The 1999 Surgeon General’s report on mental health care in the United States indicated that about 20 percent of the American population experiences a diagnosable mental health condition each year, yet only about one-third receive the treatment they need (especially children often lack access to early diagnostic and treatment services).1 Increasingly, research calls into question traditional divisions between mental and physical health. “We now understand that the promotion of wellness requires that health care adopt a more sophisticated and integrated approach to these two aspects of health. But, over the past 50 years, mental and behavioral health services emerged quite differently from physical health services within the health system.”2
The separation between mental and physical health care has resulted in a number of problems. No single profession dominates the mental health/behavioral field so diagnostic and treatment approaches vary considerably, more than in most areas of medicine. Unfortunately, mental health needs are often stigmatized (as moral, individual or parental faults) and effective treatments (integrating psycho-social-biological approaches) are difficult to find and seldom reimbursed by insurance companies. Mental health treatment choices usually consist of either a pharmaceutical drug approach (psychiatric) or behavioral/counseling methods.
Unfortunately, nutritional factors have largely been neglected by the major mental health providers, outside of the field of eating disorders. However, despite the lack of nutritional training in graduate and medical schools, there is an ever growing body of evidence that nutrition significantly influences the development and treatment of mental health and learning problems.3 While the influences of diet upon “physical” health are increasingly accepted, the influences of diet on “mental” health still remain somehow taboo in the minds of most professionals. Yet, our brain’s biochemistry is fueled by the food we eat, far more than most organs in the body. Metabolism is central to brain function, particularly in growing children.
Children’s brains are hungrier, more metabolically active, and proportionally larger than adult’s brains. Per pound of body weight, children eat more food, drink more fluids, and breathe more air than adults, thereby increasing their exposure to environmental toxins.4 Unfortunately, young children’s immature intestinal linings and blood-brain barriers are not as protective as those of most adults.5 Because of this increased exposure and reduced protection, children are more likely than adults to have acute brain and behavioral dysfunctions related to toxins, allergens, and metabolic byproducts.6 Additionally, because of their greater nutritional needs and generally poorer eating habits (less health-building foods, more fast food), children are more likely than most adults to have nutrient deficiencies.7 All of these factors contribute to children’s heightened susceptibility to dietary imbalances, including increased exposures to neurotoxins, that are likely contributing to the epidemic of neurobehavioral problems now sweeping our country.8
AD/HD and Depression
Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD) is our nation’s leading mental health problem in children.9 Depression is a leading cause of disability in adults.10 Both of these brain-related problems are associated with difficulties in arousal (e.g., energy regulation, metabolism). Larry Christensen, Ph.D., an expert in diet and behavior relationships, reports that depression and AD/HD are the behavioral disorders most likely to respond to dietary interventions.11
Scientists know that nutrients from our food impact the formation of neurotransmitters in the brain. Yet, many factors need to be considered to best appreciate diet-behavior connections.