Today’s PsychCentral report that mothers who are sensitive to gluten have a higher incidence of children born with schizophrenia is not surprising.
For many years, holistic therapists, physicians, and others have noticed correlations between gluten, milk and sugar consumption (and allergies and/or intolerance) and schizophrenia and other brain conditions, including autism.
In this study from a 1988 issue of “Schizophrenia Bulletin,” Dr. F. Curtis Dohan noticed that a large number (over 50 times the norm) of schizophrenics had celiac disease.
He also noticed that there was a lower incidence of schizophrenia where consumption of dairy and wheat and other gluten-containing grains, was low. Both gluten (grain protein) and casein (milk protein) are thought by some to be responsible for the disease. As scientists learn more and more about the brain-gut connection, they are better able to understand the link between what’s going on in our digestive tract and how it affects our brain function.
Aside from gluten and casein, sugar is believed to be problematic. In at least one study, cited in an article by Stephen Ilardi, Ph.D at Psychology Today, a high-sugar diet is implicated in mental illness.
Other scientists have found an imbalance in Omega fatty acids (most specifically, a dearth of Omega 3s) in patients with schizophrenia as well as other mental illnesses. Even personality-types or personality disorders might be related to digestive functions and Omega fatty acids.
And although it’s anecdotal, most mental health professionals will tell you that diabetes seems to be a bigger problem in people with schizophrenia. Studies attribute this to medication-induced insulin resistance, but in our experience, diabetes and especially pre-diabetes (hypoglycemia) seems to affect newly-diagnosed, un-medicated patients often as well.
An imbalance or lack of ability to metabolize or simply a shortage of other nutrients are also implicated in mental illness. Lower blood levels of folate (B9) in schizophrenic patients appear to suggest that vitamin B metabolism also plays a role in the disease. And a study showed that schizophrenia patients have a higher need for vitamin C.
There are some studies (and a lot of conjecture), on the brain-gut link. Not only schizophrenia but anxiety, depression, bi-polar disorder, even some personality disorders are said to be associated with digestive and nutrition issues.
The majority of programs that treat patients with serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia are not holistic. They simply ignore the fact that diet is important to brain functioning in general, let alone to someone with a mental illness. Some doctors, such as Martha Herbert, an autism expert who we’ll be blogging about shortly, notice that autism symptoms and schizophrenia symptoms often coincide, and notice that improvements can be attained in some cases where diet is addressed.
The picture seems complicated but when you put the puzzle pieces together, diet is important. Here are some thoughts (not to be construed as medical advice):
1. Fermented foods containing probiotics (friendly bacteria) and possibly probiotic supplementation are suggested to be consumed daily in small amounts. Homemade, naturally fermented pickles and sauerkraut, for instance, are excellent sources of probiotics and vitamin C. But they’re salty, so don’t eat too much. And packaged pickles and sauerkraut? Forget it, most of the stuff you can buy in the store is cooked or pasteurized, which kills the friendly gut bacteria.
2. Limit sugar (it’s hard, sugar’s in everything; ketchup, sauces, salad dressings, bread, luncheon meats, crackers, pasta sauce, etc.). Sugar causes inflammation and an acidic condition in the gut. It also causes an extreme insulin response. Some say it puts wear and tear on the adrenal glands. And there are studies that suggest that sugar substitutes aren’t much better!
3. Skip gluten-containing grains, such as wheat, spelt, barley, etc. Most oats today contain gluten, thought there are some gluten-free brands such as Bob’s Red Mill. Quinoa is one grain that doesn’t contain gluten. There is some discussion about fermented grains (such as sour-dough bread) being a better choice. Some believe these pre-digested grains do not damage the brain-gut system. Also, some people can tolerate sprouted grains. If you buy gluten-free packaged foods like crackers and breads, read the labels-these are usually loaded with sugar and aluminum-based baking powder.
4. Avoid dairy. Sometimes cutting out dairy altogether relieves a whole host of symptoms, such as congestion, low-grade fevers, mental “fogginess,” and so on. However, there is some evidence that fermented dairy foods which also contain probiotics and are made from non-homogenized whole milk (natural, unsweetened, whole-milk, non-homogenzied yogurt, for example), are not as irritating to the system. They are, in essence, pre-digested for you.
5. Try fish or supplement with fish oil to up your Omega 3 levels. Don’t take fish oil if you are taking blood thinners. Also note, it might irritate the gut, some people are sensitive to it. If so, try a vegetable source of Omega 3s like flax oil, borage oil, or chia seeds soaked in water might be helpful. Also, keep in mind that there are different types of Omega 3s and that the ratio of Omega 3s to Omega 6s and Omega 9s is important.
6. Fill up on vegetables, good quality protein like organic quinoa, amaranth, non-soy beans, fish, poultry or grass-fed beef, and add some fruit, as well as almonds and pumpkin seeds.
7. Speak to your doctor about adding individual supplements (or at least a good quality multi-vitamin–avoid vitamin-mineral combinations, they should be taken at different times).
If the above suggestions sound overwhelming, but you feel you want to make changes, speak to a holistic/natural nutritionist or your doctor. Ask you family and friends for help. And start slow-eliminating one suspect food for a month to see if it has any effect on how you feel is a good beginning.
By Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski