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Diet matters for mental and brain health

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Associate Professor Felice Jacka

Deakin University | 2016 | $470,143

Diets around the world have significantly shifted for the worse since the 20th century and this has had a highly negative impact on the health of the global population. At the same time, the burden of mental disorders, particularly depression, has increased significantly. Associate Professor Felice Jacka and her team have established new approaches to the prevention and treatment of mental disorders by looking at what we eat.

Professor Jacka has pioneered and led a highly innovative program of research that examines how individuals’ diets, and other lifestyle behaviours, interact with the risk for mental health problems. Her innovative work includes establishing the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research (ISNPR) and the new Food and Mood Centre at Deakin University.

With the diminishing consumption of healthy nutrient and fibre-dense foods and increasing consumption of sugars, snacks and take-away foods, the latest Burden of Disease Study tells us that poor diet is now the leading risk factor for early death across the globe. Simultaneously, mental disorders now account for the leading burden of global disability.

Professor Jacka was compelled to initiate the NHMRC-funded research into the links between these two leading causes of illness and early death and has established important associations between diet quality and common mental disorders in adolescents, adults, older adults and even very young children.

‘I have established that diet and nutrition are relevant to mental health in the same way that they are to physical health, and that this is true across the countries, cultures and age groups,’ she explains.

‘Our new trial has now established that helping people with depression to improve their diet leads to significant improvements in their mental health.

‘I expect that [this important finding] will have a profound influence on the way we understand and treat depression as well as on public health prevention strategies,’ she added.

Professor Jacka’s research now supports new approaches to the prevention and treatment of mental disorders. This new understanding that diet matters to mental and brain health is critical for humans from birth to old age. She hopes her research will influence policy development and clinical practices, resulting in improvements to mental health outcomes for humans everywhere.

‘I am inspired by the potential to make a real difference to the health of the global population and to affect necessary policy changes,’ Professor Jacka said.

‘I will continue to discover ways to prevent and treat mental illnesses by taking a dietary approach and to support upcoming researchers in this new area of nutritional psychiatry research.’

She has also begun to produce research that identifies the pathways, such as brain plasticity, that explain this association. These new understandings have profound implications for public health and clinical practice and afford a new way of conceptualising and approaching mental health disorder prevention and treatment.  There are no public health prevention strategies for depression and nor have there been any new treatments for depression for many years.

To date, most of the studies in nutritional psychiatry have focused on common mental disorders, depression and anxiety. Consequently, Professor Jacka’s research is evolving to develop and conduct studies investigating diet, as well as diet-related factors including food allergy and gut health and in the spectrum of mental illnesses, such as in psychotic disorders.

Professor Jacka and her team believe this research program will be able to identify the pathways that mediate these relationships.

‘Based on dietary modification, we will also be able to develop, implement, evaluate and translate interventions for mental disorders through innovative preventive treatment,’ she said.

‘The need for such a new approach to the global burden of mental illness is clear and urgent.’

The next steps will be to translate the new knowledge in nutritional psychiatry into new prevention and treatment strategies. This will address the substantial global burden of illness due to mental disorders. Finally, understanding the biological processes and pathways that affect the diet-mental health link will allow us to more effectively target Professor Jacka’s interventions and improve the health of many Australians.