…I’m so unhappy, I feel so bad,
I could lay me down and die;
You can say what you choose,
But I’m all confused;
I’ve got those sweet, sweet sugar blues,
I got those sweet, sweet sugar blues!
– Billy Massey, blues singer, 1931
Sugar, yeast, preservatives indexed on the drug bans list? They can hardly be thought of as dangerous, corrupting substances. In the form of homemade cakes and sweets, sugar is the highlight at kids’ parties. It is in the childhood treats we yearn for, enhanced by the innocent image of ‘White Wings’ and other angelic labels. For some, these sorts of delights are nothing but toxicity in a deceptively wholesome box. While people spend years understanding their problem psychology, eliminating those sweet treats could be the answer. Instead of concerning ourselves with the deepest mysteries of the mind, the answer could staring us in the face.
It’s easy to see how food can be connected to mental health when nutritional therapist Jurrian Plesman explains how chemical reactions from foods surge through the body: “When excess sugar is consumed, the body over produces insulin as a way of breaking sugar down. This results in low blood sugar. Excess sugars and fats are stored in the liver not in the brain. Thus the brain becomes deprived of glucose as well as the rest of the body resulting in “hyperinsulinism. …As these reactions roller coaster through the body, they create…characteristics such as depression, anxiety or impulsivity”.
But the effect of overly refined foods is two-fold. As Plesman explains, toxic substances also erode other essential properties needed to run our bodies efficiently. Without these essential properties, the brain cannot absorb nutrients properly. Deprived of Vitamin B6, for example, the body is unable to convert nutrients derived from food into ‘happy’ chemicals.
The correlation between poor diet and ailing mental health raises serious political issues about where mental illness is derived and thus its course of treatment.
Mental illness is no imaginary phenomenon. According to SANE Australia, around one in every five Australians will experience mental illness. The World Health Organization (WHO) Global Burden of Disease Survey estimates that mental disease will be the second leading cause of disabilities by 2020.
As significant as it is, not one form of mental illness has any cause established to date. Despite chemical profiles indicative of mental illness, this is only symptomatic of deficiency, not the cause.
In an interview by USA magazine, Street Spirit, Robert Whitaker, American medical writer turned investigative journalist, reveals startling information about why brain chemistry is always at the forefront of mental health. In drug trials in the 1980s, on those with a range of mental illnesses, a correlation between heightened levels of healthy brain chemicals and some positive response in patients was found. Thus it is assumed by pharmaceutical companies selling drugs, without conclusive research, that mental illness is due to chemical imbalances in the brain.
Pills have become so synonymous with treatment of mental illness that, in 2004, a parliamentary hearing in Australia was established into use of psycho-stimulant medication for children diagnosed with ADD, because consumption is growing at a rate of 25% a year.
“Drug oriented therapists look at the end products of human metabolism”, says Plesman (ok). “Thus when doctors claim quite rightly that depression is due to a deficiency of (brain chemistry) they naturally look for drugs that can rectify the direct supply of the neurotransmitters involved…. Unfortunately, every drug that is foreign to the body is seen … as a toxin setting up defence mechanisms to rid the body of that toxin.”
If ‘The Nanny’ is anything to go by, psychology is always a presiding factor. Cheeky little devils with mouths of soot become angels when they are made aware of rewards and the punishments their behaviour can elicit. Sexual abuse, trauma, fractured psychology from the blows of life, all shape mental outlook.
Cognitive behavioural therapies, the modern marvel for those caught in trauma’s grip, can do much to reshape maligned self-esteem. Changing our perspective, simply by drawing on positive action and thoughts as a challenge to negative beliefs, it is a tribute to the powers of our own mind.
But type the word candida into any search engine, and you might think personality again. Triggered off by a simple case of a little too much sugar and yeast, the contraceptive pill, or over reliance on antibiotics, candida sufferers experience bacterial yeast growth in the stomach and other areas where germs coagulate. So, overwhelmed by bad bacteria, the body is unable to metabolise nutrients properly, manifesting in an array of physical and mental symptoms.
Candida is responsible for unexplained aches and pains, lethargy, cold-like symptoms and abdominal problems, to name a few things. Even impeding the brain from getting sufficient nutrients, candida is responsible for a host of emotional problems – depression, anger, anxiety and mood swings, mistaken as mental illness and often undetected for years. Leading to hormonal imbalances, PMS is severe, the result of which leaves some women literally psychotic.
When offending foods are eliminated from the diet, these symptoms disappear or are dramatically reduced.
“If mental illness is indeed caused by a brain disease, then it is to be expected that a person will have ‘psychological experiences’ that should not be confused with the causes of mental illness”, says Plesman. This is often assumed by psychologists who believe that psychotherapy (talk therapy) will change mental processes (illogical patterns of thinking) that are thought to cause mental illness.
“Nonetheless psychotherapy is useful. A person is likely to suffer from the effects of ‘psychological’ stress, as a result of a poor self-image, or lack of social skills, which may produce stress hormones.”
Even mental health organisations normally dedicated to embracing conventional therapies, acknowledge food as a contributor to mental illness.
In 2005, NSW mental health organisation, The Black Dog Institute, conducted trials on the use of Omega 3 fatty acids in the treatment of depression, conceding that a rise in consumption of processed sugary foods, and lack of fresh foods containing essential fats, is having an impact on our mental health.
What prompted their research was a correlation between low rates of depression and high intake of fresh fish found in countries such as Norway and Japan.
William Dufty’s classic book, ‘The Sugar Blues’ outlining the history of sugar and its link to mental illness, elaborates how scientists in the 1940s had discovered the presence of the ‘hypoandrenocortic’. Essentially, this was anyone who was suffering mental illness due to sugar intolerance.
Yet research was continually quashed by the sugar industry who brought out counter information to ensure a lucrative status. The publication, ‘A History of Nutrition’, outlining the benefits of eating sugar, was upheld as an encyclopaedia of nutritional insight, though no proper studies had been done. It was commissioned by 45 allied snack food companies.
Plesman and his colleagues were also subject to cynicism, when they tried to introduce nutritional therapy into the criminal justice system in the 1980s. He became progressively exiled until his work stopped, as officials perceived that Plesman was attributing criminal behaviour to bad diet and ignoring psychological aspects.
“I argued on the contrary, that my model of treatment was based on psychotherapy with diet at the forefront….Seventy per cent of prisoners committed offences in association with either alcohol or illegal drugs (or) committed offences because of some other mental disorder. But using glucose intolerance tests produced by my colleague, Dr George Samra, the fact remained that most of my clients were found to be hypoglycaemic.”
Despite substantial evidence that the food we eat might be doing psychological damage, hypoglycemia is not a recognised medical condition.
Nevertheless, today we are a lot wiser. We know what bad food does. We should stop eating it.
But advertising today is much more surreptitious. Aesthetically packaged foods, over-laden with dense facts and figures, dominate shelves, designed to promote consumption rather than thought. To the tired, hurried consumer, rationalising their relentless sugar cravings, grabbing a sugary health snack is the ultimate relief.
As you’ll find in Dufty’s, or Plesman’s research, needing glucose from sugar is largely a myth. All food is converted to glucose in gradations during metabolic conversion.
When it comes to children, they are dominated by emotionalism and symbolism. Junk food is ingrained as being an essential part of childhood, reinforced by pervasive cultural icons like McDonalds. Ingrained in fun, parties, playgrounds, parents feel as if they are depriving their kids if they do not indulge.
Despite the lure of advertising, the implied health kick is not that dreary. These days we can access, at our health food shops, raw unsweetened chocolate to alleviate chocolate cravings and depression.
An affront to our liberalist democracy which sees success as a matter of choice, the nutritional model suggests we are at the whim of diet – another colour to add to the palette of reasons why we lost control. Surely our pillars of the community did not become successful because they figured out their biology? But in the underground knowledge, the sidelined research, looking at diet paves the way to make choices, not reduce them – no more wondering what is wrong with people, no more excuses, no more thinking it is too late to turn back.
Kerry Ridgway is a freelance journalist from Melbourne exploring social and political issues from a problem solving angle.
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