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The Brain-Defender from Down Under
Randy Hartnell sat with “kiwi” psychologist Julia Rucklidge to explore her encouraging findings about foods and brain health

02/26/2018 By Randy Hartnell

The importance of diet to brain health is now crystal clear, thanks to evidence published over the past 20 years.

Yet, many Americans blunt their brains — and raise their risk of attention and psychological disorders — by eating nutrient-poor processed foods, and feeding them to children.

Vital Choice founder Randy Hartnell recently conducted a face-to-face interview with Professor Julia Rucklidge, Ph.D., a New Zealand-based psychologist who researches the effects of nutrients on mental performance and health.

Professor Rucklidge has led several clinical trials testing vitamins and other micronutrients for their ability to improve ADHD, depression, bipolar disorder and PTSD.

And her frequently positive findings bolster urgent warnings about diet and brain health from researchers we consult, like Michael Crawford, Ph.D., and NIH psychiatrist Joe Hibbeln, M.D.

Her popular TEDx talk — staged in New Zealand’s capital, Christchurch — focused on the brain-performance and psychological impacts of nutrition.

She's also one of the leading physicians and researchers who contribute to the Mad in America blog, which focuses on science, psychiatry, and social justice as they pertain to mental health.

We've covered some of the research in this field. You'll find links to those, and a list of studies mentioned by Professor Rucklidge, at the end of Randy's interview.

The following is an edited transcript of Randy’s interview with Professor Rucklidge.


Randy Hartnell

Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your affiliation, and your TEDx talk?

Professor Rucklidge

I'm Professor Julia Rucklidge, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. I've been there now for 17 years.

The TEDx talk was driven by the concern that we have a rising number of people who are suffering from mental illness.

Sadly, our current treatments are simply not as effective as we had hoped. We have an increasing number of people suffering, which shouldn't happen if your treatments were working.

If this was an area of physical health, I think there would be a lot more attention drawn to it. But it seems that because of the stigma associated with mental illness, we simply don't talk about it, and we don't talk about the fact that the treatments aren't helping enough people.

I ask every audience how many people know someone who suffers from a mental illness. And my experience has been that everyone puts up their hand.

And then I ask, and how many of you feel that the condition that they're suffering from has been well-managed or treated by current conventional treatments? And I typically will get, at most, one or two hands go up.

The politicians need to see that. They need to understand that throwing more money at our current approach — which is wait until people get ill and then give them medications, is not helping enough people.

We need to be thinking and exploring other avenues of treatment and prevention.

Randy Hartnell

What, in your opinion, is causing this proliferation of mental health disease?

Professor Rucklidge

I think it's complex, and many factors are contributing to it. I don't want to minimize the importance of poverty. People who are deprived are more likely to have mental illness, and if we could address inequality, we'd probably go a long way in improving the mental health of our community.

If we could stop people from being violent towards each other and violent towards children and being abusive towards children, I think we'd go a long way towards reducing the number of people who have a psychiatric condition.

We really need to pay attention to what we're consuming. Over the last 50 to 100 years, our diet has changed so dramatically that our bodies have not evolved to keep up.

We can no longer ignore the data that have been presented over the last 10 years showing the association between what we eat and our mental health.

We're consuming things that we're not used to, that we can't process, that are foreign to us. And it's no surprise that we have an increase in not just physical, but mental illnesses.

We need to be paying attention to those studies and to the studies that show that if you eat well, that will reduce your risk of developing a psychiatric condition.

The more we eat a processed type of diet, which means that you're eating a lot of take-aways and sugary drinks, and not eating a lot of fruits and vegetables, that increases your risk of mental illness.

And the more you eat a natural, whole-food diet consisting of a lot of fruits and vegetables, good fats, and a lot of nuts, fish, then you lower the risk for mental illness.

Randy Hartnell

Are there particular foods that you think are causing brain problems?

Professor Rucklidge

I'm not the person to be asking about specific foods, because I interpret that literature in terms of dietary patterns, and I think that we have to be careful about not going straight to a specific food. 

But I think it's safe to say that the less you eat the really highly processed foods, the better that's going to be for your health and your mental health.

And the more you eat those foods that our grandmother knew as foods, including fruits and vegetables, then the more protective that will be. In the words of Michael Pollan, eat foods, mostly plants, and not too much.

[Editor‘s note: There‘s a good deal of evidence linking the extreme intakes of omega 6 fatty acids — and low intakes of omega-3s — in the American diet to higher rates of depression and other mental disorders. See the list of our relevant past newsletter articles at the end of this interview.]

Randy Hartnell

We've known for quite a while that diet is causing a lot of different types of illnesses. Why do you think it's so difficult to get the message out?

Professor Rucklidge

I think there's a lot of economic reasons when it comes to the human diet that we can't ignore. The food industry is very, very powerful, and I think they can lobby government officials and politicians on what direction they take in policies. It's very hard for a government to try to make changes that are going to be unpopular with their supporters.

For example, in New Zealand, the idea of putting a tax on sugary drinks has been raised, and our government has said no, we're not going to do that. 

Randy Hartnell

Are you familiar with areas where they do eat a more balanced diet and correspondingly, they don't have as much mental illness?

Professor Rucklidge

There are places in the world where they do seem to be more protected as long as they're eating their traditional diet. The more you have a shift away from the traditional diet, then the more likely there will be a rise in mental illness.

I would guess places like the Mediterranean would have lower rates of mental illness if they adhere to the Mediterranean diet. Likewise, in Japan, if you're adhering to the Japanese diet, which is high in fish, we know that's correlated with lower rates of mental illness.

Randy Hartnell

What would you most hope for people to understand about diet and mental health?

Professor Rucklidge

I think we need to become a lot more aware that the current treatment approach isn't helping enough people. I think a lot of people think that it’s supposed to be effective, and when it doesn't work for you, then you think that it's something wrong with me, rather than maybe the data isn't as good as we thought it was.

I think shifting away from thinking that a pharmaceutical drug is the answer to treating mental illness would certainly be a first step, and to explore other options first before resorting to medications.

We need to emphasize lifestyle factors first, like exercise, meditation, shifting your diet from highly processed to less processed, and ensuring that we have wonderful green spaces around us because we know that's going to be protective. That's what the data shows.

[Editor's Note: See our list of “Green surroundings” articles at the end.]

And we know that good social support and social networks improves our mental health.

In terms of my research, I suggest looking at supplementing with vitamins and minerals and amino acids.

If diet and lifestyle approaches aren't effective, then we can start looking at medications. But I would try those approaches first.

Randy Hartnell

A lot of people talk about how organic food's too expensive or fish is too expensive. Can you address that?

Professor Rucklidge

It is a misperception. There's data that eating better can be less expensive. I think one of the reasons why is that you shift away from purchasing a lot of takeaway foods to cooking, which is going to be cheaper than doing a takeaway.

I think a lot of people have lost those skills and we need to teach everyone how to cook and have your own vegetable garden. If we eat vegetables in season, rather than expecting to eat tomatoes all year round, that makes a huge difference in terms of the cost of food.

I think being organized —  buying ahead and in bulk, and just being prepared to cook —  will make sure that your meals will be cheaper.

Randy Hartnell

Last question. Why are you so passionate about this topic?

Professor Rucklidge

I'm passionate about it because I care about the mental health of our community. I hear about how our current approaches aren't working.

I’m committed to speaking out on behalf of people who are vulnerable, who don't have a voice, because they need to be heard.

What we're offering, the best medical treatments, are not helping enough people.

I'm here to spread that message and to bring attention to new research-based approaches that might have better outcomes.


Editor's Note: As promised, here are links to some of our past reporting on research into the effects of diet and lifestyle on brain health and mood.

Green surroundings and brain health:

Lifestyle and brain healthCan Dementia be Defeated Naturally?

Exercise and brain health:

Sleep and brain health

Diet and brain health:

Multitasking and brain health:

Studies mentioned in Dr. Rucklidge’s TEDx talk

  • Gordon HA, et al. Clinically Significant Symptom Reduction in Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Treated with Micronutrients: An Open-Label Reversal Design Study. J Child Adolesc Psychopharmacol. 2015 Dec;25(10):783-98.
  • Harrison R, et al. Use of micronutrients attenuates cannabis and nicotine abuse as evidenced from a reversal design: a case study. J Psychoactive Drugs. 2013 Apr-Jun;45(2):168-78.
  • Rucklidge J, et al. Micronutrients reduce stress and anxiety in adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder following a 7.1 earthquake. Psychiatry Res. 2011 Sep
  • 30;189(2):281-7.
    Rucklidge JJ and Harrison R. Successful treatment of bipolar disorder II and ADHD with a micronutrient formula: a case study. CNS Spectr. 2010 May;15(5):289-95.
  • Rucklidge JJ, et al. Can micronutrients improve neurocognitive functioning in adults with ADHD and severe mood dysregulation? A pilot study. J Altern Complement Med. 2011 Dec;17(12):1125-31.
  • Rucklidge JJ, et al. Nutrient supplementation approaches in the treatment of ADHD. Expert Rev Neurother. 2009 Apr;9(4):461-76.
  • Rucklidge JJ, et al. Shaken but unstirred? Effects of micronutrients on stress and trauma after an earthquake: RCT evidence comparing formulas and doses. Hum Psychopharmacol. 2012 Sep;27(5):440-54.
  • Rucklidge JJ, et al. Vitamin-Mineral Treatment of ADHD in Adults. J Atten Disord. 2017 Apr;21(6):522-32.
  • Rucklidge JJ, et al. Vitamin-mineral treatment of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in adults: double-blind randomised placebo-controlled trial. Br J Psychiatry. 2014;204:306-15.