Transforming our mental health through nutrition

Seeing people get better is the main driver in University of Canterbury Professor of Clinical Psychology Julia Rucklidge’s pursuit to change the treatment of mental illness.

  • Julia Rucklidge

    University of Canterbury Professor of Clinical Psychology Julia Rucklidge says seeing people get better is what drives her research into nutrition as a treatment to mental illness.

Professor Rucklidge’s undergraduate study in neurobiology was at the time when medication was the solution to mental health problems.

“It was the late 1980s and researchers were becoming confident they had found the answer. We could treat mental illness as a chemical imbalance by manipulating neurotransmitters with drugs,” she says.

The traditional course of treatment with medication and psychotherapy was viewed as the only treatment for serious psychiatric problems with nutrition minimised as being largely irrelevant.

At the same time, processed food was providing great opportunities for women.

“Growing up in a single parent household, my mother would have embraced the opportunities afforded to her by ultra-processed food. It enabled her to work full-time and raise four children,” she says.

So, when Professor Rucklidge first heard of Dr Bonnie Kaplan’s clinical trials on nutrition, she found the idea “jarring”.

“I heard about the research in passing while I was doing my PhD. I was extremely busy at the time training as a clinical psychologist and seeing patients, and wondered why you would look at nutrition when it had been largely discredited or had a very minimal impact on brain function.”

While it challenged Professor Rucklidge’s thinking, it was data she says she couldn’t ignore which started a shift in her thinking.

“I have great respect for Bonnie [Dr Kaplan] as a scientist and people were getting well with these pills of vitamins and minerals.”

As a practicing clinical psychologist, Professor Rucklidge’s aim was to help make people better, but her experience as well as outcome studies were showing many people weren’t doing well with conventional approaches.

Moving to New Zealand and into a role at the University of Canterbury enabled her to research nutrients as a treatment.

“Scientists are encouraged through the Education Act to adopt the role as critic and conscience of society, and so I decided to delve into expanding the research that Dr Kaplan was unable to do in Canada.”

But it was not all plain sailing. Professor Rucklidge has met with barriers along the way that has her questioning whether the research will get the weight it deserves.

“It has been an uphill battle. I didn’t know I would have to deal with barrier after barrier.”

With hurdles such as the ethics committees concerned about toxic levels of vitamins, to fear from the medical community and a lack of external funding, Professor Rucklidge has still managed to run her research on “the smell of an oily rag”.

However, 15 years on, and with recognition through a Health Research Council (HRC) Explorer Grant for transformative research she says this is a start for change in attitudes to her research.

“The fact I’m getting emails from GPs who are changing their practices is great, and I’m constantly being invited to speak at conferences and services all over the world, including the CDHB. It’s all a step in the right direction.”

While change is required at a governmental level, something Professor Rucklidge has been relentless at campaigning for, she maintains her main driver is seeing people get better.

“Seeing the benefits and the amazing turnaround when other treatments didn’t work is what keeps me going”, she says.

Professor Rucklidge is not looking at creating a pharmaceutical from her research, but rather highlighting the fundamental issue of the food we are eating.

“We need to reverse our dietary habits and return to the food of our grandmothers or even great-grandmothers. This research is the proof-of-principle that our food environment is not adequate for our brain.”

With research spanning from mental health and nutrient use in pregnant women to her current study on balancing the emotions of dysregulated teens with micronutrients, she is seeing nutrients change lives.

Professor Rucklidge has over 31,7500 participants enrolled in her free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on Mental Health and Nutrition through UCX University of Canterbury; nearly 2.7 million views on her TEDx Talk, The surprisingly dramatic role of nutrition in mental health; and equates her co-authored book The Better Brain (Penguin, 2021) with a positive shift in how people view good nutrition and micronutrients as a treatment to mental health.

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