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Nutritional Psychiatry: What Is It And Does It Work?

There is something percolating under the surface of modern psychiatry. It is a new way of thinking that could one day transform our understanding of the human mind. What is it? It is a relatively new modality being described as ‘nutritional psychiatry’. You may have heard of it if you stay abreast of psychiatry jobs around the world.

Nutritional psychiatry is based in the concept that the mind is as affected by nutrition as the rest the body. The concept makes good sense from a biological standpoint. If what a person eats affects the heart, circulatory system, immune system, etc., why would it not also affect the brain? Those at the forefront of nutritional psychiatry believe it does.

Psychiatric Effects of Poor Nutrition

To fully understand what nutritional psychiatry is all about, it is equally important to understand the psychiatric effects of poor nutrition. A good place to start is a 2016 study out of South Korea that shows poor nutrition contributes to the onset of poor mental health. The study revealed that people with poor nutrition were more likely to suffer from:

  • anxiety and depression
  • bipolar disorder
  • schizophrenia
  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

It is reasonable to conclude that the psychiatric effects of poor nutrition do not begin and end with these four things. A brain that does not get the essential nutrients it needs to function properly will, by default, function improperly. This is simple biology.

Nutrition in America

Proponents of nutritional psychiatry argue that nutrition in America is a leading cause of what ails us, so to speak. We may have access to more food than any other country in the world, but that does not mean we eat well. In fact, studies suggest that Americans eat far too many processed foods that rob us of the nutrients our bodies need. That’s why the market for supplements is so robust here.

Another study conducted between 2007 and 2012 showed that many mental health conditions begin as inflammation in the brain – inflammation that kills brain cells. The study suggested that the inflammation is the result of a lack of certain nutrients like magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids. And once again, our reliance on processed foods is keeping those nutrients out of our diets.

Nutritional Psychiatry and Antidepressants

Perhaps the biggest factor separating nutritional psychiatry from the more traditional approach is how doctors view the use of antidepressants. The nutritional psychiatrist views antidepressants as just one tool for treating patients, and a tool that probably shouldn’t be used long-term. He or she prefers a nutrition-based approach whenever possible.

It is interesting to note that there are competing studies related to the efficacy of antidepressants to relieve the effects of depression and anxiety. Some studies point to antidepressants as wonder drugs that should be prescribed more liberally; others present data indicating that antidepressants don’t really help at all.

Regardless of where you stand on the use of antidepressants, it’s hard to argue that nutrition plays no role in mental health. Based on everything we know about the human body, nutrition has to have something to do with it. We cannot say that we are what we eat in every area except brain function. Such an assertion is not consistent with human biology, psychology, or medicine in general.

The burgeoning field of nutritional psychiatry is already making waves. It could be that the future of psychiatry jobs will be shaped by a better understanding of nutrition. It could be that the psychiatrist of tomorrow will be equal parts nutritionist and medical doctor.