Loneliness, social isolation and depression are all recipes for disaster for older adults—particularly those who live alone. Enter, the psychiatric profession, and everyone and their brother gets an instant fix of antidepressant medication. Is there a healthier and safer alternative for the treatment of depression in the elderly population?

Some experts are looking to a dietary solution for the dilemma of the growing number of people with anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions in the U.K.

Mental Health and the Western Diet

Although people on the Western diet certainly eat more of a variety of different food sources now days; it does not translate to being better nourished. So, what does diet have to do with mental health? Some nutritional experts say everything! These professionals feel that many people are not getting enough nutrients, which are needed for the brain to function optimally. Not only are people deficient in nutrients that promote brain health, much of what they do eat (sugar, processed foods, unhealthy trans fats) increases the risk for age related diseases caused by inflammation.

Nutritionists have long noticed a link between poor mental health and nutritional deficiencies, however, medical research studies are only now beginning to point to the evidence that backs up the theory that nutritional approaches can promote mental health.

What is Nutritional Psychiatry?

An emerging area of medicine, called nutritional psychiatry is a growing discipline that focuses on using diet and nutritional supplements as part of an integrated treatment modality for depression, bipolar disorder (manic depressive disorder), ADHD, and even schizophrenia. A lack of essential nutrients is thought to contribute to the onset of mental illness in people suffering from these disorders.

Treatment for Depression in Older Adults

The current prevalence of treating older adults with antidepressants is twice that of people age 45 and younger, says the Independent. Seniors are much more susceptible to side effects of psychotropic medications (drugs for mental illness) than younger people. Another dilemma, involved in the use of antidepressants in older adults, is that mental illness can be viewed as a social stigma, which easily leads to exclusion and discrimination. This could contribute (even further) to the problem of social isolation facing many older adults- particularly those who live alone.

Professor David Healy, pharmacologist specializing in psychiatric medications, questions the safety and necessity for the long-term use of anti-depressants in kids and adults, because according to medical studies, antidepressants enable dependency, result in unpleasant side effects, and are not a reliable mode of treatment.

Recent Studies

A recent research study found that food supplements like magnesium, zinc, and omega 3 fatty acids as well as B vitamins, and Vitamin D3, helped improve mood, and relieved anxiety and depression.

Could it be that a lack of essential nutrients could be at the heart of mental illness in some instances? Many experts say yes. In fact, recent research has discovered that several mental illness conditions are caused by inflammation in the brain—which leads to neuron (brain cell) death. Nutrients such as omega 3 fatty acids (from wild caught cold water fish, like salmon), magnesium, probiotics and vitamins and minerals have been found to improve gut health (where the inflammatory process starts) and reduce inflammation.

One study discovered that a daily supplement of magnesium citrate (a mineral in which many people are lacking in their diets) resulted in a significant improvement in anxiety and depression. A lack of adequate supply of omega 3 fatty acids (thought to lower inflammation), has been linked with cognitive decline, and low mood in clinical studies.

Probiotics increase the good bacteria (which improves the digestive system). Supplements of probiotics have been examined in clinical studies for their effect on mental health. Studies conducted by psychiatrists and nutritionists have found that supplementation of probiotics, zinc and Vitamin B complex, was associated with a significant improvement in depression and anxiety.

Nutritional Psychiatry in the United States

The field of nutritional psychiatry is emerging in the United States as well as in the U.K. Studies cited on Harvard Health.com reveal that people who take probiotic supplements realize lower levels of stress and anxiety, and an improvement in mental outlook (compared to those who don’t take probiotics). Other studies found that the Mediterranean diet promotes a lower risk of depression—25 to 35 percent lower than those who eat a traditional Western diet.

Conclusion

The emerging medical research data suggests that nutritional psychiatry should play a bigger role in the treatment and prevention of mental illness. Now there’s even more reason to believe that age-old adage, “you are what you eat.”


Resources

1. Cavaye, J. (2018, March). WHY NUTRITIONAL PSYCHIATRY IS THE FUTURE OF MENTAL HEALTH TREATMENT. The Independent.
https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/nutritional-psychiatry-mental-health-treatment-future-depression-anxiety-vitamins-a8236106.html

2. Harvard Health.
https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626