One: Pharmaceutical companies like to make lots of money
Two: What we eat affects how we feel
Do you doubt the truth of the above two statements? Neither. But research is finding more and more evidence on a daily basis to show us just how true they are, and how far this truth goes. And also, the fact that the two things are inextricably linked.
I went to a workshop last Friday by Dr Julia Rucklidge. She's a Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Canterbury, and has a specific interest in the role of nutrition in mental health.
The whole day was fascinating, and I wish I could replicate it all here for you, but it would be a very long post (and probably infringe some copyright!) so I'll list a few of the things I've learned, and provide some links you can follow to find out more.
Julia starts by saying that mental health concerns are on the rise. And with more and more pharmaceutical treatments available, shouldn't these numbers be reducing, not increasing? It's a serious concern, and costs society a ton of money every year, not to mention not being a very enjoyable position for sufferers and their supporters.
Three facts about pharmaceutical companies:
- Psychiatrists collect more money from drug companies, than any other specialty. The ones doing the prescribing.
- Studies showing negative results, don't have to be published. So drug companies can choose what they publish (and meddle with results so they show what they want) and the authorities allow it.
- Massive money is spent on marketing campaigns. For example, a huge 'awareness' campaign introduced social anxiety to the public in the 90s, people started being diagnosed with it, and the following year a drug came on the market to treat the symptoms.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying all medication is bad, or that anyone should stop taking theirs this second (please see your doctor if that's something you're planning!) but we do need to be aware of the enormous financial incentive these giant companies have in pushing these medicines. There are risks, side-effects, and often no clear instructions on how to come off the medication safely should you wish to do so.
So lets move onto a more hopeful and empowering subject. Food! We already know how important nutrition is for health. But what about mental health?
- Starvation experiments (probably not entirely legal these days) showed that 24 weeks of nutrient deprivation (i.e., plenty of food, but not nutritious enough) resulted in all the same symptoms of depression, hysteria, irritability and even self-mutilation.
- Our diets have changed massively in the last 100 years. Junk food, processed carbs, food dyes, trans-facts, preservatives, loads of sugar... these things just weren't part of our diets a short while ago. Our bodies can't process them, they don't have the nutrients we need, and they're usually loads of calories, so we put on weight.
- Research shows that following what's known as a 'mediterranean diet', has positive health outcomes on a number of levels. This way of eating is largely plant-based, with a focus on whole foods, less sugar and processed stuff, fish, good oils, nuts and seeds (see the pyramid below). Our genetics appear to play a part when it comes to which things we can digest well, and there are always food allergies to take into consideration. But on the whole, a plant-based whole food diet is beneficial for a lessening in depression and anxiety symptoms, maternal mental health, childhood ADHD and externalising symptoms, and physical health including the cardiovascular system.
- There's seem some amazing findings showing the power of micronutrients (taking a regular broad spectrum multivitamin daily) to 'top up' what we're missing. Micronutrients have had a bad rap in past years, described as creating 'expensive urine' and it being possible to 'overdose' on particular nutrients. Julia's research shows that because our bodies are designed to consume these nutrients, they have efficient processes for getting rid of any 'extra'. When a multivitamin is taken, overdose is even less likely - because the side effect of taking too much of one nutrient is often the deficiency of another. But if you're taking that other one along with it, problem solved! One final word on micronutrients - Julia says that they're in the process of testing the strength of supermarket brands, and it appears that they're likely not to be strong enough to make much difference. She does have a list of those they've tested which contain the concentrations required - and she invites anyone to email her for a list of these. She has no associations with any one brand, and gets no reward - monetary or otherwise - for recommending particular kinds.
Julia concluded by saying that traditionally, we start with medication, then offer therapy and then try other things. But what if we started with lifestyle changes, including exercise and a nutritious diet? Well, if diet is as powerful as we are beginning to realise, the pharmaceutical companies probably wont like it!
And I need to add a note here that what we eat is affected by a range of things including financial constraints, culture, time available, energy, cooking skill, access to facilities and so on. But given we know how important it is, isn't it worth starting to make small changes?
If you're thinking 'but I love burgers and donuts and fried chicken, what are you trying to do to me??' you aren't alone. To understand more about why we crave stuff that's so bad for us, watch this video.
If you're interested to learn more about the research on the importance of food (and some of the dirty little secrets of the food industry, try some of the documentaries on this list.) I can personally recommend Forks over Knives, Fed Up, That Sugar Film and Food Inc.
If you'd rather read, try some of the goodies on this list. I also like I quit sugar, which includes an 8 week recipe plan for cutting out sugar. I particular like Sarah Wilson's writing, because she comes from a lovely acceptance perspective. Diets don't work, lifestyle changes do. Eating less sugar is hard, and we can beat ourselves up when we fall back to old habits and then give up altogether. The I quit sugar franchise (and make no mistake, it is a commercial enterprise now!) focuses on what you can have, encourages you to just 'give it a go', and be kind and gentle with yourself while you're at it.
Here's TVNZ's recent article on her work with micronutrients, and the Stuff.co.nz article on the same topic. (The Stuff one lists Anxiety NZ at the bottom of the article but we had nothing to do with the content, just coincidence!)