The notion that vitamins, minerals, and other “supplemental” nutrients profoundly change behavior, mood, and intellect has origins as old as recorded history. Plato, Ovid, and Hippocrates all weighed in with dietary advice for the ideal mental life, long ago connecting nutrition, behavior, and the brain. By the 18th century, aggression, irritability, and depression were linked to pellagra and beriberi, diseases treatable with foods rich in what would later be identified as thiamin and niacin, members of the vitamin B family. Vitamins-and-violence theories built steam as epidemiologists compared diets and behavior across large populations, and fish became fashionable as “medicine for hot tempers” long before omega-3 fatty acids (found abundantly in seafood) were linked by U.S. government researchers to reduced homicides and aggression.
In the 20th century, scientists began exploring the molecular make-up of foods and their links to hormones, brain chemistry, and behavior, and by 1968, Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling would contribute the concept of “orthomolecular” psychiatry in a famous paper in the journal Science, promoting treatments based on “the provision of the optimum molecular environment for the mind.” Although his belief that mega doses of vitamins could prevent or cure serious mental illness was discredited, his work reinforced the idea that nutrients and foods have powerful effects on behavior.
These days, aided by the $60 billion-a-year U.S. supplements industry, all manner of advocates tout the behavioral wonders of an alphabet of nutrients, notably
B vitamins (including folic acid, niacin, thiamin, and riboflavin), zinc, magnesium, iron, chromium, calcium, selenium, choline, essential fatty acids, tryptophan, cysteine, and glutamine. Foods rich in antioxidants and other micronutrients are said to “rebalance” neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin to reduce depression, aggression, irritability, and learning problems. Adding to the movement is mounting worry about stress hormones, environmental chemicals, food additives, and a trans-fat rich Western diet that puts our Stone Age biologies under siege—all topped off by the output of the 1990’s “Decade of the Brain,” a neuroscientific juggernaut that led to a growing appreciation of an energy-hungry brain that’s 2 percent of our body mass but uses 20 percent of our energy intake.