May 29, 2023

The surprisingly dramatic role of nutrition in mental health | Julia Rucklidge | TEDxChristchurch

Published May 26, 2023, 11:20 p.m. by Violet Harris

In her tedxchristchurch talk, Julia Rucklidge discusses the surprisingly dramatic role of nutrition in mental health. She explains how a lack of nutrients can lead to mental health problems, and how getting the right nutrients can help improve mental health.

Rucklidge argues that the current approach to treating mental health problems is not working, and that we need to look at other factors, such as nutrition, that may be contributing to mental health problems. She cites research showing that a lack of certain nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, can lead to mental health problems, and that getting the right nutrients can help improve mental health.

Rucklidge's talk is important because it highlights the importance of nutrition in mental health, and how a lack of nutrients can contribute to mental health problems. It is also important because it shows how getting the right nutrients can help improve mental health.

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Translator: Mayumi Oiwa-Bungard Reviewer: Queenie Lee

In 1847,

a physician by the name of Semmelweis

advised that all physicians wash their hands

before touching a pregnant woman,

in order to prevent childbed fever.

His research showed that you could reduce the mortality rates from septicemia,

from 18% down to 2%,

simply through washing your hands with chlorinated lime.

His medical colleagues refused to accept

that they themselves were responsible for spreading infection.

Semmelweis was ridiculed by his peers, dismissed,

and the criticism and backlash broke him down,

and he died in an asylum, two weeks later, from septicemia,

at the age of 47.

What I'm going to talk about today may sound as radical

as hand-washing sounded to a mid-19th century doctor,

and yet it is equally scientific.

It is the simple idea

that optimizing nutrition is a safe and viable way

to avoid, treat, or lessen mental illness.

Nutrition matters.

Poor nutrition is a significant and modifiable risk factor

for the development of mental illness.

According to the 2013 New Zealand Health Survey,

the rates of psychiatric illnesses in children

doubled over the last five years.

Internationally, there's been a 3-fold increase in ADHD,

a 20-fold increase in autism,

and a 40-fold increase in bipolar disorder in children.

And this graph here shows there's been a 4-fold increase

in the number of people who are on disability

as a direct consequence of an underlying psychiatric illness.

The rates of mental illness are on the rise.

So how are we dealing with this problem?

Currently, our healthcare system operates within a medical model.

Now, this means that you would typically be offered psychiatric medications first,

followed by psychological therapies,

and other forms of support.

Our reliance on medications as a front-line form of treatment

is evident from the increasing rates of prescriptions.

For example in 2012,

half a million New Zealanders - that's one-eighth of us -

had been prescribed an antidepressant;

that's 38% higher than five years previously.

Similarly, the rates of prescriptions for antipsychotics doubled,

from 2006 to 2011.

Given that this medical model

is fairly universal across all Western societies,

you would rightfully expect that it was working well.

And indeed, in some cases, these treatments save lives.

And I'm not here to dismiss it altogether.

However, if a treatment is truly effective,

then shouldn't the rates of disorder

and disability as a direct consequence of that illness

be decreasing rather than increasing?

That's why we need to consider the role that medications might be playing

in some of these outcomes.

If we take any class of medication: antipsychotics, anti-anxiety medications,


the pattern is the same.

In the short-term,

these treatments are often very effective, but in the long-term, they aren't.

And in some cases, they're making life worse.

If we look at, for example, studies

that are being done on ADHD children treated with stimulants or Ritalin,

in the short-term,

they are better, and responding -

better responders than any other form of treatment,

but in the long-term,

they fare less well

than children who were never prescribed these medications.

Another study showed

that despite our ever-increasing reliance on antidepressants,

the recovery rates and relapse rates

are no better now than they were 50 years ago,

prior to the advent of these medications.

And children with depression

who were treated with antidepressants

are three times more likely to convert to bipolar disorder

than children who were never given these medications.

And people who were randomized

to stay on their dose of antipsychotic medications

are less likely to recover from schizophrenia in the long-term

than people who had been randomized

to a dose reduction or complete elimination of the drug.

And I can show you more and more studies

all highlighting the same bleak picture.


pretty depressing.


Is there another way forward?

Almost two decades ago,

my PhD supervisor at the time, Professor Bonnie Kaplan,

told me about some families

who were treating themselves with nutrients,

in Southern Alberta, Canada.

Now, they had bipolar disorder, psychosis, depression.

These are serious conditions, and my education in clinical psychology

had taught me that nutrition and diet were of trivial significance for mental health,

and that only drugs or psychotherapy could treat these serious conditions.

But she and others were publishing preliminary data

in the earlier part of this century,

showing people getting well and staying well.

And so, I decided to study the nutrients,

and that's what I've done for the last decade.

In 2009, I received some funding to run a randomized placebo-controlled trial,

using minerals and vitamins, also known collectively as micronutrients,

for the treatment of ADHD in adults.

And this study was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry

in April of this year,

and here's what we found.

Within just an 8-week period,

twice as many people responded in the micronutrient group

compared to placebo;

twice as many people went into remission in their depression,

in the micronutrient group.

Hyperactivity and impulsivity reduced into the normal, non-clinical range,

and those who were taking the micronutrients

were more likely to report

that their ADHD symptoms were less impairing and less interfering

in their work and social relationships

than people who were on the placebo.

And one year later,

those people who stayed on the micronutrients

maintained their changes or showed further improvement,

and those who switched to medications or stopped the micronutrients

actually showed worsening of their symptoms.

Now, I need to tell you something here,

and that is, when I say micronutrients,

I'm actually referring to a dose higher than what you'd get

out of a vitamin pill purchased on the supermarket.

In this study, we gave participants

up to 15 pills a day with 36 nutrients.

So it would be unlikely

that if you went and got an over-the-counter supplement,

you would unlikely see these positive benefits,

both because the dose is lower, and the breadth of nutrients is lower.

Now, these positive benefits are not confined to a single study.

My lab at the University of Canterbury

is the Mental Health and Nutrition Research Group,

and we've published over 20 papers in medical journals,

all documenting the benefits of micronutrients.

For example, this study here

showed that we could reduce the symptoms of bipolar disorder in children by 50%

with a simultaneous reduction of medications.

This study here

showed that we could reduce rates of probable posttraumatic stress disorder

from 65% down to 18%,

following the Christchurch earthquakes,

with a one-month intervention of micronutrients,

with no change in those not taking the nutrients.

Even one year later, those people who had received the nutrients

were doing better than those who didn't.

And we've just replicated these findings

in collaboration with researchers at the University of Calgary,

following the floods of June 2013, in Alberta, Canada.

To me, the message is clear,

that a well-nourished body and brain

is better able to withstand ongoing stress and recover from illness.

Giving micronutrients in appropriate doses

can be an effective and inexpensive public health intervention

to improve the mental health of a population

following an environmental catastrophe.

In my 20-year career, I have rarely seen

these dramatic responses from conventional treatments.

When people get well,

they get well across the board,

not only in the symptoms that we treated,

but also in other areas, like improved sleep,

stabilization of mood, reduction in anxiety,

and the reduction in need for cigarettes, cannabis, and alcohol.

My research and those around the world

have shown that 60 - 80% of people respond to micronutrients,

showing just how powerful this intervention is.

And internationally,

there have now been 20 randomized placebo-controlled trials -

this is the gold standard that we use to make clinical decisions -

showing that we can reduce aggression in prisoners,

slow cognitive decline in the elderly,

treat depression, anxiety, stress, autism, and ADHD.

And, they might even be more cost-effective

than current conventional treatments.

This study here documented the treatment of a 10-year-old boy with psychosis.

When his 6-month inpatient treatment with medications was unsuccessful,

he was treated with micronutrients.

Not only did the micronutrients

completely eliminate his hallucinations and delusions -

changes that were maintained six years later -

but the cost of the treatment was less than 2%

than the cost of the unsuccessful inpatient treatment.

The cost savings alone make it imperative

that our society pay attention to the wider benefits of this approach.

And there is more good news.

Treating -

Supplementing before mental illness emerges

can actually stop these problems from developing in the first place.

This fantastic study looked at 81 adolescents at risk for psychosis

and randomized them

to receive either Omega-3 fatty acids in the form of fish oils -

essential nutrients for brain health -

or placebo for a 12-week period.

One year later,

5% of those who received the fish oil had converted to psychosis

versus 28% of those on placebo.

That represents an 80% reduction

of the chances of you converting to psychosis,

simply through giving fish oils.

I wonder if I know what some of you are thinking.

I wonder if some of you are thinking,

"Hold on! Why don't I just eat better?"

"Why don't I just tell everyone to eat better?"

And indeed, there are some fantastic studies

that document the strong relationship between dietary patterns and mental health

although we're still in very early days of scientific investigation.

We don't know who would benefit from dietary manipulation alone,

and who may need the additional boost from extra nutrients.

But even in the last five years,

there have been 11 epidemiological studies,

cross-sectionally and longitudinally,

in large populations around the world,

all showing the same thing.

The more you eat a prudent or Mediterranean

or unprocessed type of diet,

the lower your risk for depression.

And the more you eat the Western diet or processed food,

the higher your risk for depression.

I know of only one study that has not found this association,

and not a single study shows

that the Western diet is good for our mental health.


What is the Western diet?

Well, it's one that is heavily processed,

high in refined grains, sugary drinks, takeaways,

and low in fresh produce.

And the healthy diet is one that is fresh,

high in fruits and vegetables,

high in fish, nuts, healthy fats,

and low in processed foods.

What your grandmother would recognize as food.


There are still many questions remaining

about the relationship between mental health and nutrition.

What role do genetics play

in determining who's going to respond to nutrients,

and who needs additional nutrients than what they can get out of their diet?

What role does an infected, inflamed gut play in the absorption of nutrients?

It's not we are what we eat;

it's we are what we absorb.

And what role do medications play

in determining how effective the nutrients are?

Combining medications and nutrients is actually complicated,

and we need more research in better understanding these interactions.

But ultimately, we need to know how long these good benefits last.

So with all of this data,

this rich data highlighting the power of nutrition,

I think we can make some individual and collective changes now.

We could reconsider our current treatment approach:

prioritize lifestyle factors,

healthy eating, exercise, supplements,

and when necessary, psychological treatments,

and save medications for when these approaches don't work.

If nutrients work,

then shouldn't they be covered through our healthcare system?

Take universal prevention seriously

by optimizing the nutrition of those who are vulnerable.

We don't wait for the heart attack to hit

in order for us to modify lifestyle behaviors

that we know contribute to heart disease.

It should be no different with mental health.

An easy way to implement universal prevention

would be to have pregnant women - not pregnant women:

midwives tell pregnant women about the importance of nutrition.

Nutrient-depleted mothers produce nutrient-depleted children.

Nutrient-poor foods during pregnancy

increase the chances that your child will have a mental health problem.

Learn about the risks of cheap, processed foods.

As Michael Pollan stated, cheap food is an illusion;

there is no such thing as cheap food.

The price is paid somewhere,

and if it's not paid at the cash register, then it's charged to the environment

and to the public purse in the form of subsidies,

and it's charged to your health.

All children need to learn how to cook.

All children need to know that food doesn't have to come in a packet.

Schools could reflect on the content of their lunch menus.

Children are too frequently rewarded with processed foods for good behavior.

We need to reflect on whether or not this pairing intuitively makes sense.

Ultimately, we have a responsibility to teach them

that every time they put something in their mouths,

they make a choice:

to eat something nourishing, or something nutritionally depleted.

In the 19th century, physicians were offended

when Semmelweis suggested they wash their hands before delivering babies.

We are now asking them to consider

whether the medications that they prescribed

are contributing to the poor long-term outcome

for some people with mental illness.

But eating well and when appropriate additional nutrients

can improve the mental health of many people.

I leave you with one last thought.

Randomized trials in the 1600s

showed that putting limes aboard ships headed out for long voyages

completely eliminated the 40% mortality from scurvy.

But it took 264 years for the British government

to mandate that all ships must carry citrus for their sailors.

How long will it take our society to pay attention to the research showing

that suboptimal nutrition is contributing to the epidemic of mental illness?

So this is my idea worth spreading:

Nutrition matters,

and if we're really ready to get serious about mental health,

we need to get serious about the critical role played by nutrition.

Thank you.

(Applause) (Cheering)


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