her research shows that people are in a better position to respond to life’s challenges when their brains are healthy. So isn’t it time we put mental health first?
You can learn more about Dr. Rucklidge and her work in a new free course entitled "Mental Health & Nutrition" offered through the University of Canterbury, taught by Dr. Rucklidge herself.
She also co-authored a new book with Dr. Bonnie Kaplan entitled "The Better Brain: Overcome Anxiety, Combat Depression, and Reduce ADHD and Stress with Nutrition" which is available everywhere books are sold.