Depression and Other Mental Illnesses Respond to Lifestyle, Diet and Nutrient Therapy

The weekend of April 27 – 29, 2012, I attended the outstanding 41st Annual International OMT (Orthomolecular Medicine Today) conference in Vancouver, B.C. Initially, in the early years, this conference sponsored by the charitable foundation, ISF (International Schizophrenia Foundation), was mostly focused on therapeutic nutritional treatments of schizophrenia. Their focus grew to encompass all forms of mental illness, including depression, bipolar, anxiety, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, children’s mental health issues such as ADHD, and learning and behavioural problems as well as schizophrenia. The foundation continued to expand and now includes information on adjunct therapeutic nutrition for many other disease states such as coronary heart disease, cancer and immune system dysfunction for better outcomes.

One of the fourteen presenters, James Greenblatt, MD, of Comprehensive Psychiatric Resources, Inc. presented on Inflammation and Neuropsychiatric Illness: Treatment and Testing Protocols. He presented statistics outlining depression as one of the most serious and costly health problems in the world today. Approximately 15% of adults will experience severe depressed mood during their lifetime and approximately 15% of these will eventually commit suicide.

Do Depressed People Respond to Psychopharmacologic Treatment?

The standard measure of treatment response is about 50% who will experience improvement of the primary symptoms of depression. Two thirds of patients treated for depression continue to have residual symptoms; 20 – 40% do not show substantial clinical improvement.

While it is becoming more evident that inflammation is associated with all major chronic illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, asthma, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, depression is not usually mentioned as being associated with inflammation. According to Greenblatt, it should be on the list.

Inflammatory cytokines can cause symptoms of depression by causing changes in the neurotransmitters associated to mood – serotonin and its precursor tryptophan.

Sources of Inflammation That Contribute to Depression:

  • SAD (Standard American Diet) – high in sugar, processed foods, and trans fats
  • Environmental toxins
  • Low grade infections (Lyme disease)
  • Food and environmental allergies
  • Dysbiosis and digestive problems
  • Sedentary lifestyle, sleep deprivation and nutritional deficiencies
  • Chronic stressors that keep the sympathetic nervous system working overtime

According to Greenblatt, blood tests for CRP (C-reactive protein), screening for infectious and inflammatory diseases should be conducted for those with depression as high levels of this marker (scores over 3) have been shown to correlate with four times the incidence for depression. Other tests can be conducted for vitamin deficiencies such as B12, folic acid and Vitamin D – whose deficiencies of each of these nutrients in the body have been shown to cause depressed symptoms. Click to search the JOM archives, or look to nutritional deficiencies associated with mental illnesses in many psychiatric or clinical nutritional journals.

Other important deficiencies and imbalances implicated in depression include: iron (ferratin levels) and thyroid (Bauer M. London ED, Silverman DH, et al: Thyroid, brain and mood modulation in affective disorder Pharmacopsychiatry, 2003;  36 Supp 3: 5215-5221) Hypoglycemia, low blood sugar is another condition that needs addressing. It is a forerunner to diabetes and is mostly due to the intake of excess sugar in the diet. Hypoglycemia can cause blood sugar swings that can cause or make worse anxiety or depression.

At the high rates of depressed people who are not being helped by drug therapy alone, doesn’t it make sense to use blood tests that are used in every other branch of medicine for other disease states?  If it were my family member not improving on drug therapy alone, I would certainly ask for these mostly routine tests whose results could uncover the missing link in the treatment of mental illnesses – for better outcomes. Isn’t that what we all want?

For information on Holistic Nutrition to Tune Up Your Brain – foods especially for those with mental illness (or anyone), check my blog. I believe the time is now for doctors and psychiatrists to not only write a prescription for a neuroleptic drug, but also to suggest nutritional consulting plus an order for blood tests for CRP, nutrient deficiencies, iron and thyroid status. Many are already doing this.

So What Helps Depression and Other Mental Illnesses?

  • Regular exercise has been shown to not only reduce inflammation but also to improve symptoms of major depression – Reuters
  • Nutritional methods to reduce depression symptoms include:
  • Omega-3 fatty acids – (depression in returning veterans from Iraq correlated with low levels of DHA in their blood) J. Clinic Psychiatry, 2011. The opposing effects of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids. Schmitz. G. Ecker, J. Progress in Lipid Research, 2008, 47(2); 147-55
  • Magnesium decreases cortisol levels; (high levels are a known cause of sleep disruption.) “Magnesium in blood tests does not tell the whole story. Some symptoms to indicate magnesium deficiency include: sleeplessness, anxiety, leg cramps and foot cramps, particularly at night when magnesium need is highest.” – Aileen Burford-Mason, PhD Author of Eat Well Age Better.
  • Low doses of the metallic element Lithium discovered in 1818, has shown great promise (however, there’s no profit in it.). In 1949, Australian psychiatrist John Cade found that it was useful for treating elation or mania (although it is toxic in high doses) – Greenblatt, M.D.
  • Vitamin B12 and folic acid give patients a boost and clearly reduces symptoms and likely underlying causes of many psychiatric disorders. (Cobalamin Deficiency¸ Methylation and Neurological Disorders by G.E. Schuitemaker, M.D. and A.J. Hoogland, The Netherlands), JOM, Vol 11, No. 4, 1996
  • Zinc, nicknamed “The New Anti-Depressant”, has been shown to have anti-depressant effect as it increases serotonin uptake., Cathy W. Levenson, PhD, Nutrition Reviews, Vol 11, No. 6, 694-700

For those interested in peer to peer, doctor/health professional training programs, contact the ISF at for dates of seminars. This past weekend part 2 of the Nutrition for Docs program, Using Nutritional Supplements in Clinical Practice was offered at the U of Toronto.

In noting that the March 29, 2012 Canadian federal budget included $5.2 million to support depression research and intervention network of mental health professionals, I hope long overdue lifestyle and critical nutritional information will be incorporated into the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s future goals: “promoting mental health, preventing mental illness and aiding recovery.”

Let’s empower people who suffer mental illnesses with lifestyle and nutritional knowledge and tools, so they can improve and thrive. But most of all, let’s give them HOPE rather than leave them with despair.


Rosalie Moscoe, RHN, RNCP

Former Chair International Schizophrenia Foundation