Prof Julia Rucklidge: The Better Brain

In this episode, I spoke with Professor Julia Rucklidge. Julia is a Professor of Clinical Psychology in the School of Psychology, Speech, and Hearing at the University of Canterbury. Originally from Toronto, she did her training in neurobiology at McGill University and her Master's and Ph.D. at the University of Calgary.

She is regularly featured across social media, newspaper, radio, and TV and has given over 100 invited talks across the world on her work on nutrition and mental health. Her 2014 TEDx talk has been viewed over 1.5 million times.

In this conversation, we discussed her interests in nutrition and mental illness, her own researches, and the wonderful book she co-authored, The Better Brain: How Nutrition Will Help You Overcome Anxiety, Depression, ADHD, and Stress. We touched on PTSD as well, which we also discussed. It's such an important topic, so inspiring, so empowering, and even more relevant today than ever before.

Health Podcast Highlights

Prof Julia Rucklidge: The Better Brain Introduction

Today we are exploring mental health and we are going to take a deep dive into the connections between mental health and nutrition. My guest today is Professor Julia Rucklidge. Julia is a Clinical Psychologist, a researcher. 

She’s a Professor of Psychology at the University of Canterbury. She is well known for her research on Nutrition and Mental Health, which is precisely what we’re going to be talking about today. She’s published over 140 scientific papers and her 2014 TEDx Talk has been viewed by almost two million people. It’s very inspiring. If you haven’t seen it, it is well worth watching.

She has also co-authored a wonderful new book, The Better Brain: How Nutrition Will Help You Overcome Anxiety, Depression, ADHD, and Stress, and much more. We touched on PTSD as well, which we also discussed. It’s such an important topic, so inspiring, so empowering, and even more relevant today than ever before. I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with Professor Julia Rucklidge.

Podcast Transcript

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:00:00] I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which I am recording this podcast, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation and pay my respects to their elders, past, present, and emerging. Hello and welcome to Unstress. My name is Dr Ron Ehrlich. 

Today we are exploring mental health and we are going to take a deep dive into the connections between mental health and nutrition. My guest today is Professor Julia Rucklidge. Julia is a Clinical Psychologist, a researcher. 

She’s a Professor of Psychology at the University of Canterbury. She is well known for her research on Nutrition and Mental Health, which is precisely what we’re going to be talking about today. She’s published over 140 scientific papers and her 2014 TEDx Talk has been viewed by almost two million people. It’s very inspiring. If you haven’t seen it, it is well worth watching. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:01:07] She has also co-authored a wonderful new book, The Better Brain: How Nutrition Will Help You Overcome Anxiety, Depression, ADHD, and Stress, and much more. We touched on PTSD as well, which we also discussed. It’s such an important topic, so inspiring, so empowering, and even more relevant today than ever before. I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with Professor Julia Rucklidge. Welcome to the show, Julia.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:01:40] Thanks for having me, Ron. I’m really looking forward to it.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:01:43] Me too. And Julia, you know, I first connected with you not personally, but professionally on your wonderful TEDx Talk. And I want to talk about that. But how did you as a psychologist become so focussed on nutrition?

How Julia as a Psychologist became so focussed on Nutrition

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:01:57] Sure. It’s a long story, but I will tell you.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:02:00] I tell you, we’ve got time.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:02:01] We have time. But I’ll try to keep it short. So just to give your listeners a bit of a background, I am a clinical psychologist by training. I’m Canadian and I trained in Canada at the University of Calgary. And towards the end of my Ph.D., I know that I was doing under the guidance of Professor Bonnie Kaplan

She was approached by families from Southern Alberta, Canada, who were using nutrients to treat very serious psychiatric conditions bipolar disorder, depression, psychosis. And I’ve just almost finished my training in Clinical Psychology and hearing these stories and thinking this doesn’t fit with anything that I’ve been taught. 

In fact, I’ve been taught that nutrition is irrelevant to the brain. And so and I think that’s probably a fairly standard education that people would have gotten in the 1990s and not just in Psychology, but also across medicine, nursing, and other health practitioners.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:02:59] Basically, it’s been that Nutrition just doesn’t play a role in brain health, which is on reflection now, I find that really quite ludicrous. That’s the education I got. But that’s what it was. And it was traditional, standard, conventional. And the only things that could treat serious conditions were psychiatric drugs and or psychotherapy. So but I heard these stories and she presented data and had it published in the early part of the century, showing people getting well and staying well with nutrients. 

And so I was curious by that point. I had moved from Calgary to Toronto. I did a postdoc hospital for sick children. I continued to hear these stories. And then I moved to New Zealand, which is where I am now, to take up an academic position.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:03:47] And so Bonnie came to New Zealand to present some of these preliminary findings. And I was again struck. Wow, this is really interesting, but it doesn’t fit with what I understand about how the brain works and what helps the brain heal and all of that. 

So but one thing that I learnt very, very much under Bonnie’s supervision, and it’s something that I try and instil in my own students, is that even when something comes along and it doesn’t fit with your worldview, you don’t ignore it, don’t always just immediately reject it, which is the natural stance that most people do. Is that it just you don’t want it because we like to kind of feel some level of certainty in what we know. 

And so to have something come along that doesn’t fit, don’t do the rejection immediately, be curious. You can be sceptical, but be curious. And so that is the stance that I have, is to be the critic and conscience of society, which is what an academic is supposed to do. And we’re supposed to study ideas that may contravene our current way of thinking. 

That is the only way that we’re going to make progress in terms of science, in terms of options for people who are struggling with either physical or mental health issues. We’ve got to continue to push the boundary.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:05:08] So I decided to launch, and even though it didn’t fit, I thought, why not? What am I going to lose? What do I lose by doing this? You either find that nutrients are irrelevant to helping people with psychiatric disorders or I find that they work, in which case you’d think that a lot of people would be really interested and want to know about that. So that’s what kind of got me into it. 

And, you know, by then, by the time I started to do the studies, I kind of lost that naive, student impression of how amazing we’re doing with treating psychiatric disorders. I had, you know, sober down a bit and recognised that not enough people are getting well with our current conventional treatments. So we do need to explore other avenues. And this just happened to be the avenue I went down.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:05:56] Wow, and interesting, you know, because I had a mentor who was in her 90s, a physician. And she once said to me, if we listen to our patients, they’ll often not only tell you what’s wrong with them, but they’ll tell you how to fix it.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:06:10] Right.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:06:10] If you ask the right questions and you’re a good listener connecting the dots and that’s kind of confirmed your patients or honest patients certainly started a process.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:06:22] Exactly. Because it was people who had done well on the new trans who that she heard about their stories. And it’s when you see that and you hear those stories, it’s pretty compelling and you can just dismiss it, which is what typically happens and still happens to me when I tell people about the power of nutrients, they still dismiss it. They say there’s no way or something else or it was a passage of time or it was the placebo effect. They try to dismiss it because if they don’t dismiss it, they have to change the way they think. And that is so hard for us. 

We like to have that, as I said, that certainty. So it’s really difficult for people to kind of even have to see the limitations of their current perspective, see the limitations of the current treatments, and ultimately recognise that in so doing, they’re having to also acknowledge the harm that they may have caused others in their ignorance. And that’s a hard place to be.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:07:21] Well, I was going to say that to this whole thing about wanting certainty is something we all love in life. But as a health practitioner, when others are putting their lives, their health in your hands, as a practitioner, we are drawn to that certainty because we’re still human. We want to be certain about what we’re telling people is right or not. So there’s a natural skepticism there, but it’s the curiosity which hopefully drives progress and it clearly has in your case. And I think it’s an exciting part of health care to be on.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:07:56] Absolutely. I think one thing that I have learnt is how important it is to be humble. And because the arrogance is what gets me. It can be very harmful to be arrogant. And I see it all the time of the level of arrogance of saying there’s no way that that works and it won’t work for my patients or even telling patients, “Why are you doing that? Why are you taking nutrients? That’s not going to help you.” And so it’s that arrogance that doesn’t allow that individual to seek out what evidence actually exists. 

And when they do seek it out, they realise that actually, they were wrong. And there’s this absolutely massive body of evidence out there of research that’s been done over two decades and even longer showing the power of nutrition. And I’d have to say it’s longer than that. But in terms of those really gold standards, you know, even though I hate to call the RCT a gold standard, but —

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:08:56] For our listeners, Randomised Controlled Trial.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:08:58] Yes. Whether this is good or bad, they are viewed as the type of research trial that has to be conducted in order to build any credibility in an area of science. So I’ve done them.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:09:10] Yes. Well, I think that humble approach, because I often do say and I’ve only been in practise now for 42 years and I often say I only wish I knew as much as I thought I did when I graduated.

Mental health landscape today

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:09:22] Right, exactly.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:09:23] You know, and that’s actually threatening to many health practitioners that they don’t. And yet to others, it’s empowering. It’s exciting. So let’s get into mental health, because what is the current state of mental health illness, you know, globally? In New Zealand? In Australia? What’s the current state of play? I know it’s not a good one. 

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:09:46] It’s not good. And I think it’s getting worse. If you delve into all of the post lockdown data or even ongoing lockdown data and also the repercussions of COVID in our, you know, across the world, the number that’s often used is one in five. So 20% of the population, anyone, given you’re struggling with a mental health issue. 

And I think that just sort of scrapes at the surface of the problem because I think we all struggle. I mean, I do want to acknowledge that everybody has mental health just as everyone has physical health. So everyone is going to struggle at some point. 

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:10:24] It’s about being human in that we will have our ups and downs and we will get stressed or will feel anxiety. Those are very normal human emotions. And so I don’t like to completely pathologise the normal human existence. But the fact is, is that more and more people seem to be impaired by those symptoms. 

They seem to be less resilient to kind of bounce back when bad things happen because I don’t think we can say that there are more environmental disasters or more bad things happening now in comparison to our ancestors. I don’t think that would be a fair thing to say. I think our ancestors suffered greatly. I think they will have had you know, there’s the Holocaust. I mean, there are huge human tragedies that have happened over time.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:11:12] And so we are experiencing our own, you know, our own level of tragedy. Maybe no more, no worse in that big scheme of things. But I do wonder whether or not we’ve become less resilient to tragedy and to things that are going on. That’s just my own perspective. 

It’s based on some of the research that I’ve done. But I just kind of wonder whether or not just this ongoing kind of just constantly being hit by one thing after another, after another is really wearing people down.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:11:43] Well, it’s relentless now. While they made those tragedies may have occurred in the past. And worse, you know, quantifying trauma is a difficult thing to do anyway. But what is indisputable is that it’s relentless. It’s kind of and if you are open to it by having notifications coming, we’ve done a whole programme on Digital Nutrition with Psychologist Jocelyn Brewer

This was the impact of mental health. And you draw the number one in five and that is diagnosed. These are where people have been diagnosed with a mental health issue. How does our health care system deal with those issues? Typically, how is that dealt with?

How does our healthcare system deal with mental illness?

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:12:30] Typically, I think it’s fairly standard in the Western world anyway, is that you would be offered medication in the first front line form of treatment. Be that an antidepressant probably, for the most part, 17% of the adult population in New Zealand is taking an antidepressant. I’m sure those figures are similar in Australia or in the UK or wherever might be even higher. 

And our anxiolytic or antipsychotics, a number of people on antipsychotics just keeps going up. Not that we’ve got more psychosis specifically, but the antipsychotics are being used as sedatives across the age range and so for sleep. So that’s that sort of explains some of that increase in that prescription.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:13:13] For kids, of course, we have increased the number of children on stimulants as the first form of treatment for ADHD, for example. You might get psychotherapy. That’s hard to get anywhere in the world. I know that in Australia, there’s some funding that’s available more so than in New Zealand. But the bottom line is, is that there are not enough health professionals trained in the mental health area, like clinical psychologists or counsellors, etcetera, who can actually meet the demand. Because if you think about 20% of the population, well, for New Zealand, that’s a million people. 

And when you look at the number of psychologists, you have a few thousand. Maybe you’ve got another few thousand allied health professionals. There’s no way they can meet that demand. And even doubling the workforce is just not going to cut it.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:14:02] So I’ve looked at the numbers and you realise that there’s this enormous treatment gap and that is the number of people who don’t get treatment at any one given year because there simply aren’t the resources. And I’ve calculated it to be probably about 40% of our population of people struggling with mental health issues. And I suspect it’s similar in other places. It might even be higher. 

And so we’ve got this enormous problem where we keep throwing a bandaid at the problem, which is the medications that don’t solve the issue. And there’s a lot of unfortunate side effects and withdrawal issues associated with that that are becoming more and more coming more and more to light these days that weren’t evident when they first came out. 

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:14:43] We’re recognising that not as many people are responding to them as we would hope, because the chemistry behind it or the hypothesis about why they work was quite intriguing when it first came out that it corrects your, for example, serotonin levels. But there’s been unfortunately not a lot of data that supports that. That’s what’s wrong with someone, is that there’s serotonin levels are out of whack. 

But we do know that those drugs do affect the neurotransmitter system. That’s very well known. And as a consequence of that, we need to acknowledge that that comes with a whole host of side effects that can be really unpleasant. But also when you try to stop the medication that many people, unfortunately, go into withdrawal. 

And I think the numbers are about half of the people will experience substantial withdrawal. And of those, about half of them, it’s extreme. It’s an extreme experience, which means that it’s hard to come off of them and you end up on a treadmill of having to continue to take these medications, not because they work, but because you have to prevent yourself from going into a serious withdrawal state.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:15:49] So we’ve got this problem of where you’ve got the medications not working as well as we hoped. I do acknowledge that some people do get well with them, but they are really a small number of people. 

And then that you’ve got hard access to therapists, counsellors, psychotherapists, whatever. It’s very difficult to get access to them. And even then, only about half of people respond to that approach. So we’ve got a big problem and you can see why it’s escalating.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:16:22] And actually, you know, a mental health approach to managing. And I think that would managing is key. Not addressing the cause, but managing is talking about this imbalance in brain chemistry, which needs to be corrected, but unfortunately, in this world of evidence-based medicine, there’s not a lot of evidence to support that imbalance in brain chemistry.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:16:46] Well, they haven’t found it anyway. Maybe it’s there, but they’ve looked for it since. And I think that idea of the chemical imbalance was put forward in the late 1980s. And so there’s been a huge search for it. And it hasn’t been uncovered, still thrown around. I mean, some people now acknowledge that it doesn’t, it’s not supported by data. 

But I still hear psychiatrists use that as the reason why you need to go on an antidepressant just simply because there’s something wrong with your brain chemistry. And we need to correct it. And I always say when people say to me, oh, there’s something wrong with my brain chemistry, I say, did someone measure it? It was, I mean, I’m really curious, did your doctor measure it? Because I would love to know if that’s what they did.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:17:31] Yes. Well, science and medicine have many flaws, and that goes that’s going to be one of them. And how we assess we’ll use short term, long term success of that approach surely would be how would we measure the short term and long term success of that particular approach?

How do we measure the long-term and short-term success of anti-depressants?

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:17:51] I would say, are people getting better? That would be the number one thing for me? Are you benefiting from it? I mean, the number of times I do talk to all kinds of different audiences and really large audiences, over a thousand people. And I will ask them and I do this probably routinely, how many of you know someone who has a friend or family member who is suffering from a mental health issue and you end up with everyone putting their hand up? 

Now, put your hand up if you can, you know, thinking about that individual have current conventional treatments resolved their problem, and you end up with at best, half a dozen people who will put their hand up. And so that and that’s over and over again. If it was even hitting 25%, you should have at least a quarter of the hands going up.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:18:42] I mean, maybe my audiences are not representative of the population. I can only ever think that maybe that’s… but I’ve even done this with people who are forced to listen to me. You know, it’s not that they chose to come and hear me, but they were, you know, undergraduates, for example, first-year undergraduates. 

I do the same thing. And then I have them look around and look at all, you know, these are young people who just happen to be taking psychology and then they get a lecture with me.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:19:09] So it is a big problem. And I think those that’s very revealing. And the first time I did that, I was stunned, really stunned. I did it at my TEDx Talk. That was the first time I did it. So you have this very well educated group of people in front of you. And to see that there were one or two hands that went up, that was it was really startling for me at that time. Now, it doesn’t surprise me anymore. So in terms of how do we know whether or not it’s working is that people get better, they go back to work. 

You know, it’s not that they don’t just stay on a disability forever. When I expect wellness, I expect people to be able to get back to a normal state of function, to be able to contribute to society, to be able to parent their children, to be able to run a household, to be an active member of the community. So many people are on disability when they go on to these medications. And I guess I would say that’s not good enough.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:20:04] Well, I know there is another way forward. And you have co-written this wonderful new book with your mentor, and you’ve operated with her, Bonnie Kaplan. And it’s called The Better Brain: How Nutrition Will Help You Overcome Anxiety, Depression, ADHD, and Stress. And I would venture to say and much, much more. That’s my edition. It sounds fantastic and it’s very timely, very timely. So can you tell us a bit about it?

Book: The Better Brain: How Nutrition Will Help You Overcome Anxiety, Depression, ADHD, and Stress

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:20:32] Sure. I mean, we wrote the book out of mostly frustration of just feeling like we weren’t heard. And so being able to put all of the information into one place and to really build and have an opportunity to be able to share with the public because it is written for the public. It’s it is not an academic book. 

We hired a writer to help us with our writing to make sure it was accessible to the general population. And she did a fantastic job of helping bring us down from our ivory tower of writing so that it was actually accessible. So what we wanted to do was to be able to explain in a very obvious and good, you know, in simple terms why you should care about the micronutrient density of the food that you’re eating. And so that means the vitamins and minerals, are they contained within the foods that you’re eating? 

And the reason why we wanted to spend so much time in this book or so much based on the book explaining the importance of minerals and vitamins was, of course, based on the research that I had been doing and Bonnie had been doing in Canada, finding that when people were given extra minerals and vitamins, that seemed to improve their mental health.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:21:52] So then we went backward and so we were like, well, hold on, shouldn’t you get these minerals and vitamins from your food? And then you discover that, in fact, so much so many people are their diets comprised of ultra-processed food. And the data are really quite startling in that it’s 50% of calories currently consumed by North Americans come from ultra-processed food. 

The most recent data I saw on children was 67% of the calories that children are eating are coming from ultra-processed food. So you have to start there. You kind of have to go and go, what in the world happened that our diet has changed so dramatically in such a short period of time? Because ultra-processed food really came on to the market post-World War Two. 

I mean, there’s been processing that’s been going on for a long time in terms of canning or freezing. And those in themselves are not bad necessarily. In fact, they can be a great way of preserving food over a long period of time and also preserve the nutrient content of food.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:23:00] But it’s this ultra-processed stuff where they’ve stripped out all the nutrients and then add it in a whole bunch of flavours and sugars or preservatives or emulsifiers in order to keep the food looking good and holding itself together as one and all of that. And unfortunately, it’s deprived of minerals and vitamins. And that is what we really want to bring forward because I don’t think people really think about the mineral and vitamin content of their food.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:23:32] If we think about the messaging that’s out there on food, it’s so focussed on the macronutrients, your fats, your carbs, your proteins. And so as long as you get those in some kind of good ratio and our people, of course, argue with ratio, that’s got to be. But really the focus has been so much on macronutrients. 

If you look at the back of any package, that’s what they’ll tell you about is the macronutrient content, the calorie content, but it overshadows the importance of those vitamins and minerals. And you might see maybe three or four listed, maybe calcium, maybe Vitamin A, and the quantities are tiny, tiny. You’re never going to get enough for what your brain needs them for, which is if you want me to go into that?

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:24:16] I do. I do. I do.

How your brain makes serotonin?

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:24:18] Okay, if you go into this in the book is explain what do they do? Well, I think one thing that I think really hits it home for most people is to understand that in order to make all of those neurotransmitters that people have heard about: serotonin, dopamine, noradrenalin. But serotonin is the one we focus on because it’s just so well known because of SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) that so many people are taking. It’s that to make serotonin, your brain needs micronutrients. 

They act, as we call it, what we call cofactors in all of the, you know, in order to get to serotonin, you go through a whole bunch of different chemical reactions. You go from A to B to C to D to E to serotonin and much greater. 

I mean, it’s complex, but at every step of the way, you’ve got you need enzymes to go from A to B, but you also need these cofactors. There is no magic cofactors. You need them all. There’s zinc, there’s Vitamin D, there’s B6. There’s iron, there’s magnesium. There, you know, your B12, your Vitamin C, all of them. No special one is important. They’re all required to make serotonin. 

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:25:38] And then equally we talk about how your mitochondria that make ATP, that’s the important molecule for energy. So you’ll think if you don’t have enough ATP, you can be slow, sluggish foggy. In order to support the Krebs Cycle that makes ATP, you need vitamins and minerals. So you can so we just keep going. We show all of the different things that these minerals and vitamins are doing. 

And then we step back and say, well, where are you going to get them from? And then we go through, how ultra-processed food is devoid of these vitamins and minerals. And then you sort of marry that to all of the data that’s showing how people who eat those ultra-processed foods are at greater risk for mental health issues than you see all the data that’s showing that people who eat foods that are rich and these vitamins and minerals, somehow that seems to protect them. 

And then you look at all of the randomised controlled trials that have been done looking at manipulation of diet and how that can lead to better mental health outcomes, and you just see this wealth of data all coming together to show that we really should care about what we put in our mouth.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:26:53] You know, we learnt in undergraduate as doctors and dentists, as naturopaths, as nutritionists. We learnt about these processes which required those cofactors’ correct function. Yeah. 

And for too many health practitioners and this is important, I think, for patients to understand that for many health practitioners, it couldn’t wait to graduate second-year undergraduate because then you wouldn’t have to worry about biochemistry anymore. And hey, guess what? You have to worry about it from the moment you conceived to the moment you die in each and every cell in your body. So this is really basic but it’s really important.

Biochemistry as cofactors to function

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:27:25] Well, exactly. That’s right. And we want to, it’s somewhat like reminding people because I learnt about the Krebs Cycle in undergraduate in my Neurobiology degree, but I certainly don’t remember the minerals and vitamins being kind of highlighted. But in addition, if they were highlighted, and let’s face it, this was a long time ago. I did my first degree.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:27:53] And I started a long time ago.. 

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:27:54] Not quite as long time ago with you. But it was quite a long time ago. And but there was never a point where that was connected for me anyway. Where’d you get those minerals and vitamins? You get them from your food. So you should care about what you’re eating to support all of these things that it was always left as this abstract thing that was never connected to my real world. 

So I think maybe that’s what’s gotten lost, is that no one’s ever connected those dots and said, well, where do we get them from our food? Hold on. These new foods that we’ve created, do they have them? No, they don’t. Unless they’re fortified, but they won’t be fortified with the full 30 essential nutrients that you need to consume. They might be fortified with three or four. So, yeah. So there’s these, that’s been the eyeopener.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:28:46] So for me, my journey, Ron, has gone from this curiosity, this doing some clinical trials, going, oh my God, these nutrients are doing something. I thought people coming in reporting how much better they feel and it was just with these vitamins and minerals. 

And so then I’ve had this journey of figuring out goodness, what does this really mean about what I eat, what everybody is eating? And that’s all contained within the book as the journey. And also the journey is now for me at the soil level.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:29:20] Well, I was just going to say, we have been, we do focus a lot on regenerative agriculture and soil health, because I think it’s worth saying and remind I listen too that ultra-processed food is not only lacking in nutrients, but many of the components are anti-nutrients. So that’s number one.

Number two, even if you’re eating food, a lot of food produced in industrial agriculture has very depleted soils. There’s another double whammy here, and that is the recommended daily intake. According to the authorities, are just about enough to stop you from getting scurvy or riggings or less, but not what we’re talking about here.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:30:02] Can you give us a couple of, you presented so many cases then, and I’m sure you do in your book of how a typical mental health issue I know your interest was in ADHD at one point was a case of how these kinds of nutrient interventions can really work, how quickly, what the difference is in their cost? You know this is a win-win all around. Isn’t it? 

A typical mental health issue

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:30:28] Sure. As I said this, the idea of the broad spectrum approach isn’t I can’t say that we can attribute it to those families from Southern Alberta, Canada, although they really did push it along in that they made formulas that were based on their knowledge actually of animal nutrition, and then they adopted that to human nutrition. And some people make a really. Yeah, that’s true. 

Animals are not that different from us. And when animals get really irritable or show psychiatric signs, they give them a broad spectrum of nutrients and that alleviates the irritability. So they just apply that concept to humans.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:31:12] I just think that what happens for us is that if we’re deficient and of course, I want to make sure that it’s understood that not everybody’s psychiatric problem is going to be caused by poor nutrition. But I think it can explain it for a lot of people that when you become deficient, there’s less availability for your brain to do what it needs to do. 

So there’s less available to help you with concentration. And to create the chemicals that are involved in concentration or to create the chemicals that induce sleep, so, for example, melatonin, or to, you know, to support you when you get really anxious and how to help sort of trigger the parasympathetic nervous system to counteract the sympathetic nervous system. All of those things require these chemicals. And then you get these chemicals out of your food.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:32:03] So I think how do we explain why someone experiences this psychosis? Why do some people experience anxiety? Why do others experience low moods? Well, I don’t know if I can completely explain it, but I think what the nutrients do is provide a metabolic tuneup. And it’s because it’s all about metabolic activity. The A to B is mateparae brain metabolism. 

So I think we’re just providing the brain with what it needs. And in some cases, some people, because of maybe genetic differences, need a little bit more of some nutrients or the deficit is leading to more problems with their dopaminergic system. And maybe that explains why that those types of people are more prone to maybe psychosis but or ADHD or whatever the disorder.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:32:52] So maybe that’s what there’s a combination of your genetics and then your nutrition. And that together is creating an epigenetic phenomenon that can either correct a problem or create one if you’re in a deficient environment. 

And so I can’t give you all the answers, Ron, the one that I’ve thought about over the years, because when we see someone get well, this is not a treatment that is disorder-specific. So I started with ADHD only because it was the sample that I did my Ph.D. on women with ADHD, and then I did a postdoc on adolescents with ADHD. So it was the kind of population I was used to recruiting. And so that’s where I started.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:33:42] But what I noticed, to be honest, was more regulation of their emotions. And we know that goes along with ADHD. They’re often really dysregulated, they’re dysregulated maybe in terms of their attention, dysregulated in terms of their activity level or their impulsivity. But also their emotions can be really dysregulated. And that’s the area that we always see them respond to the quickest. And some of the other ones take longer so that by when I say it, respond the quickest it could be between one to two weeks we’ll see some benefit in those areas I call mean.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:34:16] It’s like they come in like with the parents because I’ve now done studies across the age span, kids, kids and adults. It’s that the parents will say that their kid, their child, they kind of cope with things with that change.

There are so many times where when change happens for children, that can be the trigger for a meltdown. So whether that be we’re going to school now or even hang up your coat or whatever it might be, the demand on that child, it seems like they before they might have had an outburst, they might have yelled and screamed. They might have had a temper tantrum. Now they kind of just do it. Really? They’re just. Yeah, they just do it.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:35:00] So the number of times I’ve heard that kind of a story from parents of what they see is the change in their child. So it’s these changes across a whole bunch of different areas in any one area might only be small, but you add them up together and then you see this really quite a substantial improvement in overall functioning. 

And so it’s almost like it’s a global metabolic tuneup as opposed to anything that’s specific to any particular condition, which is why I, that’s why I’ve been able to study it across different disorders, because, you know, let’s see what it can do for anxiety. Let’s see what it can do for mood or stress.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:35:40] Yeah because when people present for a mental health issue that has a label placed on it, it usually attracts a medication which comes with some side effects that often require another medication to help balance out and say this whole rather hit-and-miss. 

And I think that’s a reasonable way of describing it, a hit and miss approach to pharmacology, whereas nutraceutical — neutral approach, we know I mean, we know that cells in every part of the body need nutrients. That’s a good thing. To see its effect go across different conditions is hardly surprising.

Nutrients vs pharmaceutical approaches to therapy 

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:36:22] Well, I’m glad to hear you say that because I had a lot of people think that’s a reason to ignore it because it can’t possibly treat so many different conditions. And so that’s always good to hear that people get it. 

But I also want to say something about the single-nutrient approach because the single nutrient approach is something that has dominated science for over a hundred years in this area specifically, and it’s not surprising that people went down that single nutrient approach because we had great stories like scurvy being treated just with Vitamin C or you have rickets with Vitamin D, etcetera. 

So we’ve got these stories and there’s some in mental health, although not very many niacin for pellagra, which was a condition that affected that led to psychosis as well as dermatitis and dementia.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:37:08] So we’ve got those stories in our history. So it’s not surprising that people kept trying to see, well, OK, if we give kids with ADHD Zinc, does that alleviate ADHD? And so we’ve done that. And by and large, when you look at this really, really a vast body of literature, you kind of see an overall modest effect. 

And in some areas, maybe a little bit. But another it’s not at all. And it’s overall kind of disappointing. And so that’s, I think, why some people are reluctant to engage in thinking about nutrients because they’re familiar with the single nutrient approach and how it overall hasn’t really led to a huge, massive opportunity for change in many people. And so they’ve just dismissed it outright.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:37:52] Whereas if you think about the biology and the biochemistry that you were talking about before, you would kind of at some point, hopefully very early on in your scientific quest, would go, well, this doesn’t make any sense. Why would I do it this way? Why would I only give one nutrient? I’m just going to cause a deficit, another nutrient. So why would we do it that way? 

And so it’s about in Science, we learn from our mistakes. So I don’t want to look at those scientists and say that they were, you know, how could you come up with such a dumb study? I’ve not like that at all. I’m like, that had to be done. That study had to be done for us to see that it was the wrong approach. But at the time, it did make sense. Well, you know, you understand why they did it.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:38:37] I mean, I sensed your reluctance to elevate randomised control studies to a high level, which they are. But we’ve kind of been hijacked, I think, by the pharmaceutical industry. When you are testing one drug against a placebo, then that’s the gold standard. So we have to address we have to test nutrients in the same way. Will it discourage ignores the human body? But why let that get in the way of a commercial enterprise?

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:39:05] Listen, I’ve got the pleasure of seeing a National Symposium on Mental Health coming up on from the 1st to the 3rd of October in 2021. And I’m really looking forward to your presentation on building resilience in dealing with PTSD. Can you just share with us a little bit because PTSD is a huge and growing problem?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:39:28] Yeah, like everything I think in my career, I fell into it and it was only because there was an earthquake that happened in Christchurch in 2010. September 3rd, 2010. I was woken up by a 7.3 earthquake that was just outside of the city. And so that was the first massive earthquake I had ever been in. And the fortunate thing about that specific earthquake was that no one died in it. 

There was a lot of destruction like there was quite a bit of property damage. My house wasn’t damaged in that earthquake, but it gave an opportunity for me to kind of sit because there wasn’t much you know, it wasn’t there were no fatalities in that one.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:40:11] But the university was closed for precautionary reasons. While they checked all the buildings. I’m kind of sitting there going, well, what do I do? I’ve got you know, there must be some kind of scientific question that I can answer with this. And so we were in the midst of our first clinical trials at that point in 2010. 

So I thought, you know what, we can find out whether or not the nutrients are helping people with the stresses this year with the earthquakes. I was familiar with the research on B vitamins and stress. And there’d been quite a few studies that had been published on the B vitamin complexes and showing that they could be beneficial compared to placebo in alleviating stress. 

So I thought, let’s have a look to see whether people were who happened to be taking micronutrients at the time of that earthquake are doing better than people who happen to not be taking them just because of where they were in our clinical trial.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:41:03] And what we found was that people who happen to be taking micronutrients that were what I would say are well-nourished were more resilient to overcoming the stress of being in an earthquake. Not to say that you don’t get stressed like, you know, you’re now you’re not just calm as a cucumber for the all the way through that. 

Yes, they got stressed, but they recovered more quickly. And so that led to further research. We had another earthquake in 2011 where we had an opportunity of really looking at it in much greater detail using a Randomised Control Trial (RCT).

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:41:34] Then following that, a flood that happened in 2013 in Alberta, and then I had an opportunity, not an opportunity, but after the Christchurch Mosque Shooting in 2019, I did a translation of research to practise and we gave nutrients out to the survivors of that mosque shooting to see whether or not we could help them with the recovery and particularly with trauma. 

So we’ve got all these different events that have just happened where we’ve been able to explore the idea of the very important idea that nutrition is relevant to recovery and to resilience. And so that’s what’s led me to really think that being well-nourished makes us more resilient and more able to cope. 

And that’s where I am now, like really thinking that’s the key to these nutrients. And that’s the key to eating well, is that it provides your body with a full tank. It makes sure that you’re always topped up rather than empty. So you’re running on a full tank.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:42:44] So you can go a lot further than if you start your life at your time, at the beginning of a bit of a trauma. In an empty state, which would be the case for so many people with COVID-19, for example, which is one of those ones where it’s a marathon. So if you’re not replating your fuel tank throughout this, you know, the lockdowns and COVID-19 and all of the stress associated with that, not surprising that we’ve got so many people struggling with mental health issues now. At least that’s my perspective.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:43:16] Well, it’s music to our ears, Julia, and it’s a message that we are constantly promoting. That immune function is your best defence against physical and to build physical and mental and emotional resilience and to hear it coming from you, Professor of Psychology, is even better. 

Julia, thank you so much for everything you do for your wonderful new book. I’m so looking forward to connecting with you in October. And thank you for joining us today.

Prof Julia Rucklidge: [00:43:46] Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.


Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:43:50] As I mentioned, if you haven’t seen Julia Rucklidge’s TEDx Talk of 2014, I would highly recommend it to you. It’s very short, it’s only 18 minutes or so, but it’s so powerful, so relevant. And as mental health is a challenge for us all, it is most definitely worth watching and listening to. 

And what’s so interesting about it is whether we are talking about mental health or the current pandemic, we always come back to the importance of good nutrition. And what do we mean by that? I mean, that rolls off the tongue very easily, but what do we actually mean by it? And we’re talking about nutrient-dense foods and diet. And what do we mean by that?

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:44:35] Well, the body requires something like 50 or 60 elements in the periodic table, remember that? When you studied it back in high school, there were 118 elements in the periodic table. I think we know of with the I think the human body requires somewhere around 50 or 60. We certainly know with 30 to 40 of those all do. 

But the point being, we need those micronutrients to perform important biochemical functions. And it’s so interesting to hear Julia talk about a journey for a health practitioner, it’s important to be sceptical, but it’s also important to be curious. And that curiosity should start from the beginning of your medical or health education, which includes the basic sciences of anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, histology, which is the study of cells. They were all really important subjects.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:45:37] And if people aren’t exploring nutrition, it doesn’t mean they’re not curious. What it actually means is that they began their curiosity from about third or fourth-year medicine when they started to study pathology and pharmacology, because that was definitely elevated to when you were really getting down and studying real medicine. 

If only we knew that we were studying real medicine and real health from the very beginning of our training, anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, histology. These are worth repeating and learning again and again and again. They’re far more complicated than writing a prescription, that’s for sure.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:46:18] I can understand the appeal when you only have a 7, 10, or 15-minute consultation. Sometimes the simplest solution is to reach for the prescription pad. But if we are getting down to the cause of disease and that includes mental health issues, then we need to be looking at micronutrients. 

And I loved the way the metaphor that Julia used about powering us up and her description of that, those the studies she’s doing on post-traumatic stress. Because whether you are suffering from post-traumatic stress or just stress, ‘just stress’, put that one in inverted commas, then you will know that well that this can affect your health. And the way you fortify yourself is by improving immune function.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:47:09] How ill health manifest itself is very much related to your genetic predisposition because when I have gone to conferences on cardiovascular disease, on cancer, on autoimmune conditions, on mental health, there is a common denominator that runs through them all and that is lifestyle. 

Lifestyle incorporating the five pillars that we focus on: sleep, breathe, nourish, move and think. Your genes are how that disease manifests itself. But there are common themes that run through all ill-health. 

Anyway, we will have links to that. And of course, don’t forget, Julia has co-written a wonderful new book called The Better Brain: How Nutrition Will Help You Overcome Anxiety, Depression, ADHD, and Stress. It’s a must-read in this world we live in. I hope this finds you well until next time. This is Dr Ron Ehrlich. Be well. 


This podcast provides general information and discussion about medicine, health, and related subjects. The content is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice or as a substitute for care by a qualified medical practitioner. If you or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner. Guests who speak in this podcast express their own opinions, experiences, and conclusions.