In the wake of the most recent school shootings in the US, the question left hanging in the air is why these type of incidents - and teenage violent crimes in general - are on the increase.
A recent publication from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the national public health institute of the United States, stated that
"Homicide continues to be the second leading cause of death for youth ages 15-24, and the leading cause of death for African American youth."
Unfortunately, homicide figures in this age group are increasing annually, but the authorities have yet to determine why. Studies have been conducted into every aspect of modern living which could be contributing to the trend, such as the effect of violent computer games, media exposure, peer pressure and cultural influences, poverty, the destabilisation of family life, and even possible connections with traumatic births, but no conclusive link to the these factors has been found.
There can be no doubt that the combined effect of these influences could all contribute to the issue, but is the problem really so complex? It seems that science and the authorities have overlooked a fundamental aspect of modern-day life which could be a common denominator in all incidents: the modern Western diet.
A recent article by Sylvia Onusic, Ph.D., a nutrition expert with a Ph.D. in Health Education and Wellness, has now thrown this theory into focus. The article, entitled "Violent Behavior: A Solution in Plain Sight" was published earlier this year by the Weston A. Price Foundation, and explores the connection between diet and the increase in violent crime.
“Above all the most influential factor in the course of increasing violence has been changes in the American food system and loss of nutrients for children and growing teens,” writes Onusic.
Onusic's hypothesis will come as no surprise to nutritionists worldwide who have been aware for decades that rebalancing body biochemistry through diet and supplementation can have positive effects on every aspect of health, even mental illness.
Onusic noted the increasing prevalence of psychiatric drug use among children and teens but knew that nutritional deficiencies can also be widely implicated in mental illness, as the brain cannot function effectively without an adequate supply of specific nutrients, such as the fat-soluble vitamins A, D3 and K2. The report describes how Vitamin A deficiency is associated with schizophrenia, a serious brain disorder and states: "Vitamin A deficiency may lead to dopamine receptor hypo-activity and the typical symptoms of schizophrenia, such as flat affect, apathy and lack of insight, as well as hallucinations and delusions... People with schizophrenia hear voices and believe people are controlling them."
This may be particularly significant in the school shooting phenomena as an article entitled "Rampage School Shooters: A Typology" by Peter Langman, Ph.D. published in Aggression and Violent Behavior in 2009, identified that five of the ten school shooters he studied suffered from schizophrenia-spectrum disorders.
There is no "quick-fix" solution to the nutritional issue, however, as Onusic suggests that a broad range of nutrients could be involved, and this would only be rectified by a radical and permanent change in diet for those affected. For example, the group of B vitamins are all crucial for good mental health, as are essential fats, or omega 3 fatty acids, and a broad range of minerals including iodine, potassium, iron, magnesium, zinc, chromium, manganese.
In addition to nutritional deficiencies, Onusic suggests that sugar consumption, caffeine, food additives and soy could all be significant factors in aggressive behavior. Eating large quantities of soy can lead to zinc depletion and excessive estrogens; the report cites a study in which estrogens fed to rats resulted in aggression and hyperactivity. Sugar and refined carbohydrates in the diet can cause huge variations in blood glucose levels; low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, is a condition known to be linked to mood swings and anti-social behavior. Onusin cites the work of Hippchen, Schoenthaler, Schauss et al, who discovered that hypoglycemia causes the brain to secrete glutamate, a neurotoxin, leading to agitation, depression, anger, anxiety, panic attacks and violent behavior.
The report states that the caffeine, found in coffee and soft drinks, further exacerbates blood sugar peaks and troughs, creating insulin spikes and increased blood sugar, and increases any nutritional deficiencies by causing urinary excretion of calcium, magnesium and potassium. Furthermore, it increases feelings of anxiety and can trigger mania or psychosis. Soft drinks and violent behavior were also studied in "The Twinkie Defense" study by Solnick and Hemenway, published in Injury Prevention in 2011, which concluded that aggression and violence were positively linked to the consumption of soft drinks, and the findings showed definitively that "Soft drink consumption was strongly and signiﬁcantly associated with carrying a weapon and with the perpetration of violence against siblings, against peers and against dates."
The evidence put forward by Onusic appears to be overwhelming, but addressing the problem, even if the theory is recognised, is not so straightforward. Obtaining the level of nutrients necessary for good health is becoming increasingly more difficult in modern society. “Many factors in the environment are new to the genome since World War II,” she says “These include changes and additions to the food we eat leading to severe nutrient deficiencies, changes in American agriculture and fertility of the soils, more chemicals in the environment...”
In a recent article, Jo Robinson of The New York Times wrote:
"Studies published within the past 15 years show that much of our produce is relatively low in phytonutrients, which are the compounds with the potential to reduce the risk of four of our modern scourges: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. The loss of these beneficial nutrients did not begin 50 or 100 years ago, as many assume. Unwittingly, we have been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers."
Turning the situation around will not be easy, says Onusic: "It will take a grass-roots effort to return the balance in our food system. Recently efforts have sprung up which are slowly turning the tide. These include farmers markets, buying local, farm shares, home gardens, and a return to natural products such as raw milk, pastured eggs and meat. Cooking and eating real food at home for our families cannot be emphasized enough in resolving these major issues."
Sometimes the answer lies in the simplest form of explanation, but going back to basics is not the easiest route in a world where food has become ridiculously over-processed and complex. Even as far back as 1971, Onusic says that the U.S. population was already consuming more that 50 percent of its diet in the form of junk foods. She declares that today's youth are now bearing the brunt of this dubious legacy, and that we are currently experiencing "a crisis in mental health with appalling consequence: mass killings by our youth. It appears that our government officials do not have the political will to deal with or even recognize the factors that have led to this violence."
A few enlightened individuals are already on the case, such as Stephen J. Schoenthaler, PhD, a professor of criminal justice at California State University, who has studied the effects of nutrition on cognition and behavior in children and prisoners. He discovered a significant improvement in the demeanour of subjects after high-sugar junk foods were removed from their diets. Recognition of the problem is the first step towards a solution, however, and we can only hope that the authorities will begin to take heed.
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