Chia Who? – The Superfood Trend
I have a green smoothie every morning with chia seeds and acai berries, you should try it too! I feel so fit and healthy!” Have you ever heard this or a similar sentence in your life? In recent years, more and more people have been talking about superfoods. There are many new restaurants with superfoods on the menu and a sharp increase in coverage of superfoods in beauty, health and nutrition magazines. Increasing concerns about health and aging society appear to be an important driver of the superfood trend in Europe, as a rapid rise in new products enters a dynamic and growing market. Every season new products are introduced and advertised as superfoods. The United States are in first place at importing goods labeled as superfood, Germany ranks second (4).

But what are superfoods exactly and what makes it so “super” and different from functional food?
Superfood can be defined as food that is considered particularly nutritious and energy-dense. Foods that fall into this category include chia seeds, acai berries, blueberries, beetroot, soy, pomegranates, green tea, goji berries, coconut oil, salmon, dark chocolate, cocoa and kale (2). Some of these superfoods, like chia seeds or goji berries, have turned into established products that can be obtained in almost every supermarket or even in discounters. Among the superfoods, goji is the leading superfood product. “Goji” is the generic name for different plant species from the genus lycium (2). However, superfood is neither a registered trademark nor a legally protected term. All definitions have in common that they describe superfoods as a food that has a high nutrient density. This means a comparatively high amount of e.g. proteins, vitamins, minerals, polyunsaturated fatty acids, phytochemicals, and antioxidants. The problem is, however, that many of these products are extremely damaged by pollutants that can have even negative effects on our health. Also, they usually have long transport routes behind them, which is not only bad for the climate but can also decrease the nutrient density.

So what’s the conclusion and the recommendation?
Overall, superfoods are a good thing, but superfoods should not emphasize some single representatives or nutrients, because the variety and complexity of the entire nutrition is important for a healthy lifestyle. In addition, it depends on the lifestyle in general, so a lot of exercise, sufficient sleep, social contacts and a positive attitude to your life are key (3). A healthy diet with a lot of fruits and vegetables has not only positive effects on your physical health; it also has a significant influence on your psychological well-being. Therefore it is not only worthwhile for your body but also for the mind to significantly increase your personal fruit and vegetable consumption. It is crucial that your diet includes essential vitamins and nutrients which can help in relieving symptoms of depression, mood disorders, and other mental illnesses (6).

For some, lifestyle might be considered more important than sustainability at this point, because many local products like blackberries, linseeds, or peppers offer the same high vitamin content as superfoods, but do not have the wonderful image of superfood (1). So if you want to buy superfoods like goji berries or chia seeds, it makes sense to buy certified organic products. They are manufactured without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The Fairtrade seal is also a guarantee of more sustainability for products from distant countries. And don’t forget that agriculture in Germany and Europe also has many local “superfoods” to offer. Flax seeds, for example, are a real good alternative to chia seeds because they have similar “slime forming” properties.

Certainly, the trendy superfood products have many beneficial properties for our health. But the native fields provide all the vitamins that you need, too, often at a much lower price. For a healthy diet, berries (for example) are not required. Those who eat a varied and balanced diet can do it also with local fruits and vegetables. It is worthwhile in many ways to look for fresh, seasonal and organically grown fruits and vegetables on the market! And anyway – self harvested “superfood” tastes the best! (5).

REFERENCES:

  1. Ortner, J. (2018). In aller Munde – eine soziodramatische Betrachtung der Ernährung. Wiesbanden: Springer
  2. Wetters, S., Horn, T., Nick, P. (2018) Goji Who? Morphological and DNA Based Authentication of a “Superfood”.  Plant Sci.9:1859. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2018.01859
  3. Feichtinger, J. (2019). Heimisches Superfood: regional und nährstoffreich. In: Ernährung & Medizin 34(03):147-155
  4. Sikka, T. (2017). Contemporary Superfood Cults: Nutritionism, Neoliberalism, and Gender. In: Cargill, K. (2017). Food Cults. How Fads, Dogma, and Doctrine influence Diet. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield
  5. https://www.oekolandbau.de/bio-im-alltag/einkaufen-und-kochen/trends-und-tests/superfoods/
  6. https://www.zentrum-der-gesundheit.de/news/gesunde-ernaehrung-psychisches-wohlbefinden-170204017.html
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Our body is colonized by trillions of microorganisms that are important for vital processes. Gut microbiota are the microorganisms living in the intestinal gut and play an essential role in digestion, vitamin synthesis and metabolism, among others. The mouth and the large intestine contain the vast majority of gut microbiota whether the stomach only contains few thousands of microorganisms, especially due to the acidity of its fluids. Microbiota composition is constantly changing, affecting the well-being and health of the individual.

Each individual has a unique microbiota composition, and it depends on several factors including diet, diseases, medication and also the genetics of the individual (host) (Figure). Some medicines, especially antibiotics, reduce bacterial diversity. Strong and broad spectrum antibiotics can have longer effects on gut microbiota, some of them up to several years. Genetic variation of an individual also affects the microbiota composition, and the abundance of certain microorganisms is partly genetically determined by the host.

The main contributor to gut microbiota diversity is diet, accounting for 57% of variation. Several studies have demonstrated that diet’s composition has a direct impact on gut microbiota. For example, an study performed on mice showed that “Western diet” (high-fat and sugar diet), alters the composition of microbiota in just one day! On the other hand, vegetarian and calorie restricted diet can also have an effect on gut microbiota composition.

Prebiotics and probiotics are diet strategies more used to control and reestablish the gut microbiota and improve the individual’s health. Probiotics are non-pathogenic microorganisms used as food ingredients (e.g. lactobacillus present in yoghurt) and prebiotics are indigestible food material (e.g. fibers in raw garlic, asparagus and onions), which are nutrients to increase the growth of beneficial microorganisms.

In the last years the new term psychobiotics has been introduced to define live bacteria with beneficial effects on mental health. Psychobiotics are of particular interest for improving the symptomatology of psychiatric disorders and recent preclinical trials have show promising results, particularly in stress, anxiety and depression.

Overall, these approaches are appealing because they can be introduced in food and drink and therefore provide a relatively non-invasive method of manipulating the microbiota.

AUTHORS:
Judit Cabana-Domínguez and Noèlia Fernàndez-Castillo

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Recent research (1,2) on children and adolescents has reported that elevated levels of ADHD symptoms are positively associated with unhealthy dietary habits, including a higher consumption of refined sugars, processed food, soft drink, instant noodles, and a lower intake of vegetables and fruits. However, the link between low-quality diets and risk of ADHD in adults is still not well established, which would be further explored in the ongoing Eat2beNICE research project.

What is the underlying mechanism for an association between ADHD and unhealthy dietary habits? There is still no clear answer. Nemours’ potential biological pathways, by which dietary intake could have an impact on mental health, has been proposed in the literature (2). For example, iron and zinc are cofactors for dopamine and norepinephrine production (essential factors in the etiology of ADHD), so unbalanced diet with lower levels of iron and zinc may further contribute to the development of ADHD. However, we cannot overlook the possibility of a bi-directional relationship between diet quality and ADHD, especially when the interest in the concept of “food addiction” has received increased attention.

Food addiction refers to being addicted to certain foods (e.g. highly processed foods, highly palatable foods, sweet and junk foods) in a similar way as drug addicts are addicted to drugs. Animal models (3) have suggested that highly processed foods may possess addictive properties. Rats given high-sugar or high-fat foods display symptoms of binge eating, such as consuming increased quantities of food in short time periods, and seeking out highly processed foods despite negative consequences (e.g. electric foot shocks). One human study (4) found that individuals with high levels of ADHD-like traits (e.g. high levels of impulsively, disorganised, attention problems) were more likely to suffer from problematic eating behaviour with overconsumption of specific highly palatable foods in an addiction-like manner. Therefore, food addiction may, just as substance abuse, be over-represented among individuals with ADHD.

Thus, it seems there could be a vicious cycle between unhealthy dietary habits and ADHD: ADHD may lead to a worse choice of diet, lowering the health quality, which could eventually exacerbate ADHD symptoms. We will further test the bidirectional diet-ADHD associations in the ongoing Eat2beNice project.

This was co-authored by Henrik Larsson, professor in the School of Medical Science, Örebro University and Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Karolinska Institute, Sweden.

AUTHORS:
Lin Li, MSc, PhD student in the School of Medical Science, Örebro University, Sweden.
Henrik Larsson, PhD, professor in the School of Medical Science, Örebro University and Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Karolinska Institute, Sweden.

REFERENCES:
1. Kim KM, Lim MH, Kwon HJ, Yoo SJ, Kim EJ, Kim JW, et al. Associations between attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms and dietary habits in elementary school children. Appetite. 2018;127:274-9.

2. Rios-Hernandez A, Alda JA, Farran-Codina A, Ferreira-Garcia E, Izquierdo-Pulido M. The Mediterranean Diet and ADHD in Children and Adolescents. Pediatrics. 2017;139(2).

3. Gearhardt AN, White MA, Potenza MN. Binge Eating Disorder and Food Addiction. Curr Drug Abuse Rev. 2011;4(3):201-7.

4. Ptacek R, Stefano GB, Weissenberger S, Akotia D, Raboch J, Papezova H, et al. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and disordered eating behaviors: links, risks, and challenges faced. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2016;12:571-9.

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A little while ago, this blog featured an entry by Annick Bosch on the TRACE study, an amazing intervention study using the Elimination Diet to treat ADHD in kids (https://newbrainnutrition.com/adhd-and-elimination-diet/). Very shortly summarized, the Elimination Diet entails that participants can only eat a very restricted set of foodstuffs for several weeks, which can greatly reduce the number of ADHD symptoms in some kids. Subsequently, new foodstuffs are added back into the diet one by one, all the time checking that ADHD symptoms do not return. This ensures that every child for which the Elimination Diet proves successful ends up with a unique diet which suppresses their ADHD symptoms.

Now this is a fascinating study, since it indicates a direct influence of diet on ADHD behavior. What we know from the neurobiology of ADHD, is that it is caused by a myriad of relatively small changes in the structure, connectivity and functioning of several brain networks 1. For the most common treatments of ADHD, like medication with methylphenidate 2, we can quite accurately see the changes these interventions have on brain functioning. However, for the Elimination Diet, this has not been studied before at all. This is why we are now starting with the TRACE-MRI study, where kids that participate in a diet intervention in the TRACE program, are also asked to join for two sessions in an MRI scanner. Once before the start of the diet, and once again after 5 weeks, when the strictest phase of the Elimination Diet concludes. In the MRI scanner, we will look at the structure of the brain, at the connectivity of the brain, and at the functioning of the brain using two short psychological tasks. We made a short vlog detailing the experience of some of our first volunteers for this MRI session.

 

 

With the addition of this MRI session, we hope to be able to see the changes in brain structure and function over the first 5 weeks of the diet intervention. This will help us establish a solid biological foundation of how diet can influence the brain in general, and ADHD symptoms specifically. It can also show us if the effect of the Elimination Diet is found in the same brain networks and systems which respond to medication treatment. And lastly, we can see if there is a difference in the brains for those participants for whom the diet has a strong effect versus those where the diet does little or nothing to improve their ADHD symptoms. This can then help us identify for which people a dietary intervention would be a good alternative to standard treatment.

We will update you on the TRACE-MRI study and on the developments in this field right here on this blog!

 

REFERENCES
Faraone, S. V et al. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder ­­­. Nat. Rev. Dis. Prim. 1, (2015).

Konrad, K., Neufang, S., Fink, G. R. & Herpertz-Dahlmann, B. Long-term effects of methylphenidate on neural networks associated with executive attention in children with ADHD: results from a longitudinal functional MRI study. J. Am. Acad. Child Adolesc. Psychiatry 46, 1633–41 (2007).

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When Alice’s mother first contacted our team to get more information on the dietary intervention at New Brain Nutrition, she mentioned that her daughter seems to be on edge all the time. On a typical day, Alice would be triggered easily over seemingly small things and stay upset for a long time. She told us that these emotional problems caused not only very strained and cheerless moments on the weekends and evenings, they also interfered notably with Alice’s social life. In between her angry or sad moments, Alice seems to be a perfectly happy and energetic 11-year old. Alice’s attention problems didn’t obstruct a healthy didactic development since she started ADHD-medication. However, the emotional problems were still present and seemed to cause severe impairment in social interactions, within the family and with peers. Therefore, her mother asked: Could we please try a dietary intervention to see if Alice’s nutrition may play a role in these problems?

Faraone[1] distinguishes two features in these kind of emotional problems: Emotional Impulsivity and Deficient Emotional Self-Regulation. Some children may experience explosive anger but also recover quickly from it. These children experience high Emotional Impulsivity but low Deficient Emotional Self-Regulation. Alice however, based on her mother’s narrative, seems to experience both high Emotional Impulsivity and high Deficient Emotional Self-Regulation.

The second week into the Elimination Diet treatment, the researcher checks in with the family: She’s still edgy and irritable for most of the time, her mother says, but she seems to break out of it a whole lot sooner. The other day her brother Daniel came home, telling Alice he ate lots of non-elimination diet snacks at his friend’s house. Understandably, Alice became upset but it didn’t last as long as her parents expected. In other words: The Emotional Impulsivity hadn’t decreased yet, but the Deficient Emotional Self-Regulation had.

By the end of the first 5 weeks of the dietary intervention, Alice’s parents reported a convincing decrease in emotion regulation problems. The teacher also reported that the attention problems had stabilized, as much as they did with the ADHD-medication that Alice had before. The family decided to continue the Elimination Diet and start with the re-introduction phase. Every two weeks a new product was re-introduced to see if this may elicit symptoms. This was probably the most interesting period for the family, as emotion regulation problems and attention problems arose and subsided over different phases.

After one year, Alice and her family had figured out a set of foods that, when eliminated from her diet, helped diminishing both the attention problems and emotional problems. Alice is less responsive to emotional triggers and more balanced during social interactions. Alice’s personalized diet or personalized nutrition is based on her experiences and symptoms during the dietary intervention. Her mother is very glad that they discovered this lifestyle intervention as an alternative to their previous treatment with ADHD-medication.

Writers note: This is the story of one individual participating in the New Brain Nutrition study. Evaluating the role of nutrition in treatment of mental health with scientific evidence is part of our future.

More information can be found in [1] Faraone S.V., Rostain A.L., Blader J., Busch B., Childress A.C., Connor D.F., & Newcorn J.H. (2018). Practitioner Review: Emotional dysregulation in attention‐deficit/hyperactivity disorder – implications for clinical recognition and intervention. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.12899

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What is inflammation?

Inflammation is the response of the body’s immune system against external factors that can put your health in danger. When this system feels it is attacked by something that may harm your health, it activates some molecules that are called cytokines in order to neutralize or avoid any damage so you can be safe.

Why is inflammation bad? What does it do?

Inflammation isn’t bad by itself, since its purpose is to protect our body. In some cases however, when the duration of this response is extended for too long- I’m talking about years- it can cause harmful effects to your health. Especially, it can affect the brain by active transport of cytokines throughout this organ.

Neuro-inflammation may occur if this process continues past early stages. Neuro-inflammation plays an important role in the development of mental diseases such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder (BD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), where elevated levels of inflammation have been found(1).

What causes inflammation? 

Inflammation can occur by different factors. Some of them could be: pathogens, injuries, chronic stress, and diseases like dermatitis, cystitis or bronchitis to mention a few.

Nutritional factors like overweight and poor diet quality can also trigger this process by increasing fat accumulation in our cells and damaging them (2). The exact mechanisms that are involved in these processes are still in research.

What decreases inflammation?

Research has found that adhering to a healthy diet, like the Mediterranean diet, characterized by high intake of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fish, lean meats and nuts, can decrease inflammation and protect you against depressive symptoms and anxiety (3,4).

There is evidence that prebiotics, probiotics and synbiotics (a combination of prebiotics and probiotics) can also help lowering inflammation. In addition, you should avoid eating pro-inflammatory foods that have been found to increase the risk of inflammation, and with it mental disorders. Some of these are refined carbohydrates, beverages with a lot of sugar added like soda, juice and sports drinks, processed meat and foods high in saturated fats (5).

What are anti-inflammatory foods

Anti-inflammatory foods are the contrast of pro-inflammatory foods. These are foods that have been found to promote or induce low levels of inflammation in our body, which may protect us against neurological disorders. Briefly, these foods include fruits, vegetables, olive oil, fish and spices like curcuma (turmeric).

Here’s what YOU can do to minimize inflammation and improve your mental health.

Inflammation and Foods

This was co-authored by Josep Antoni Ramos-Quiroga, MD PhD psychiatrist and Head of Department of Psychiatry at Hospital Universitari Vall d’Hebron in Barcelona, Spain. He is also professor at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

Sources

  1. Mitchell RHB, Goldstein BI. Inflammation in children and adolescents with neuropsychiatric disorders: A systematic review. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry [Internet]. Elsevier Inc; 2014;53(3):274–96. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jaac.2013.11.013
  2. Ogłodek EA, Just MJ. The Association between Inflammatory Markers (iNOS, HO-1, IL-33, MIP-1β) and Depression with and without Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Pharmacol Reports [Internet]. 2018;70:1065–72. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1734114017305923
  3. Lassale C, Batty GD, Baghdadli A, Jacka F, Sánchez-Villegas A, Kivimäki M, et al. Healthy dietary indices and risk of depressive outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Mol Psychiatry [Internet]. Springer US; 2018;1. Available from: http://www.nature.com/articles/s41380-018-0237-8
  4. Phillips CM, Shivappa N, Hébert JR, Perry IJ. Dietary inflammatory index and mental health: A cross-sectional analysis of the relationship with depressive symptoms, anxiety and well-being in adults. Clin Nutr. 2017;37.
  5. Shivappa N, Bonaccio M, Hebert JR, Di Castelnuovo A, Costanzo S, Ruggiero E, et al. Association of proinflammatory diet with low-grade inflammation: results from the Moli-sani study. Nutrition. 2018;54:182–8.

 

 

 

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What makes some of us more likely to drive over the speed limit, participate in extreme sports or make decisions that can impact health over time? Risk-taking behavior has distinct subtypes (for example disinhibition, sensation seeking, calculated risks, impulsivity) that develop due to the complex interplay of different factors: our lifestyle and environment, our personal susceptibility (genetic and biological variants) and a wide range of psychological effects.

In the study of Strawbridge and colleagues (2018) the goal was to identify genetic determinants of this trait. This approach has the potential to improve our understanding of impulsive behavior across different psychiatric disorders. It can also help later on to explore the possible overlap between mental illnesses and physical health.

„Would you consider yourself a risk taker?” This was the question posed to 116,255 participants, aged 40 to 69, from the UK Biobank project, a large population cohort containing a wide range of sociodemographic and medical information. Roughly one-quarter answered yes, they were the ’risk takers’ group.

A subset of participants took part in a prolonged follow-up occasion as well, where the same question was asked enabling an assessment of response consistency. Reproducibility was quite good, 81% of all participants responded consistently, 13% inconsistently, while in 6% the data was missing.

Genetic loci associated with risk-taking behavior were explored using the genome-wide association study approach. The authors identified one potential locus on chromosome 3 (CADM2) consistently, which was previously implicated in cognitive and executive functions.

Considering the entire genome using the polygenic risk score approach, the authors found, that the genetic variants that make us risk-prone also make us more likely to develop mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

This trait has not only significant positive genetic correlations with a range of mental health disorders, but also with smoking, lifetime cannabis use and body mass index (BMI). The latter implies the possibility that this finding could be followed up in a study exploring the nutritional aspects of impulsivity as well.

Overall, using dimensional approach for traits (from “normal” to pathological) rather than discrete diagnostic categories could be helpful for finding the common ground in the neurobiological underpinnings across psychiatric disorders. From this point of view, risk-taking behavior is also a complex and important phenotype for investigations.

You can find the full research article here.

Strawbridge, R. J., Ward, J., Cullen, B., Tunbridge, E. M., Hartz, S., Bierut, L., Horton, A., Bailey, M. E. S., Graham, N., Ferguson, A., Lyall, D. M., Mackay, D., Pidgeon, L. M., Cavanagh, J., Pell, J. P., O’Donovan, M., Escott-Price, V., Harrison, P. J., & Smith, D. J. (2018). Genome-wide analysis of self-reported risk-taking behaviour and cross-disorder genetic correlations in the UK Biobank cohort. Translational Psychiatry, 8. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-017-0079-1

This was co-authored by  Tünde Kilencz, a psychologist and research assistant at Semmelweis University, Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy in Budapest, Hungary.

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The human gut is colonized by microorganisms in a similar number as the cells of the human body.

“Microbiota” refers to these microorganisms, and it maintains a symbiotic relationship with the host, contributing to essential functions such as food digestion, energy harvest and storage, the function of the intestinal barrier, and the immune system and protection against pathogenic organisms. Prenatal and postnatal factors can alter the composition of the microbiota, such as stress and diet or the use of antibiotics (see image).

Prenatal and Postnatal factors influence gut-brain axis and mental healthFor instance, stress during pregnancy can alter the composition of vaginal microbiota, which affects the composition of the microbiota of the newborn and is related to gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms and allergic reactions. Interestingly, there is a bidirectional communication between the GI tract and the central nervous system (the gut-brain axis) that involves neuronal and metabolic pathways, immune and endocrine mechanisms. Changes in the composition of the microbiota can lead to altered development of the brain and increased risk of psychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders, such as anxiety, depression and autism (see image).

Depression is one of the most recurrent stress-related disorders that highly impacts the quality of life. Fecal samples of patients with depression have a decreased microbial richness and diversity than controls. The use of probiotics have been shown to help with sad mood and negative thoughts, which may be a potential preventive strategy for depression.

Autism is characterized by impaired communication, poor social engagement and repetitive behaviours, with frequent GI symptoms. We know that the bacteria composition is more diverse in autistic individuals than in unaffected subjects.

For other psychiatric disorders, such as Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Schizophrenia, there is indirect evidence for a role of the microbiota, but more studies are needed.

This connection between the gut and brain is two way communication, and is known as “The Gut-Brain Axis.”

Our knowledge of the impact of gut microbiota on brain function is growing fast, which may pave the way to possible applications for the treatment of psychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders.

Authors Judit Cabana, Bru Cormand, and Noelia Fernandez Castillo are in the Department of Genetics, Microbiology & Statistics, University of Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

More information can be found in: Felice VD, O’Mahony SM. The microbiome and disorders of the central nervous system. (2017) Pharmacol Biochem Behav. Sep;160:1-13.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28666895

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Nutrition as part of the solution to the mental health crisis!

Mental illness affects one in five people globally and, despite the wide availability of solid empirically supported therapies, these statistics are not getting any better. We appear to have reached an impasse improving outcomes, despite improvements in other areas of medicine.

We need to explore new avenues.

There has been a small explosion in research using nutrients for the treatment of mental illness over the last decade. The general premise is that our brains need nutrients to function and chemicals that are essential for good mental health, like dopamine and serotonin, require micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals.

Preliminary clinical trials are putting micronutrients and good nutrition on the map as essential for optimal brain health. These trials show that giving more nutrients than what is obtained through diet alone can have a positive impact on serious conditions, like Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)(1), autism(2) or anxiety(3). Along a similar vein, other studies are highlighting that improving diet alone can also improve mental health. By showing that manipulation of the amount of nutrients one consumes can influence mental health, the research demonstrates that the nutrients these participants were receiving prior to these interventions were not adequate to meet their mental health needs.

Beyond a ‘sledge hammer’ solution

Nutrition and mental healthAt the moment though, in the area of nutrient supplementation research, we are taking a sledge hammer to the problem. We give everyone a broad array of nutrients and see who gets better. That’s been a good start in that significant changes in many areas of functioning have been observed in many people, but the problem is that we each have unique nutrient requirements.

This approach of “one size fits all” will only go so far. Some people don’t respond. Some people only get marginally better. Why? Can we use genetic and nutrient testing to determine the optimal dose and nutrients that someone may require to get better based on their individualized profile? Can we use microbiome analyses to determine what microbial strains are required to best heal the gut to optimize absorption of nutrients? Current and future technologies should allow us to greatly expand the number of people who benefit from a nutritional approach.

Can this research also be used to target our food choices? To date, nutritional value is not the primary motivator in food processing. Agricultural practices tend to prioritize food storage, growth rates, transportability, shelf life, colour, shape and size above nutrient content. Could scanning of nutrient levels of fruits and vegetables using your mobile phone bring focus to the importance of the nutrient quality of our food such that this becomes the priority of consumers over aesthetic qualities or price?

Food or medicine?

Some challenges lie ahead in access to nutrients. As soon as nutrients are proven to have therapeutic benefit, legislation in some countries requires that they be treated as medicines. In other cases, dose alone can affect classification as a supplement or medication. This means as the evidence for efficacy increases, accessibility to the general public will be reduced as the ministry may insist that nutrients be accessible only by prescription.

Based on the medical model, there is a belief that pills that improve health comes with side effects that must be carefully monitored and controlled. To date, our research has shown minimal to non-existent side effects from the nutrient combinations we have studied. Moreover, physicians are currently not well placed to prescribe nutrients because so few have training in nutrition.

Government has the power to ensure legislation allows easy access to nutrients and permits health claims to be made based on good science. Such legislation could ensure that nutrients are easily available due to the very low risk associated with consuming nutrients as compared with pharmaceutical drugs.

Further challenges

Some companies sell nutrient products that optimize profit over health benefit. This may result in cutting corners, not using minerals that have been well chelated, not using the most bioavailable forms of vitamins. This will impact efficacy. It will be a challenge to ensure that nutrients designed for improving mental health are not compromised. Snake oil salesmen are never too far away.

Ensuring good access to nourishing food will also be a challenge. The prevailing mindset is that good food is expensive. However, this is true only if one doesn’t count the costs associated with eating poorly. We need attitudes towards food to change from providing calories to providing the essentials of health. Perhaps one day we will all come to realize that so many packaged and highly processed foods are nutritionally depleted. Ideally, if consumers would stop buying these products, changes would follow.

It is encouraging that some people can have better mental health and more fulfilling lives simply by ensuring their brains receive adequate nutrients and that they will not have to experience the side effects associated with so many medications. Perhaps mental illness will be viewed as being at least partially caused by improper nutrition, as our ancestors knew. Could such a shift influence the stigma associated with mental illness?

Valuing the role of nutrition as part of addressing our mental health statistics is part of our future. How well we can ensure that access is optimized and price is affordable will depend on good legislation, a re-evaluation of our current health care model and ensuring competing market forces don’t compromise the acceptability and efficacy of this solution.

(1) Rucklidge JJ1, Frampton CM, Gorman B, Boggis A. Vitamin-mineral treatment of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in adults: double-blind randomised placebo-controlled trial. Br J Psychiatry.2014;204:306-15. doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.113.132126. Epub 2014 Jan 30.

(2) Adams JB, Audhya T, McDonough-Means S, et al. Effect of a vitamin/mineral supplement on children and adults with autism. BMC Pediatrics. 2011;11:111. doi:10.1186/1471-2431-11-111.

(3) Rucklidge JJ1, Andridge R, Gorman B, Blampied N, Gordon H, Boggis A. Shaken but unstirred? Effects of micronutrients on stress and trauma after an earthquake: RCT evidence comparing formulas and doses. Hum Psychopharmacol. 2012 Sep;27(5):440-54. doi: 10.1002/hup.2246. Epub 2012 Jul 11.

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Is there any evidence for using micronutrients for the treatment of mental illness?

The notion that good nutrition is good for the brain is not a new idea. What is relatively new is that, until recently, there were very few well conducted studies examining whether a broad spectrum approach using doses of nutrients higher than what you could get out of a daily diet, could treat a mental disorder.

At my lab at the University of Canterbury, we have been studying the impact of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) on mental health for the last decade. With more and more people suffering from a mental illness and not enough people getting better with conventional treatments, we need to investigate new ideas. We appear to have reached an impasse improving outcomes for mental health, despite improvements in other areas of medicine.

Mental illness and micronutrientsFor the past several decades, this idea that nutrients might treat mental illness was received with great scepticism and even ridiculed. Some continue to believe that vitamins kill us, despite evidence(1) to the contrary.

And why would this approach even work? Many readers might consider the idea is too simple to be taken seriously. But the general premise is that our brains need nutrients to function and chemicals that are essential for good mental health, like dopamine and serotonin, require micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals. Agricultural practices have changed dramatically over the last 50 years such that our food is just not as nourishing as it was for our ancestors. Perhaps some people are genetically prone to need more nutrients than what they can get out of their food. Maybe giving nutrients in higher doses than what is present in the diet can correct metabolic errors that some people may have inherited. It isn’t that farfetched an idea; don’t forget, a million sailors died from scurvy in the 18th century, before Vitamin C was introduced as a treatment.

Scientific advancements in knowledge of micronutrients

Over the last decade the field has grown substantially. No single study should be interpreted in isolation. There are now over 30 double blind randomised controlled trials (RCT) using a variety of combinations of nutrients and doses across a variety of mental health conditions showing that we can induce a substantial and clinically meaningful change in symptoms just by using nutrients.

It takes two RCTs to put a drug on the market. There are enough RCTs completed internationally that this approach should already be mainstream for the treatment of stress, anxiety, low mood and aggression in prisoners. Sadly, good nutrition and additional nutrients are not on the menu in prisons and if you present to your GP with stress or low mood, chances are pretty good that you will be put on a medication. Most data across the world consistently show that about 10% of the populations are taking an anti-depressant. In some countries, this number is even higher.

There is a long way to go to improve the effectiveness of this approach. More research is required to determine if we can enhance outcomes with a more tailored approach. We are in the infancy of figuring out the mechanism of action. Can we use genetic and nutrient testing to determine the optimal dose and nutrients that someone may require to get better, based on their individual profile? Can we use microbiome analyses to determine what microbial strains are required to best heal the gut to optimise absorption of nutrients? Current and future technologies should allow us to greatly expand the number of people who benefit from a nutritional approach. Eat2BeNice plans to investigate all these mechanism of action.

It is encouraging that some people can have better mental health and more fulfilling lives simply by ensuring their brains receive adequate nutrients and that they will not have to experience the side effects associated with so many medications. Perhaps mental illness will be viewed as being at least partially caused by improper nutrition. Could such a shift influence the stigma associated with mental illness?

We could continue to ignore the data. Or we can embrace the idea, properly fund it, and see how far it can take us in curbing the national trends. Valuing the role of nutrition as part of addressing our mental health statistics must become part of our future. Thanks to the European Commission, this might just happen.

(1) Helen Macpherson, Andrew Pipingas, Matthew P Pase; Multivitamin-multimineral supplementation and mortality: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 97, Issue 2, 1 February 2013, Pages 437–444, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.112.049304

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This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 728018

New Brain Nutrition is a project and brand of Eat2BeNice, a consortium of 18 European University Hospitals throughout the continent.

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