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Resistance to Change-Nutrition in Indian Country

January 2, 2015

Dr. Abram Hoffer, a psychiatrist and nutrition researcher, said something that resonated with me. It takes 40 to 60 years for new knowledge to become accepted enough to start entering mainstream dialogue. At the time the new knowledge is widely adopted, 10% of professionals in the field accept it, but about 50% of the general population does as well. While Dr. Hoffer was discussing nutrition knowledge, I believe this same principal applies to health in Indian Country.

As a baseball pitching coach, I understand the importance of good nutrition to a pitcher. Diet is critical to building strength and quickness. Exercise is well understood, and coaches can transform body fat into muscle in a very short period of time. 8 weeks of exercise and good nutrition can transform almost any body. Mental and emotional states are strongly considered when working with pitchers. Certain types of supplementation are normal.

When I began working in Tribal Health, I also saw the benefit of nutrition, but my vision was clouded by a lack of deep knowledge. Whenever I walked into a Village Alaska store, the shelves were full of soda pop, candy and chips of various kinds. Fruits, vegetables and proteins were sparsely represented. Most villages were low income, and relied on subsistence foods for a lot of their calories. But when you went to a community function, there were lots of sugars and empty calories represented. Cakes, pies, cookies, soda, coffee and tea with substantial quantities of sugar added, White bread sandwiches and other empty calories were common.

I also saw that our adults and children had many problems and issues to deal with. Evidence of Adverse Childhood Experiences was everywhere. The negative outcomes described by the ACE Study were visible everywhere. Anger. Violence. Depression. Alcohol abuse. Teen pregnancy. School dropouts. Diabetes 2. Heart disease. Everything discussed on this forum was visible in villages to outside observers trained in trauma. I eventually came to understand trauma extremely well. I wanted to do something about it, so in 2008, I began development of a Restoration to Health Strategy (RtH Strategy). The early strategy involved merging behavioral health and medical intake services to help patients identify behavioral health needs. This strategy was dependent on building a strong behavioral health program. Limited grant and compact funding made this difficult, especially in Alaska Villages. Virtually no tribal members were trained as licensed clinical workers, and housing is almost non-existent in most villages. In 9 years, I was able to find only one clinician to live and work in a village.

Nutrition was a later addition to the RtH Strategy. Guided by some earlier research about how supplementation for children with Omega 3 fatty acids had positive impacts on learning and behavior, I included nutrition as a screening device. Since then, I have intensely studied nutrition, and I am convinced that nutrition should be our first line of defense to many of the behavioral and health issues that American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) people face. I will be blogging about nutrition issues at my Restoration to Health Blog (https://knightbird.wordpress.com).

One area of research is demonstrating a link between suicide and Omega 3 deficiencies. Dr. Joseph Hibbeln has published research showing both causation and correlation between Omega 3 deficiencies and suicide among U.S. Veterans (Link). Hibbeln et al identified a link among higher levels of hostility in adults and an imbalance of Omega 6 and Omega 3 essential fatty acids. (Link). The evidence is compelling and growing. Schoenthaler, et al. found that a lack of water soluble vitamins minerals in children led to increased violence. Supplementation reduced the violence by 47%.

While behavioral health services are still important in the RtH Strategy, I don’t believe we should overlook the important benefits that Omega 3 and vitamin/mineral supplementation can provide. It is my belief that supplementation may be able to improve many patients/clients to a level where further intervention may not be necessary. Supplementation should become a serious part of the ACE Study discussion.

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