Monday, February 28, 2011

Mental Health Specialists Interview Series: Susan DeGroot, MSW, Nutrition and Mental Health

Susan DeGroot, MSW, is a mental health therapist currently employed at Marquette General Hospital’s Outpatient Behavioral Health Department in Marquette, MI. She has over 35 years of practical experience and has had a long-time interest in the relationship between nutrition and mental health. She recently attended the National Nutrition Conference in Atlanta, Georgia to refine her knowledge in this topic. She also is currently serving on the Nutrition and Medicine Committee at Marquette General Hospital.

Kerry: Thank you, Susan, for taking time to answer a few questions about the effects of nutrition on our mental health. Give some examples of how our diet affects our sense of well-being.

Basically, we are what we eat! Many acute nutritional deficiencies have historically been known to cause mental health symptoms. Severe Vitamin C deficiencies, for example, can cause scurvy. This was discovered when individuals deprived of Vitamin C during long ocean voyages became very ill. Iodine deficiencies are known to cause goiters accompanied by psychotic behavior. This problem was very common in the days before salt was iodized. Recently, significant subtle dietary issues have been correlated with depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and behavioral issues (such as anger and aggression).

Kerry: What are some common problems with an average diet?

Two of the most common issues with the western diet or “Standard American Diet” are the excesses of Omega 6 fatty acids and the deficiencies of Omega 3 fatty acids. Prior to about 1900, Americans ate equal ratios of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids. Current estimates are that the ratio in the American diet is between 10-20 parts Omega 6 to 1 part of Omega 3. The brain is the “fattest” organ in our body and is responsible for all of our emotions. This dietary shift basically has changed the fat composition of the human brain. Excessive amounts of Omega 6’s and insufficient Omega 3’s have been correlated with higher rates of suicide, depression, bipolar disorder, increased frequencies of homicide, and incidents of domestic violence.

Kerry: Which mental health problems have a strong connection to nutritional deficiencies?

Basically they all do. While you cannot say that nutritional issues are completely responsible for all of our mental health issues, since there is obviously some genetic basis, it is a major contributor to the level of severity and the timing of the onset of symptoms in almost all mental health disorders.

Kerry: How are these deficiencies diagnosed?

There are laboratory tests that can diagnose many of them, but they are expensive and often not covered by insurance. Some tests are available at specialty centers around the country.

The best way to evaluate deficiency is to evaluate the diet. National Health Care Reform, which was passed last year, provides for the services of a registered dietician to be covered at the rate of 100 percent for any person considered “at risk” beginning January 1, 2011. A diet history evaluated by a registered dietician is probably the best diagnostic tool.

Kerry: How are dietary deficiencies typically corrected?

There are supplements that can correct many of them, but correcting a deficiency in one nutrient often results in a deficiency developing in another. Nutrition is all about balance. The best solution is to change your diet by including a wider variety of foods, such as vegetables, fruits, fish (Omega 3's), and reducing the amount of processed or pre-prepared foods. While working to change your diet, it is also reasonable for all adults to take a good quality multi-vitamin & mineral supplement, along with extra Vitamin D at a dosage of at least 2000 IU's of Vitamin D3 (This is well within the safe range. Daily dosages of vitamin D3 larger than 3000 IU's from all sources should be monitored by a physician.) and a supplement of Omega 3 fatty acids (Fish Oil) that provides at least a total of 900 mg of “DHA plus EPA” per day (You will find the amounts of DHA and EPA per serving listed on the back of the bottle). It is always wise to check with your doctor before beginning any supplements.

Kerry: Would you recommend any helpful books on this topic?

There are many good and reliable books available. I recommend a book by Dr. Andrew Weil, MD, Eating Well for Optimum Health.

Kerry: How does one go about finding a nutritional specialist in their area?

All hospitals have dieticians. You may also find them in private practice or affiliated with some weight loss programs.

Kerry: Thank you for this great information.

If you would like to contact Susan DeGroot, please e-mail her at

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