It is no secret that Americans are the most over-medicated people on the planet – particularly when it comes to neuroleptic drugs such as anti-psychotics and anti-depressants. A large part of this problem stems from aggressive marketing by Big Pharma, targeted at people seeking a “quick fix” for their problems.

They are aided and abetted by those in the field of mental health who find it more expedient to medicate their patients (and not infrequently have been offered “incentives” by pharmaceutical companies), parents frustrated by their children’s behavioral problems, caregivers in elder care facilities faced with patients suffering from dementia, and even the justice system – which has been a big customer for anti-psychotics, employing them as a form of chemical restraint. In a significant number of cases, these drugs do not even work – and can even have dangerous side effects, as in the case of prescription medications such as Abilify and Concerta.

The good news (which may be less welcome to Big Pharma) is that there are alternative treatments for mental illness, depression and dementia that do not involve taking drugs with risky side effects and questionable efficacy. Some of those may come as a surprise. For example, elder care facilities are finding music therapy to be effective in dealing with dementia-related behaviors. Other treatments involve meditation and biofeedback. However, one recent study has confirmed what many dieticians and naturopaths have long suggested – that there is a definite link between mental health and what one eats and drinks.

Of course, the effects of toxins such as lead in drinking water and pesticides in food on brain health is widely known and well established. However, according to Harvard psychiatrist Chris Palmer, better mental health can be as simple as switching to a diet lower in carbohydrates. At a recent conference of the International Society for Nutritional Research, Dr. Palmer presented two cases in which patients suffering from schizophrenia showed remarkable improvement by changing their eating habits.

The first patient was a 31-year-old woman diagnosed with schizophrenic disorder at age 23. She had failed to respond to twelve different medications, some of which are considered by psychiatrists to be “drugs of last resort” because of their dangerous side effects. The patient had also failed to respond to electro-shock therapy (also known as “electroconvulsive” therapy, or ECT). In addition, the patient suffered from weight issues.

In an attempt to drop a few pounds, the woman went on what is known as the “ketogenic” diet. This is a food regimen that is high in fats and protein and low in carbohydrates that has long been used to treat epileptic children. After a month on the “keto” diet, the woman was ten pounds lighter – but had also stopped experiencing the delusions symptomatic of her mental disorder. Within four months, her symptoms had improved by almost 40 percent.

The other case involved a 33-year-old schizophrenic man who experienced auditory hallucinations as well as the paranoid delusions and mood difficulties associated with the condition. Like the woman, his schizophrenia had failed to respond to medication. He was also dangerously obese, tipping the scale at 322 pounds, so he made the decision to follow the keto diet. Three weeks later, his symptoms had dramatically improved. Within a year, he was down to 218 pounds and his symptoms improved by fifty percent. Today, that man is living on his own, attending college and dating socially – things that would have been impossible before.

In both cases, when the patients went off the keto diet, their symptoms returned – but began to disappear when they resumed their new diet.

Here is something that is not commonly known: all neuroleptic medications lead to high levels of insulin, resulting in insulin resistance – which in turn causes Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Low carb diets such as the keto and “paleo” diets have been known to lower insulin levels and improve cellular insulin response. In some cases, patients following such diets have seen their conditions reverse altogether. Now, thanks to Dr. Palmer’s observations, we know that a low-carb regimen can have tremendous benefits for mental health patients as well.

Dr. Palmer’s case studies and observations have been published in the most recent issue of the journal Schizophrenic Research.

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.