I have spent the last week flopped on the couch with the flu. This means I have been watching too many cooking shows and one came on that I thought was just so important to the current national debate around mental illness that I had to weigh in. Because one of the many things that struck me sickeningly about last week’s horror story was the fact that Adam Lanza was a vegan.

Veganism is a legitimate diet choice for anyone willing to put in the effort to do it correctly. As the entire cast of Forks over Knives demonstrates, when done correctly vegan eating can be a real boon to the health of many people.

When done incorrectly by the “muffin vegans” there can be serious health issues.

The show that made me think was a rerun of my old favorite Good Eats. Alton Brown was making tortillas from corn. He pointed out that the proper way to make corn into edible masa flour is to soak it for about 12 hours in an alkaline solution. It takes quite a bit of pickling lime, (the Aztecs just used wood ash) to make corn edible. No it isn’t poisonous if you eat it without the process, but it can cause something called pellagra.

Pellagra causes skin conditions, ataxia, mental confusion, sleep disorders, aggression, diarrhea, and eventually dementia. What is pellagra? One hundred year ago they were sure it was a corn fungus or bacteria…some infectious agent. They went looking for it. They did not find it.

Pellagra, you see, is a vitamin deficiency. It was caused by people eating corn that had not been treated with alkali for too much of their diet. They went insane because of a lack of B3 because they had not unlocked what was in corn, which would not have been a huge issue except that they also had not eaten enough other foods rich in B3.

The most common side effects of celiac disease are also psychiatric and include anxiety. Dr Peter Greene has also described a condition known as “bread madness” which was a result of the nutritional deficiencies that celiac disease can trigger. If you look at the page on this site about schizophrenia and gluten, you can see how malnutrition seems linked even to schizophrenia. Check out that section of this blog if the topic interests you. There I do provide links to actual PubMed articles.

What concerns me is that there seems to be clear evidence that a poor diet can cause vitamin deficiencies and that severe enough vitamin deficiencies can cause brain damage and mental illness. And while there is no reason to worry about deficiencies other than b12 on a proper vegan diet, the likely vegan diet of a 20 year old who was antisocial sounds like it might have been suboptimal. Maybe he did eat a lot of spinach, but somehow, I am imaginining breadsticks and chips. And I wonder if that played a role. Severe B12 deficiency can cause dementia.

It may be tempting to think that the deficiencies are caused by a medical condition and not poor choices, but I have known otherwise for years. When I was in college a few friends attempted to live exclusively on boxed macaroni and cheese (the kind with margarine) and grilled cheese sandwiches. Within a month they were in the hospital. It was funny then because they learned their lesson and no one was seriously hurt.

That said, how many people have not learned, and are sick and deficient without knowing it. This is a thought that keeps me up at night. What if the solution to the problem is salmon and spinach.

What if the cure for all this aggression and mental illness…is vegetables?

Is anyone researching it? I wonder.