You are what you eat, or so the saying goes. And if you’ve ever suffered from depression or anxiety then staying healthy might have gone out the window as you’ve reached for buckets of deep fried chicken and sweet chocolatey treats.
But what if you were told that micronutrients could be a solution to treating depression, stress, anxiety and even behavioural disorders like ADHD?
Professor Julia Rucklidge, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Canterbury, has been researching the impact of micronutrients on mental health for the past decade. But using nutrients to treat mental illness isn’t a new idea.
“If we go back in history there are examples of using single nutrients to impact on mental health,” Rucklidge says.
“A condition was studied in the early 1920s called Pellagra [which was] caused by a corn-based diet due to poverty [and it] resulted in people not getting enough niacin.”
Symptoms of the condition included dermatitis, diarrhoea, psychiatric symptoms like psychosis and dementia, hallucinations and a significant cognitive decline.
“As soon as they determined that [the condition] was caused by a niacin deficiency, the way to cure it was to give more more niacin. That also led to fortification and also cured their psychotic symptoms,” Rucklidge says.
Micronutrients and good nutrition
Micronutrients contain the full spectrum of vitamins and minerals to fully optimise the body, especially under stress. Rucklidge says that while it is possible to get everything that we need from a food - in particular, a good whole food diet that is rich in nuts, fruits and vegetables - some people need more than others.
These individuals, she says, may have what’s called an inborn error of metabolism, which means that they may require more nutrients for their metabolic reaction.
Adding to the problem is today’s modern diet, which contains an abundance of readily accessible, highly processed foods that are high in sugar and fat. But even people who consume fruits and vegetables on a regular basis might be being sold short on the nutrition front, according to Rucklidge.
“The nutrient content of our food has changed dramatically over a short period, so an apple of today is not as nourishing as an apple of 1950,” she says.
Rucklidge is also working with children and adults with ADHD. She says this behavioural condition is on the rise and international data reveals that the number of children with ADHD has tripled over two decades. It’s a worrying thought.
“Is that because we’re getting better at diagnosing it, [or] is it because their diet has changed? I don’t think it’s just diet alone,” says Rucklidge.
Another contributing factor towards the increase in this behavioural condition may not be immediate factors in the environment, but rather intergenerational influences regarding nutrient intake.
“There’s research that shows that if the mother eats a [nutrient deficient diet] during pregnancy, then her child is at risk of having a child [themselves] who has a behavioural problem,” Rucklidge says.
Listen to the audio to find out more about Prof Rucklidge’s research on micronutrients and the impact on stress and anxiety following the Christchurch earthquakes, and Phillipa Newton’s research into how micronutrients could aid smoking cessation.