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Mental Health – The Nutrition Link

The important role that nutrition plays in how people behave and in the causation of mental disorders and disruptive actions is often overlooked. There are many ways that research has demonstrated the links between nutritional status and violence, irrational behavior of children and adults, learning disorders and mental diseases. The formation and proper functioning of neurotransmitters in the brain are dependent on proper nutrition so that chemical imbalances resulting in mental illness have been linked to nutritional deficiencies. In addition, a nutritionally sound body is better able to cope with the stresses of life and to demonstrate resilience, so necessary for overcoming challenges in modern society rather than succumbing to suicide or violence. In my nutrition practice spanning over 25 years, I have been seeing an increasing number of young people suffering from various mental disorders more so than in the past. These range from schizophrenia, depression, bi-polar disorders, poor self image, emaciation, to poor coping skills in school and home relationships.

Mental illnesses and some abnormal behaviors are known to have genetic links but these usually require an unfavourable environment including poor diet to manifest in various forms. Nutrient deficiencies can trigger abnormal behavior in persons who have the genetic potential and who will lack coping skills and self control. The nutrient deficiencies implicated may seem unlikely but their prevalence is now more recognized than before. For instance, deficiency of vitamin B12 can trigger neuropsychiatric damage, hallucinations and ultimately pernicious anaemia. Mood swings leading to irrational behaviour can result from low zinc and calcium levels, vitamin B6 deficiency and essential oils such as omega-3 fatty acids. Some persons on medication develop these deficiencies as a result of drug- nutrient interactions and many anti-psychotic drugs will not work optimally unless nutritional deficiencies are corrected. Some medications increase the appetite for high fat, calorie dense foods which lack micronutrients and these replace wholesome foods that would supply these everyday nutrients. The point in time at which symptoms become evident can be some time after the nutrient deficiencies began and the body is now very susceptible to even minor negative stimuli.

The foundation related to poor nutritional environment can be laid from as early as in the mother’s womb. Children exposed to nutritional deprivation in the womb and in early life will have a slower rate of development and an increased risk for developmental disorders such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cognitive impairment and mental retardation. This can be as a direct result of physiological effects as well as what is termed the functional isolation. In other words, the negative demeanor and disposition of these children do not elicit nurturing responses from adults/caregivers and as a result they grow up detached and insecure. Such children often lack the drive for school work, and are poorly motivated for sports and other extra-curricular activities.

A common factor I observe in many children is poor diet, irrespective of socio-economic status. Most of these cases present with iron deficiency anaemia, calcium and zinc deficiencies and low intake of vitamins from food including A, C and B complex. Their diets consist largely of snack type foods, vendor sold meals, and ‘dry’ foods, largely because there is little structure in the households for providing balanced meals. Very little fruits, vegetables, provisions, peas and beans or other wholesome foods are eaten and in most cases, there are extremes in intake of calories from excessive to grossly deficient. Not all these children are financially in need and they may have adequate funds to eat as they choose. On the other hand, some should qualify for school feeding subsidies but are overlooked because of the types of school they attend. A recent article in the daily newspaper featured delinquent students attending the YMCA school in Kingston. One drop-out from a boys’ elite high school attributed his poor behavior and subsequent expulsion to hunger. He put it this way, “Mi no have no money for food and it make me want to do tings”. I have seen many of these cases in our primary and all age schools. Youngsters who are poorly nourished, lack the constitution that will respond favourably to efforts at building self control, resisting gang behaviour, abusing drugs, withdrawal/anti-social behaviours and ‘warring’ with other students.

Nutrition screening should therefore be a critical component of care for all children in school, for all adults undergoing mental health treatment and for at risk persons who exhibit the beginnings of anti-social behaviour. Nutrition intervention will then complement any drug or psychological interventions to ensure the total health of the population.

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