Is Your Brain Adequately Nourished to Cope With COVID-19 Stress?

Bonnie Kaplan, PhDJulia Rucklidge, PhD
22
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We all understand that well-nourished people are more resilient in the face of stressors. International organizations have already expressed their concern about the marginal nutritional status of many people in the developing world: What will happen when COVID-19 reaches African nations, or temporary camps that house Syrians forced to flee their country? The fear is that the rate of COVID-19 infection and death will be much higher because of their poor nutritional status, which will compromise their physical immunity.

Those concerns focus on physical, not mental, health. Yet the brain is the most metabolically active organ in our bodies, demanding the most resources. It is the organ that needs to be fed dozens of nutrients every minute of every day for optimal function. The blood vessels feeding oxygen and nutrients to your brain every minute your heart is beating would wrap around the planet Earth twice—that’s how densely packed your brain blood vessels are, to enable them to feed your brain.

And here is a fact that may not yet be on your radar: Even in our developed, western society, our brains are only marginally nourished, contributing to the epidemic of mental illness visible even before COVID-19 arrived on the scene.

The causes of inadequate brain supply of nutrients even in wealthy nations are many—here are just two, both of which we could improve:

    1. Our food supply is currently suffering from poor nutrient content because of massive applications of herbicides like glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) which result in nutrient depletion in our plants. Approximately 97 percent of our arable land in North America is now treated with glyphosate, which sequesters minerals in plants, making them unavailable. Remineralization of our soil with the full range of 15 or so minerals is required for optimal plant health. And keep in mind that it is our plants that synthesize the vast majority of our vitamins.

How do plants do that? They produce vitamins by using those 15 or so minerals—if they are present in the soil. Mineral-poor soil results in mineral-poor plants, which cannot produce the vitamins we humans rely on.

    1. Our marginal diets that are heavy on ultra-processed foods and low on nutrient-dense foods. Data from both Canada and the U.S. demonstrate that our populations now choose to eat ultra-processed “foods” for more than 50 percent of their food consumption. The definition of food is that it enhances cellular growth and function. These ultra-processed “foods” are nutrient-poor, but they make our stomachs feel full.

We have known since the post-World War II starvation experiments that cutting nutrient intake by 50 percent in normal, healthy adults results in an almost 100 percent rate of the symptoms currently plaguing our countries: depression, anxiety, ADHD. Now, we as a society are running that experiment on our own: Our people are consciously making the choice to consume processed chemicals for more than 50 percent of our food intake.

These two problems need to be addressed as soon as possible, with determination and vigilance—unless we as a society decide to accept the pre-pandemic prevalence rate of 20 percent with mental health problems. But right now, we are all understandably focused on the pandemic, which is resulting in enormous amounts of stress and anxiety. What could we all do to help nourish our brains?

First and foremost, we need everyone to understand that mental health resilience is a function of a well-nourished brain.

    1. At all times (not just during pandemics), exclude all the highly processed “foods” that are in packages with long lists of chemicals that you can barely pronounce.
    2. Start your day with a nourishing breakfast! Consider an omelette with vegetables, or muesli (oats, nuts, raisins) with milk, yogurt, fresh fruit.
    3. Focus on ensuring the majority of your diet consists of real foods. Start with a whole- foods diet approach including good fats, nuts, seeds, fish, modest amount of meat, vegetables, fruit, whole grains. Limit your sugar intake and be careful about ramping up on coffee and alcohol. The World Health Organization guidelines are very appropriate.
    4. During times of extra stress (like this pandemic) consider taking a B complex every morning after breakfast. There are at least ten clinical trials from around the world, including research following disasters in both New Zealand (Christchurch earthquakes) and Canada (Calgary floods), showing that B vitamins in particular can be helpful with recovery. These studies show as much as a 50 percent drop in anxiety and stress within a few weeks of adding B complex. The B vitamins are very good for improving our resilience.
    5. For more significant, enduring mental health problems, there is a substantial body of research identifying the robust clinical benefits from nutrient formulas containing the full broad spectrum of approximately 30 minerals and vitamins.

Is nutrition the only factor in managing our mental health? Of course not, but it is the one that is the most often overlooked.

Food matters. And if we really want to get serious about mental health during this pandemic, we need to get serious about nutrition.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

22 COMMENTS

  1. “We have known since the post-World War II starvation experiments that cutting nutrient intake by 50 percent in normal, healthy adults results in almost 100 percent rate of the symptoms currently plaguing our countries: depression, anxiety, ADHD.” But the “mental health” workers claim these disorders are caused by “chemical imbalances” in people’s brains, not poor nutrition.

    Thank you for pointing out the common sense that “we are what we eat,” and “Food matters.”

    • Thanks oldhead.

      I’ve tried to get through to these people, but like many others, they’re not listening. All of this nutrition mumbo-jumbo will just end up harming the very people they wish to help as long as the myth of mental illness remains the underlying assumption.

      It should be quite simple, really. How hard is it to understand that the brain is not the same thing as the mind? Seriously.

      By all means, eat healthy food everyone. By all means, keep your brain healthy. But what good is a healthy brain if it doesn’t help you think clearly? What good is a healthy brain that remains impenetrable to the most basic realities?

      So, please, for the love of Pete, stop worrying about nourishing brains and start educating your minds to understand that there is no such thing as “mental illness” or “mental health.”

    • I agree. A better term might be emotional problems from poor nutrition.

      I suffer from this thanks to years of psychiatric drugs messing up my insides. Now I require a B12 shot every month and an iron infusion every winter. Officially diagnosed with pernicious anemia and inflammatory bowel disease.

  2. “https://www.msn.com/en-ca/news/world/instead-of-coronavirus-the-hunger-will-kill-us-a-global-food-crisis-looms/ar-BB135Gbv?ocid=spartanntp”

    There are countries that can’t worry about vitamin C, or minerals. And it’s a darn shame that fear and worry has to dominate some people’s lives.

  3. I wanted to leave a comment on this article because as someone with involvement in both the social justice informed mental health/critical psychiatry world and the eating disorder community, I was troubled by what I felt to be an extreme misinterpretation of the results of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment.

    In the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, the food intake of 36 young men was limited to around 1500 calories per day. The purpose of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment was to study the effects of starvation and specifically, to study how to refeed victims of genocide during WWII.

    Like Dr. Kaplan and Dr. Rucklidge stated, 100% of the young men in the study experienced symptoms of depression, anxiety, ADHD, and/or psychosis as a result. (One man was so deeply impacted by the starvation that he cut his fingers off.) However, in this article, Dr. Kaplan and Dr. Rucklidge attributed these symptoms to nutrient restriction and compared the caloric restriction involved in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment with the consumption of processed foods today. There is no evidence supporting this claim or comparison.

    What the Minnesota Starvation Experiment does tell us is that caloric restriction can be quite dangerous. Inadequate caloric intake is far more dangerous to the brain and body than the consumption of any particular food or type of food.

    For many people, processed foods may be an affordable way to meet caloric needs. For some people, it may be the only way they have available right now to meet their caloric needs during this time. It can be a good thing to eat processed food – it is a much, much higher priority for the body to receive ENOUGH food than for it to receive the “right” kinds of food.

    The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends an “all foods fit” approach to nutrition and suggests that all foods in moderation can be part of a healthy, balanced diet. The reality is that the vast majority of us (excluding those of us with specific medical issues/allergies/sensitivities) need a combination of starches, fats, proteins, fruits, and vegetables in our diet, and all foods can offer us at least some of these macronutrients. Advocating that individuals restrict particular food groups or adhere to rigid food rules, especially without discussing the dangers of insufficient caloric intake, can lead to disordered eating and promote unhealthy relationships with food.

    For further information, I suggest looking into intuitive eating (www.intuitiveeating.org) and the Food Psych podcast (https://christyharrison.com/foodpsych).

    Here is a summary of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2013/10/hunger

    • I would add to this that the main reason unprocessed foods are so unavailable or un-affordable to so many of us is that our government has been corrupted by big food industries and that damaging things like high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and highly processed grains are massively subsidized. We now have to pay premium prices to get food that used to be normal fare before food industrialization. I hope we can go beyond saying, “Hey, it’s OK for poor people to eat crappy food if that’s all they can afford” and toward saying, “Hey, why is it that we are subsidizing the production of crappy food at all, and why don’t we create a system so that healthier foods are available and affordable to all of our population?” And that doesn’t even get started on why there is such widespread poverty in what is held to be the richest nation on earth!

    • Hi Emily, thanks for your comment. As someone who used to have an eating disorder and who now lives in a food desert, I have had to make the shift to aiming for nutrient-dense foods but relying on processed foods when necessary. I think that especially for people who tend toward restrictive eating it’s important to first make sure you’re not starving yourself. In situations where “whole foods” diets are hard to maintain (which, let’s be real, is a good portion of America) we have to make do with what we can.

  4. I’m compelled to comment because both the article and the comments are misleading. The idea that the body (and hence the brain) needs adequate nutrition to function aught to be patently obvious to all. The criticisms of processed food are absolutely legitimate. Those who can afford the time and money to shop the perimeter of their grocery stores are privileged, full stop.

    The problem is not that people don’t know how to eat properly but that processed foods are largely made from heavily subsidized cheap cereals, grains and sugars. Large swaths of Americans can neither afford the money nor time it takes to prepare nutritious meals at home. The American Academy of Dietician’s All Foods Fit approach is utter horse shit meant to make people feel better about their lack of choices when it comes to nutrition. It follows the same nonsensical line of thinking as the “Healthy at every size” movement, which is similarly about making people feel better about unhealthy body size, and the lengthy list of diseases and drugs required to treat them, that go along with obesity.

    It’s a bit of a cruel joke that the current epidemic is hitting exactly the populations that can least afford to change their lifestyle factors that would massively increase their overall health – including their mental functioning. Obesity appears to be the greatest risk factor to those under 50.

    We need to stop reassuring people that their poor diets are sufficient, stop telling them they’re going to be fine with just sufficient calories, and get them fired up and angry at how US Government politicians and agencies, and the revolving door of corporate influence heading these agencies, have royally screwed them, from cheap crop subsidies to dairy/meat industry subsidies to SNAP benefits to food pyramids. We absolutely DO know how to help folks improve their health, we DO know it begins with nutrition and that nutrition effects every cellular process in the body, and we know what happens when cells aren’t adequately nourished. We’ve got very robust, long-term data from the China Study, The Cornish Study, The Nurse’s Study, etc, that show over and over again that processed foods are bad (in particular ultra-processed foods) and that a whole foods plant based diet with minimal animal products and a great deal of vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds vastly improves health.

    This is very much a political issue and neither harping on people about what they SHOULD be eating, not reassuring those who can’t that they’ll be just fine anyway is the way to fix these problems. Like most issues with American life, these are systemic issues that will take POLITICAL ACTION to fix.

    Beyond all of that, the water, energy and oil it takes to create all the processed crap Americans eat is directly contributing to climate change. The American lifestyle is not just killing us, it’s killing the planet. It’s time we have a political discussion that doesn’t aim to make anyone feel better emotionally, but instead aims to repair the harms we’re doing to ourselves and to our home. There is no Planet B and the body you have is the only one you’re going to get. It’s time to truly care for both and address the underlying factors destroying both.

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