Foods have long been valued for their therapeutic properties, but it was Hippocrates who first proclaimed that diet was medicinal. Before the development of modern pharmacology, people looked to foods and plants as a way of maintaining health and curing ills.
For centuries, traditional healers have known that foods can have powerful healing effects on mind, body, and spirit. Throughout history, food has played a central role in every major religion and culture. In many religious customs, food is a part of celebration and spirituality.
Nutrition has well-established roots in science. French chemist Antoine Lavoisier is credited with being the founding father of modern nutrition for his study of the chemistry of food in the late 1700s. Lavoisier and Pierre Simon Laplace, a physicist, carried out nutrition experiments using a calorimeter designed by Lavoisier to measure the process of combustion.
The scientists determined that the body burns fuel in the form of food, which in turn generates energy. Based on this work, scientists would eventually calculate the energy content of various types of food in the diet and determined how many calories humans need daily in order to maintain a healthy weight. These calculations were vital in later determining the appropriate weight in the diagnosis of anorexia nervosa.
In 1747, James Lind, a physician in the British navy, performed the first scientific nutrition experiment with humans, discovering that lime juice saved sailors who had been at sea for years from scurvy, a deadly and painful bleeding disorder. To execute his study, Lind divided the sailors with scurvy into two groups, prescribing each a different remedy. One group received oranges and lemons, while the control group received a mixture of cider, vinegar, and sea water. Within six days, the men who had eaten the oranges and lemons were fit for duty, while the others were still sick.
In 1753, Lind published A Treatise of the Scurvy, a book that recounted his nutrition experiments. Lind’s experiments sparked interest among researchers at the time. Scientists knew that something in the citrus fruits had cured the debilitating and potentially fatal condition of scurvy, and wanted to know what that substance was. It would be another 150 years before science put a name to it.
By the 1830s, more links between specific foods and disease were discovered. For example, it was found that bowing, rickety legs in undernourished children could be treated with cod liver oil and butter.
In 1897, Dutch scientist Christiaan Eijkman determined that the disease beriberi resulted from an imbalanced diet—in this case one that relied too heavily on white rice—and that it could be cured by switching to whole-grain rice. As the science of nutrition grew, more links were revealed between the nutritious properties of foods and their role in disease prevention.
In the early 1900s, scientists began naming nutrients. In 1912, Cambridge professor Frederick Gowland Hopkins isolated substances in milk that he described as “accessory food factors.” He hypothesized that, in addition to proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, there were nutrients that were essential for human health. The same year, the Polish scientist Casimir Funk named these substances “vital amines,” later shortened to “vitamins.”
Vitamin A, found in egg yolk and cod liver oil, was discovered in 1913, and other findings followed. As each vitamin was identified, it was labeled with a letter and given a chemical name reflecting its physical nature.
The essential vitamin C within lime juice was identified in 1935, when Albert Szent-Gyorgyi synthesized ascorbic acid and won a Nobel Prize for his efforts.
Further discoveries in biochemistry and nutrition led to a greater understanding of the need for a balanced diet and the role of different nutrients. However, it wasn’t until the birth of orthomolecular psychiatry that scientists began to take a serious look at the role of nutrition in treating psychiatric disorders.
Orthomolecular medicine can be helpful in treating the biochemical imbalances of mood and behavior disorders. This broad grouping of disorders treated includes anxiety, severe depression, bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, hormonal depression, other endogenous depressions (cyclothymia, seasonal affective disorder), OCD, ADHD, and addictive behavior.