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Nutrition a glaring gap in Government’s health report

Paul Panckhurst, Guest writer – 20 December 2018

If you’ve had the experience of a sudden recovery from years — or decades — of depression, brain fog and anxiety, you’re going to be shouting about it from the rooftops.

My Australian friend’s fervor for telling his story saw him kicked off Reddit message boards for spamming, he says.

Some people self-publish books, like American Justin Summers’s account of beating depression and anxiety after being chained to the drug Wellbutrin for more than a decade.

In my case, I wrote a submission to New Zealand’s mental health inquiry.

What all three of us had in common was that we got better after discovering treatments such as vitamins, minerals and amino acids. If you’ve been battling with a mood disorder for decades, seeing doctors, counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists, swallowing one psychiatric medication after another, then suddenly get well from tweaking the natural substances that go into your body, one of the first things you’ll wonder is: Why the hell didn’t someone tell me this was possible?

In my case, a podcast from the U.S. alerted me to cases of “untreatable’’ depression with purely physical causes.

In the case of my Australian friend, Dominic, a partner working in mental health pushed him in the right direction.

In Justin’s case, Googling “depression’’ and “vitamins’’ proved to be a crucial first step.

It seems absurd that nutrient therapy is largely outside of mainstream medical practice – somehow remaining a secret for people to discover themselves – when the body’s process for making the neurotransmitters required for a healthy mood and good brain function is as simple as A-B-C.

Take a neurotransmitter, any neurotransmitter.
Serotonin? Your body needs ingredients such as copper, iron and vitamin B6 to manufacture it.

We get these ingredients from food. If our metabolisms are flawed, or our food is lacking in goodness, we may need supplements. Some of us must avoid certain foods that cause bad reactions in us. And our gut health is crucial. We know this stuff: Science told us.

And yet the mainstream model will have a doctor prescribe an anti-depressant and quickly move on to the next patient.

In the submission I wrote to the mental health enquiry, I urged a much bigger focus on nutrient therapy, and I know I wasn’t alone in making that argument.

For example, Karen Faisandier, a clinical psychologist in Wellington, told of treating patients’ obsessive compulsive disorders through addressing nutritional deficiencies and teaching mindfulness.  She called for GPs to slow down, especially when it came to prescribing psychiatric medications.

So, it was disappointing to read the “once in a generation’’ report released in December by the inquiry. The document did refer to a shift away from “big psychiatry.’’ But there were just seven references to nutrition in the 219-page document – and no discussion of the untapped power of nutritional approaches.

Julia Rucklidge, of Canterbury University, who tests nutritional treatments, was encouraged by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to make her submission.

In it, Rucklidge laid out the case for vitamins and minerals, noting how a diet rich in fruit and vegetables and low in processed food can help disorders such as depression and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Her suggestions included: improve the food in prisons (shown to reduce violence), teach school children how to cook, offer nutrients as an initial treatment for people on psychiatric waiting lists, educate physicians, tackle excess sugar consumption, create a branch of Pharmac to fund treatments such as micronutrients, and encourage farmers to reduce the use of pesticides and replenish nutrients in the soil.

Unsurprisingly, she emphasized the low cost of nutrient therapy.
Besides a wealth of scientific studies, Rucklidge attached dozens of emails that she had received from New Zealand and around the world, including from people struggling with being heavily medicated for years and those who have found new lives after altering their nutrition.

“I no longer experience the overwhelming negative thoughts of suicide,’’ wrote one woman. However, she added that when she talked of nutrition replacing pharmaceuticals “people look at me as though I belong on medication.’’

So where does the government inquiry team’s apparent lack of interest in the topic leave us?

Sadly, we’re left to our own resources. Happily, there’s a lot out there.

For inspiration, there’s Lisa Pan, a U.S. psychiatrist who has successfully treated “untreatable’’ depression and talks about her work in a podcast called Conversations From Studio B.

New Zealand also has individual enthusiasts, such as doctors trained by the Walsh Research Institute,  a U.S. non-profit studying the biochemistry of disorders such as ADHD, depression, autism, Alzheimer’s, bipolar and schizophrenia. (The doctors practicing here are listed on the website of Australian nonprofit Bio-Balance Health,

Dr. Janelle Sinclair, a biochemist in Hamilton, just released a Youtube video on zinc’s role in anxiety and depression, while Rucklidge’s TED talk on nutrition and mental health has racked up roughly a million views.

For gut health, there are Michael Ruscio’s podcasts. Or Michael Mosley’s website. Or Michael Gershon’s book called “The Second Brain.”

And, of course, those of us who have had these successes need to keep talking about them.

It’s not always a straightforward journey. I experienced a sudden shift, within weeks, to the best mental health of my life, only to feel those gains slip away again after a few months. It’s taking persistence to keep working on my health and get back to my optimal state. But I’m doing it. You can, too, and we need to keep shouting about it.

Note | This article was amended on 28 April 2020 to remove a reference to Kelly Brogan.

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