Being a biochemist and interested in what goes on in cells, I approach the whole subject of mental disease very differently from non-biologically oriented psychiatrists. I feel as sure as here I sit, that there is always something wrong with the brain cells and their metabolic processes in a mentally ill person.
How can there be something wrong with the chemical processes taking place in the brain cells? This is easy. The chemical activities of brain cells can be impaired in a hundred different ways. There are many drugs that can poison them and there are many nutrient substances that the brain cells may have difficulty getting from their environment continuously and in adequate amounts. These nutrients include minerals and trace minerals, the amino acids, and all the vitamins that metabolizing cells need.
The brain cells are helpless in getting good nutrition unless we eat the right kind of food. If these cells are not furnished with excellent food—this happens more often than not—then the brain cells limp along as best they can like corn growing in a stony field without adequate fertilization or water.
One reason the metabolism of brain cells is potentially so important in mental disease, is that the brain is a “hot spot” of metabolism in the body. Although the brain’s weight is only about two per cent of the whole body weight, the chemical burning that actually takes place there every minute of our lives may be 20-25 percent of the total burning in the body. Any weak link in the chain of this burning machinery can mean mental disease.
Even healthy nerve cells, it is reasonable to suppose, can be nourished at many levels of efficiency. And nerve cells, being distinctive, are going to have distinctive nutritional requirements. We know, for instance, that the cells which produce the thyroid hormone are the only ones known to need iodine. The cells which produce insulin must require extraordinarily high amounts of sulfur-containing amino acids, because the hormone insulin has a very high sulfur content.
In the light of this background material we are ready to discuss the causes of mental disease. All those who have contact with this problem have been impressed in recent years with the probability that all mental disease has a biochemical basis. The outstanding investigations of D. W. Woolley who wrote The Biochemical Bases of Psychoses point in this direction. And while not enough investigative research has been done in this area, there have been some rather phenomenal advances made in the treatment of mental disease. All have involved, not psychological means, but rather physical and chemical means, such as insulin shock, electric shock treatments, administration of lithium, etc., making obsolete the concept of mental disease as purely psychological phenomena.
The successful application of such treatment is in indirect support of our thesis, but there are studies which show a direct cause and effect relationship between poor nutrition and mental disturbances.
There is abundant evidence indicating that nervous tissue is impaired when there are nutritional lacks. Nerve degeneration was observed early in the study of vitamin B 1 deficiency (in fact, the suggestive name aneurin has often been used to designate this vitamin). Mild deficiency of this vitamin causes irritability, loss of memory, loss of appetite, etc. Deficiencies of pantothenic acid and riboflavin have each been found to produce severe nerve lesions in experimental animals.
It is well-known that vitamin B 12 deficiency not only produces pernicious anemia, but also induces severe nerve impairment. It has long been known that nutritional iodine is essential for the production of the thyroid hormone and that without this hormone children become idiots. It is not so well known that even mild deficiencies of vitamin B 1, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, biotin, folic acid, vitamin B 6 and B 12, as well as some of the essential ammo acids, have led to mental symptoms which could be the forerunners of serious mental disease.
Finally there is the clear-cut case of pellagra. This illness is caused primarily by a niacin deficiency and a pronounced psychosis may result. Furnishing the missing vitamin often causes a dramatic return to sanity.
Of course, all of these nutritional deficiencies may themselves be affected or aggravated by psychological stresses.
We have already noted that the nutrition of nervous tissues must be exceedingly complicated, and especially so in view of the numerous possible combinations and quantitative relationships between the 35 or more nutrients. The complications are compounded by the fact that each individual, because he has a distinctive genetic background, has distinctive nutritional needs.
Thus, the concept of genetotrophic disease is applicable here (see TM, February 1974, “Environmentalist, Heal Thyself”). This concept arises from the fact that we are each made up of unique genetic patterns, and that your pattern or mine may call for an augmented supply of this or that particular nutrient (s). Failure to supply that nutrient brings about disease of some sort.
If we then assume that mental disease is genetotrophic in origin, this does not suggest a quick or easy method for its cure, but it does suggest a new orientation (an orientation which, to date, has not been accepted and applied at a sophisticated level). It suggests that the proper nutrition of the young, with full appreciation of genetic differences, may be a means of preventing the onslaught of mental disease.
According to widely accepted concepts which stem from Freud, environmental influences during early youth are responsible for mental ill health in later years. If we accept this as a general basic premise, we should look at all environmental influences and not neglect what may be the most important environmental influence of all—nutrition.
“Nutritional Freudianism” would postulate that nutrition during prenatal life, babyhood, childhood and adolescence, is crucially important and that often mental disease arises because of too general acceptance of the idea that our national diet is healthy. Unfortunately, and too often in this country, almost anything that satisfies a child’s hunger-sugar-coated “cereals,” crackers made with denatured white flour, etc.-is offered-and when the child becomes ill, medicines are