November 19, 2014

How Does Nutrition Affect the Brain?

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Bonnie J. Kaplan, PhD, and Julia J. Rucklidge, PhD

University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada (Dr Kaplan) and University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand (Dr Rucklidge)


The two of us are so pleased to be invited to blog on the role of nutrition in mental health. As research psychologists (and Julia is also a clinical psychologist) who have spent years studying nutrition in relation to mental health, behavior, and brain development, we know how beneficial good nutrition can be for some people with mental health problems. But we also know that many people reading this blog are unaware of the tremendous scientific inroads made on this topic over the last decade. Julia is faced with this issue when teaching clinical psychology students, many of whom enter the field believing that the only ways to influence psychological symptoms are talk therapies and psychotropics. They are typically genuinely surprised that our brains can be influenced by what we eat.

Even some people who are very knowledgeable about the importance of good nutrition and other lifestyle factors for physical health are not yet aware that these lifestyle variables also significantly influence brain health. Here is why we find this disconnect so strange: THE BRAIN IS PART OF THE BODY.

It seems inane even to write that statement, especially to this audience, but many of us in the health field refer to “mind-body connections” and “mind-body medicine,” perpetuating the myth of separation. We even separate mental health (“the mind”) from neurological function (“the brain”). But brain health, mental health, and bodily health are interconnected. Nutrients are needed for all cellular growth and metabolism, and the brain places large demands on energy metabolism. Here are two bits of information that we find somewhat amazing and that illustrate this fact:

  1. The brain is approximately 2% of our whole body weight, but it consumes 20% of our metabolism. In other words, the brain is constantly and disproportionately demanding nutrients.
  2. Every single minute, almost a quart of blood passes through your brain. Why? That quart of blood is bringing nutrients and oxygen (and other metabolic products) to every single nook and cranny in your cranium. So, we can ask ourselves—what have we eaten in the last day or so? Those are the chemicals bathing our brains.

Related topics to explore in our future blog posts include the following:

  • The history of nutrition and mental health, going back ~2700 years
  • How mental health and nutrition were viewed prior to the development of psychotropic medications in the 1950s and ’60s
  • The scope of single-nutrient treatments from 1920 to the present
  • The emergence of broad-spectrum nutrient treatments in the 21st century
  • Epidemiologic data on the relationship between nutrition and mental function
  • The 2013 development of the field of ‘nutritional psychiatry’ and the new scientific group ISNPR (International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research)
  • Nutritional treatment options for various mental disorders (watch Julia’s recent TEDx talk)
  • The role of microbiota in mental health
  • The psychological effects of starvation: what are the lessons from the Minnesota Starvation Experiment and the Dutch Hunger Winter famine?
  • How does nutrition research in the past decade lead to a new conceptualization of mental illness?
  • Whether supplementation is necessary for the “normal” population
  • New publications that influence public policy
  • The challenges of studying and publishing on dietary influences on mental health
  • The importance of increased nutrient intake after natural disasters
  • And so much more: What do we know about nutrients and addictions? What is the mechanism by which nutrition influences mental health? What does nutrition have to do with inflammation?

We look forward to discussing these topics with you.

This blog entry is adapted from a previous entry that can be found at

Financial disclosure:Drs Kaplan and Rucklidge had no relevant personal financial relationships to report, and no company has ever funded any of their studies.

Category: Medical Conditions , Mental Illness
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3 thoughts on “How Does Nutrition Affect the Brain?

  1. Let’s get started then. Are you familiar with the research released this week showing that older rats brains grew younger when younger rats shared a blood supply with them? The responsible active compound was sensitive to B vitamins. Does this imply that additional B vitamins can promote new cell growth in the brain?
  2. Thanks for your comment/question. Can you give me the reference to the particular study you mentioned? It is not surprising of course — our brain cells (in fact, all of our cells) need lots of nutrients to grow and develop. But I can’t comment on that particular study till I read it.
  3. That study is long gone, wherever they go. The question remains of
    how younger brains helped transform older brains (albeit rats) when the blood supply was shared. Understandably, many nutrients are necessary for brain growth.., but what do you know of the specificity of these nutrients which can make the older brains “Younger?” This is an exciting new possibility for brain cell renewal!

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