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Food for Thought: Nutritional Psychiatry and why it Matters

The Human Brain is still somewhat of a mystery to us. We all have one, we know and understand its basic functions; we know it is the “command center” for all bodily functions, our thoughts, our consciousness, etc. It is truly awe inspiring to sit down and think of all the things our brains are constantly and consistently doing without a single conscious decision on our part ( We have a good amount of knowledge regarding the way our brains process information and stimuli and yet we have so much more to learn.

Our Brains have certain ways they process information and function, like an engine or a high powered computer, they need regular maintenance to perform at their best. When our brain is not getting proper maintenance, again like an engine or high powered computer, things go wrong. This can vary from a physical sickness to a mental illness and anything and everything in between. Our brain is essential for processing information and giving us our perception of the world as well as making sure our physical bodies are performing properly. One synapses not firing, one nerve sending the wrong signal, one organ pumping incorrectly can send our bodies and minds into a tailspin. So how do we properly maintain our brain health? Just like our bodies, our brains need regular exercise, consistent patterns of rest and good nutrition. It is quite simple as it is the way to maintain a healthy body, and if you think about it, a healthy body starts with a healthy brain.

Nutrition plays a vital role in both our physical health and mental health. “We are what we eat.” It is a phrase we hear a lot, sometimes as a joke, sometimes in earnest, but it is a powerful phrase rooted in truth. Our brain is constantly functioning, even when we are sleeping and giving our bodies rest, and therefore needs a constant supply of fuel. The better the fuel- high quality, nutrient dense foods with essential vitamins and minerals and antioxidants- the better our brains and bodies will feel and perform. Lower quality food, processed and refined foods or foods high in refined sugar can actually damage our brain, especially if we are consistently consuming them. “Diets high in refined sugars, for example, are harmful to the brain. In addition to worsening your body’s regulation of insulin, they also promote inflammation and oxidative stress. Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function — and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression.” Nutritional Psychiatry is fairly new to the Medical Community which has, in the past, disregarded the correlation between diet and mental illness; “Today, fortunately, the burgeoning field of nutritional psychiatry is finding there are many consequences and correlations between not only what you eat, how you feel, and how you ultimately behave…” How can Nutritional Psychiatry play a role in more complex behavioral and mental illnesses like Schizophrenia?

(SPECT Imaging of Healthy Brain vs. Brain of Schizophrenic Patient from Amen clinics)

The two images above show the differences in blood flow and mental activity via SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computer Tomography) Imaging. The healthy brain shows uniform blood flow and activity while the Schizophrenic effected brain shows "high levels of damage and decreased activity." While this is not surprising, as Scientists have speculated for decades that brain abnormalities, imbalances, and impaired neurological activity could be causes of Schizophrenia, it is quite astounding to see the differences displayed. The differences in activity and blood flow are linked to the way Schizophrenics process sensory information and the positive and negative symptoms of the illness patients exhibit.

Treatment for Schizophrenic patients is antipsychotics and other pharmaceuticals as necessary, but these will also impact the brain and body's health. While this approach will help manage the positive symptoms, it does not usually impact the negative symptoms. Using a nutritional approach in conjunction with the regular treatment options has shown to have a positive impact on the overall quality of a patient's life. More recent clinical studies have seen a positive impact on both the positive and negative symptoms to the point that some patient's have reduced or discontinued use of the pharmacuetical care plan to manage their symptoms.

Since a Schizophrenic Patient's brain is already processing information differently than other people around them, it is perhaps even more important to maintain a healthy diet and focus on foods that are whole and nutrient dense. According to Food for the Brain Foundation "Your intake of sugar, refined carbohydrates, caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes, as well as stimulant drugs, all affect the ability to keep one’s blood sugar level balanced. On top of this common antipsychotic medication may also further disturb blood sugar control. Stimulant drugs, from amphetamines to cocaine, can induce schizophrenia. The incidence of blood sugar problems and diabetes is also much higher in those with schizophrenia. Therefore it is strongly advisable to reduce, as much as possible, your intake of sugar, refined carbohydrates, caffeine and stimulant drugs and eat a low glycemic load diet." It is even speculated that the "Western Diet" which is high in processed foods and extra sugars has been a factor in the increased rates of depression; "A 2017 meta-analysis found that a healthier dietary pattern was associated with a decreased risk of depression, and a “Western diet” was associated with an increased risk of depression." The Meditteranean diet and the Oriental diet have similar nutrient dense content such as fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, and these are the dietary patterns that are recommended for those at risk of or suffer from depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and a range of other mental illnesses and defects. You can find a list of recommended foods and dietary supplements as well as a list of stimulants and foods to avoid for those diagnosed with Schizophrenia here . Whether you are a patient with Schizophrenia or depression or not, the field of Nutritional Psychiatry is a developing field you should read up on- Your brain (and body) will thank you for it!


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