The brain is the platform for the mind and therefore the platform for our mental health. While our understanding of how the brain works is less advanced than our understanding of the body’s other organs, much of the practical knowledge we do have of the brain has yet to be embraced and put to good use. This represents a spectrum of wasted opportunities to promote mental health and prevent mental ill-health in our society.
One of the clearest examples is the role of nutrition in relation to mental health. We know that the brain is made up in large part of essential fatty acids, water and other nutrients. We know that food affects how we feel, think and behave. In fact, we know that dietary interventions may hold the key to a number of the mental health challenges our society is facing. Yet we rarely invest in developing this knowledge, and a relatively tiny – but growing number of professionals are putting it to effective use. But there is a growing body of evidence, and a number of significant voices are championing the role of diet in the care and treatment of people with mental health problems.
The potential of dietary interventions in treating depression and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, for example, are being increasingly recognized. We would be foolish to underestimate their importance.
Mental health problems are believed to be the result of a combination of factors, including age, genetics and environmental factors. One of the most obvious, yet under-recognized factors in the development of major trends in mental health is the role of nutrition. The body of evidence linking diet and mental health is growing at a rapid pace. As well as its impact on short and long-term mental health, the evidence indicates that food plays an important contributing role in the development, management and prevention of specific mental health problems such as depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Increasingly, the links between diet and mental health are gathering support from academic and clinical research communities. Studies have ranged from examining individual responses to diet changes in randomized controlled trials, to population-based cross-cultural comparisons of mental health and food intake. But the role of diet in the nation’s mental health has yet to be fully understood and embraced, and shifts in policy and practice have been slow to materialize. Possible reasons include a lack of awareness of the evidence, scepticism as to its quality and vested interests in other treatments and approaches. For decades the prevailing treatment for mental health problems has been medication (and psychotherapy to a lesser extent), and mental health promotion methods have centred around information and education.
The treatment implications of research into nutrition and mental health have rarely been acknowledged by mainstream medicine, yet the potential returns are enormous. The mental health promotion implications are also of the utmost importance, and deserve much greater attention.