Research has shown that eating more fresh foods consistent with a Mediterranean-style diet, and eating less Western foods, could reverse spiralling rates of conditions such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety and depression.
Eleven years ago, when Rucklidge started using vitamins and minerals to treat mental illness, she says people were “completely uninterested”.
“Many didn’t believe there was a possibility that nutrition can influence your mental health,” she said.
But she was in Auckland this week for her second workshop for professionals at Massey University’s Albany campus after a first workshop in June sold out, and she now gets so many inquiries about her work that she has had to set up a standard email reply.
Next week she will speak at three conferences in three days -dietitians on Thursday andpsychologists on Friday, both in Wellington, and the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association in Sydney on Saturday.
“Suddenly there is an insatiable demand from people to get this type of information,” she said.
Community mental health nurse Olivia Sheehan said she had always encouraged her clients to exercise and eat well rather than relying on medicines, but after attending Rucklidge’s workshop she would put much more stress on nutrition.
“I actually hadn’t considered that aspect before but I certainly will in the future,” she said.
Dietitian Anna Sloan said Rucklidge’s research was proving the link that dietitians had always understood between diet and mental wellbeing.
“The more people can move away from processed foods, getting back to those whole grains, fruit and vegetables, small amounts of nuts and healthy oils, the better,” she said.
Rucklidge has conducted a randomised controlled trial of adults with ADHD which found that 64 per cent of those who received extra vitamins and minerals showed significantly fewer ADHD symptoms after eight weeks, compared with 37 per cent of those who received an inactive placebo.
But her most remarkable study was done with 91 Christchurch people with high stress levels immediately after the February 2011 earthquake. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder dropped from 65 per cent to 19 per cent among those who received extra vitamins and minerals, compared with a slight increase from 44 per cent to 48 per cent of a control group that did not get the supplements.
She believes governments should consider issuing nutritional supplements to everyone in any future area affected by an ongoing disaster like the Canterbury quakes – or at least make sure food handouts are nutritious.
“A lot of the food that may be given out is not food that is actually going to nourish the individual and sustain them in order to get through this,” she said.
She says our shift from natural wholefoods to packaged processed foods and takeaways has likely played a vital role in the increasing rates of mental illness that have coincided with an increase in patients on Pharmac-funded anti-depressants from 8.4 per cent of all adults in 2006 to 12.7 per cent this year.
“Our diet has changed so rapidly over 50 years that it’s hard not to believe that it’s having some impact on our mental health,” she said.
“My work shows that, because we show an impact of using vitamins and minerals on mental health, it simply proves the point that the diet these people are eating is simply not adequately meeting their nutritional needs.”