Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Marco Verch

In an era when many people look down at their waistlines to assess nutritional health, Dr. Bonnie Kaplan, a researcher at the University of Calgary, is looking up instead.

She calls it “nutrition above the neck.” It’s a field of medical study that is seeing rapid growth, thanks to a small group of committed disruptors like herself. They’ve overcome strong resistance, particularly from the psychiatric establishment, to reveal a link between vitamins and minerals (called “micronutrients”) and improved mental health.

“Even though the brain is only about two percent of our total body weight,” explains Dr. Kaplan, “It’s the most metabolically active organ. It uses 20 to 50 percent of all the nutrients we consume. That’s what people are waking up to.”

The data that changed everything

Before her research could begin, Dr. Kaplan had to overcome enormous scepticism, including her own.

“At first, I refused to consider that nutrients and mental health were linked,” she remembers, describing a climate in the research community that is hostile towards food-based alternatives to conventional medicine. Then, in the early 1990s, a colleague faxed her a graph demonstrating a relationship between behaviour in children with ADHD and their nutrition.

Dr. Bonnie Kaplan devotes her research to showing how multinutrients can impact brain health and mood.

Where anecdotes hold little water for a rigorous academic like Dr. Kaplan, an X- and Y-axis with statistical analysis can commandeer her full attention.

“Even then, I thought, ‘Surely this won’t be reproducible in other families,’” she recalls. “But the data showed otherwise, and that changed everything.”

Everything, that is, except much of the medical community around her.

Naysayers oppose vitamin and minerals despite evidence

A large, influential group of journalists, doctors and researchers remains opposed to commercially available multinutrient formulas, despite Dr. Kaplan’s data proving their effectiveness. She points to a complex relationship between policymakers, pharmaceutical giants and cultural attitudes to explain this opposition. She doesn’t deny the significance of medicine in treating brain health issues; her argument, supported by clinical evidence, is that nutrition must be as much a part of the solution as pharmaceuticals.

Not everyone sees it that way. “I’ve been accused of fraud. My work has been sent for repeated ethics reviews,” she says. “But I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m revealing the truth that’s already there about how our brains function.”

Sometimes, Dr. Kaplan reveals that truth under very dramatic circumstances.

Evidence shows multinutrients boost mood and health

When New Zealand was struck by a series of earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, a colleague of Dr. Kaplan’s undertook a randomized trial that linked multinutrients to improved mental health resilience among survivors.

Two years later, when many residents of Alberta faced disastrous flooding, Dr. Kaplan replicated that study closer to home. Fifty-six people (aged 23 to 66) were randomized to receive a single nutrient (vitamin D), a multinutrients formula (B-complex) or a broad-spectrum mineral/vitamin formula. At the end of the study, those taking B-complex and the broad-spectrum formula showed significantly greater improvement in stress and anxiety compared with the others.

The bottom line? Multinutrients play a role in mental health, and with scant risk of long-term damage, they are a low-stakes, high-yield option for managing stress, whatever your circumstances.

What does this mean for you?

Though Dr. Kaplan’s clinical trials haven’t focused on a particular generation, she does have a body of research to consult on matters related to aging. At 71, she frequently applies her findings in an effort to reduce the threat of cognitive decline.

“B vitamins are especially good for an aging population, and for the stressful job of caregiving,” she explains, referring to over-the-counter supplements.

Above all, Dr. Kaplan stresses the importance of food selection. She says that 48 percent of what Canadians eat is from the lowest level of food, according to standards set by the World Health Organization. That’s why she worries about the overly processed, nutritionally depleted food she sees in schools, workplaces and care homes. The donuts and the pizza parties need to end, she says. And she has a precedent to show that it’s possible.

“Sixty years ago, people were still smoking in the workplace,” she recalls. “Then we decided it was uncool to subject people to second-hand smoke. We need to do the same thing for food. We need to make it uncool to subject people to poor nutrition. All of us, especially those of us over 60, need to address this issue if we expect a long, mentally healthy life ahead.”

Nuts and seeds. Fish. Beans and lentils (which have the added bonus of affordability). Cook these foods from scratch as often as you can, and supplement with vitamins. That hungry, high-metabolizing organ above your neck will do the rest to help you maintain good mental resilience for a long time to come.