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March 25, 2014

Can what you eat affect your mental health?

(Continued)

"There are a lot of people out there who call themselves depressed who aren't actually depressed," he said. "I think people confuse low energy with depression, or sugar crashes with mood swings, but they probably don't have a mental illness. And those people may do better with dietary interventions alone."

And even if diet can do the trick, providers don't yet know how to use it effectively or safely. The problem, El-Mallakh said, is that mental illness is still poorly understood. Eventually, he hopes, the connection between food and mental health could benefit researchers who study mental illness as well as those who live with it.

Berk and Jacka are conducting the most comprehensive controlled study yet, involving 176 people, of whether dietary intervention can help ease depression, but they don't yet have results. For now, Berk advocates an integrative approach to treating mental illness that includes experimenting with changes in diet and exercise along with more traditional treatments.

"For a mood disorder like depression, there are hundreds if not thousands of risk pathways that all contribute to the disorder," Berk said. "Targeting one factor doesn't target all the factors that cause someone to develop depression. That's why you need to develop an integrated package of care as the norm."

That time can't come soon enough for Corbitt.

"This was such a simple solution," she said. "I could have saved myself a lot of money and a lot of misery if someone had asked about my diet 15 years ago. My life could have been different."

— — —

Telis is a freelance science and health writer.

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