Today is October 10th, which marks the celebration of World Mental Health day. This year’s theme is on Psychological First Aid (PFA), which aims to raise awareness about the importance of first aid support for people following a large crisis or traumatic event. Psychological First Aid, as outlined by the World Health Organisation, is the act of providing people who have recently suffered trauma and distress with support and practical care.The theme for the day aims to raise awareness about the importance of the basic principles of PFA by anyone who finds themselves in a helping role, be it a healthcare worker, a policeman, a volunteer or a first aider.
With mental health conditions on the rise, it is important we have first aid in place for those going through intense stress and anxiety caused by conditions such as depression and bipolar disorder. Organisations such as Mental Health First Aid England (MHFAE), provide training and educational resources to enable people to know how to detect mental health issues and know how to offer appropriate guidance and support when needed by the person suffering. The idea that nutrition could be considered a priority in mental health first aid may seem radical and there is undoubtedly a lot of scepticism in the scientific community. However, despite this there is increasing research to show the importance of diet for managing and preventing symptoms associated with mental health conditions. Nutrition and nutritional supplementation have also been shown to play a significant therapeutic role for people who have suffered traumatic events and crisis’ such as environmental disasters. It makes sense that a well-nourished brain can withstand stress more efficiently, and when we understand that our neurotransmitters, the chemicals our brain uses to transmit signals to the tissues and organs in our body, rely on co-factors (nutrients) for their synthesis, uptake and breakdown, believing that our mood can be affected by what we eat becomes a little more plausible.
The field of Nutritional Psychiatry is growing rapidly as increasing studies are showing how using diet and supplementation as a strategy to target symptoms of mental health conditions, has a more sustainable positive effect than the use of anti-depressants and other medications, which in the long-run may lead to a variety of negative side-effects. The proposition to adopt the use of nutritional supplementation for the treatment of mental health disorders is being highlighted by a number of academics around the world, so much so, that the International Society of Nutritional Psychiatry Research (ISNPR) was founded in order to support the generation of research in nutritional approaches for the prevention and treatment of mental health disorders and their comorbidities. Julia Rucklidge, a clinical psychologist based at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, who specialises in nutritional psychiatry and leads the Nutrition and Mental Health Research Group, has published numerous studies demonstrating the therapeutic power of nutrition in conditions ranging from child and adult ADHD to bipolar disorder. In one particular study, Julia set out to measure the impact of a variety of nutritional supplements that contained vital nutrients for brain function, in sufferers following the Christchurch earthquakes. The study aimed to demonstrate how nutritional supplements can provide the body the additional nutrients it needs to withstand chronic stress when nutrient intake is most compromised. Chronic stress and stressful situations, such as in environmental disasters, can be metabolically demanding and overtime can deplete the body of vital nutrients, which can exacerbate symptoms and lead to further mental health problems. 91 adults experiencing heightened anxiety or stress 2–3 months following the earthquake in Christchurch were recruited to take part in this study. They were randomised to take 3 different nutritional supplements containing high levels of B vitamins as well as other nutrients indicated for cognitive health. All treatment groups experienced significant declines in psychological symptoms as well as a greater improvement in mood, anxiety and energy.
This is one of many studies (a list of some can be found here) showing the positive effects of optimal nutrition in managing mental health symptoms. What is being most significantly highlighted by academics such as Julia Rucklidge and the ISNPR, is that adopting nutritional supplementation for the therapeutic treatment of mental health disorders is also very inexpensive and safe. The risk of side effects is very little, which is highlighted by the research undertaken thus far. This further underlines how micronutrient supplementation can be an easy and useful tool to adopt as an intervention for public health authorities. In addition, nutritional supplementation does not only deal with the isolated symptoms of mental health conditions, but it also helps to improve overall health. Unfortunately as micronutrients cannot be patented, there is little benefit for companies to fund clinical trials. This therefore means that published randomised controlled trials have mostly been funded by the generosity of private donations. The scepticism in micronutrient supplementation is, however, gradually being lifted by these studies, which are showing great value and the potential benefit that these simple measures could have on public health.
Food for the Brain is working to support and promote research in the field of nutrition and mental health. We aim to directly empower people to prevent and tackle mental health conditions through nutrition. Our work also includes collaborating with partners to promote the power of nutrition such as Mental Health First Aid England, which was mentioned earlier, by contributing to a new adult training course which will be launched today.