It’s well established that the food we eat has a profound influence on our mental health and risk of developing psychiatric illness (1, 2, 3, 4, 5. 6, 7), and that gut dysbiosis, which closely relates to nutritional imprudence, plays a central role in the pathogenesis of a number of disorders of the mind. One may go as far as to argue that science is redundant in this respect, given that one will quickly deduce that one’s dietary practices and gut health affect one’s cognitive abilities and mental well-being simply from paying attention to those aspects of one’s life. Personally, I’ve certainly found this to be the case.
Then why isn’t nutritional therapy a core component of the standard treatment program for psychiatric illness? Not only isn’t it a primary therapy, but it’s barely included or considered at all. Many, if not most people, who suffer from a mental disorder have never received any proper nutritional instructions and subsist on a diet high in coke, pizza, and/or other junk. This arguably represents one of the biggest failures of our health care apparatus.
Nutritional evolutionary mismatch plays a central role in the modern epidemic of mental illness
From an evolutionary point of view, it makes obvious sense that our dietary practices greatly contribute to shaping the workings of our brains. The nutritional conditions under which we evolved exerted a major adaptive pressure on human organ systems, including brain systems, which evolved for millions of years against the backdrop of a natural environment in which wild plants and animals constituted the only option on the dietary menu.
As a result of evolution via natural selection, the brain has become dependent on a certain mix of nutritional compounds to function well. This mix, composed of different levels of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, vitamin D, zinc, iron, and so forth, unfortunately differs markedly from the nutritional mixture to which the brain of the modern, doughnut-eating man and woman is exposed. Not only that, but the microbial communities that are produced from the latter concoction are going to differ markedly from the ones that are shaped by the former. This has major brain-related implications, as the microbes that colonize our bodies manufacture a range of brain-stimulating chemicals, including the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is known to affect our feelings and mood.
In light of this information it makes perfect sense that reports from researchers and explorers indicate that people who live in a milieu that resembles the non-industrialized, natural environment in which most of humans’ evolutionary journey took place are generally mentally well and content/happy with life (8, 9, 10), as well as why a number of brain-related diseases and health problems have become more commons as of late. Furthermore, it explains why various forms of traditional dietary practises have been shown to help shield against conditions such as depression, anxiety, and dementia (3, 11, 12).
Basically, as our diet has become increasingly more divergent from the one that supported and guided the bulk of the evolution of Homo sapiens’ brain circuitry, our cognitive and mental faculties have become increasingly more imbalanced.
It’s arguably wise to explore the nutritional route before one resorts to the pharmaceutical one
Instead of being given nutritional advice, mental care patients are frequently pumped full of psychiatric meds, sometimes at such extremes that they become so drugged that they almost completely lose touch with reality. Pharmaceutical drugs may certainly be called for in some situations; however, there’s no doubt that they are overused. Instead of immediately reaching for the medicine cabinet, I’d argue that we should reach for healthy foods.
A healthy diet certainly isn’t a panacea that’ll cure every case of mental illness; however, it can prove to be a powerful weapon, particularly if it’s combined with cognitive behavioral therapy. The diet of choice will have to vary somewhat depending on the situation, but should preferably always be based on Darwinian nutrition principles, for the simple reason that the nutritional requirements to support the growth and maintenance of a healthy human brain were shaped by natural selection.
Obviously, highly processed convenience foods such as doughnuts, chocolate, and candy will have to go. In place of these foods, fresh vegetables and omega-3 rich, wild-caught seafood, should take place on the menu, as well as other healthy whole foods such as fruit, berries, and nuts. If the gut microbiota of the individual in question is very damaged, it may also be a good idea to bring some fermented vegetables into the mix. Additionally, intermittent fasting should be incorporated, as well as exercise, sun exposure, and several other non-diet related lifestyle measures.
Dietary imprudence and gut dysfunction are centrally involved in the development of many mental health problems and psychiatric diseases, including depression, ADHD, autism, and schizophrenia. These and many other disorders of the mind have increased in prevalence in recent evolutionary times, in part because our dietary practices have transgressed the limits of what the human brain is evolutionarily designed to safely tolerate. Unfortunately, this is something that the psychiatric establishment hasn’t really picked up on, and as of today, nutritional therapy hasn’t been a standard part of the conventional treatment for mental illness. If this were to change, it would potentially revolutionize mental health care and make a huge difference in many people’s lives.