Updated 12 August 2015

Diet & your brain: behaviour

There is a nutrient called inositol, which may be able to improve outcomes in bulimia and psychiatric conditions, such as panic disorders, depression and obsessive compulsion.


Inositol, bulimia and psychiatric disorders
There is a nutrient called inositol, which may be able to improve outcomes in bulimia and psychiatric conditions, such as panic disorders, depression and obsessive compulsion.

Inositol and Bulimia
Bulimia nervosa is a debilitating condition, which is classified as an eating disorder. Patients suffering from bulimia and binge eating, alternate between gorging themselves with food and then get rid of this food by inducing vomiting or using harsh purgatives to induce diarrhoea. The patient is driven to overeat and then ‘punish’ her-/himself by regurgitating the food.

Such behavior has drastic effects on both the psychological and physical well-being of bulimics. The feelings of guilt engendered by constantly overeating and purging tend to destroy the patient’s self-esteem and interfere with normal functioning. From a dietary point of view, these patients do not manage to absorb sufficient nutrients because the food they eat does not remain in the digestive tract long enough to allow proper digestion and absorption to take place. Consequently, bulimics are often undernourished and deficient in macronutrients, vitamins, minerals, trace elements and omega fatty acids.

Research conducted in Israel with a small group of patients suffering from bulimia and binge eating has shown that inositol may help these individuals to get control of their lives again. In the Israeli study, patients with bulimia and binge eating disorder were either treated with 18 g of inositol or 18g of placebo (inactive substance) per day for a period of 6 weeks. Statistically significant improvements in psychological test results were obtained when the patients received inositol.

Inositol and Panic Disorder
Panic disorder is another psychiatric condition that appears to respond to treatment with inositol. Individuals who suffer from panic disorder develop acute, debilitating attacks of anxiety that literally ‘paralyse’ them when faced with a given trigger or situation. For example someone suffering from panic disorder may not be able to leave home because of an intense fear of open spaces. Panic disorders, therefore, interfere significantly with everyday life and any new approach that could assist these patients is to be welcomed.

A recently published study originating in the same Israeli research centre as the bulimia trial mentioned above, compared the effect of inositol (up to 18g/day) and fluvoxamine (a psychiatric drug at a dose of 150g/day). Each treatment was given for a period of one month. The researchers found that the subjects receiving inositol had considerably fewer panic attacks than those taking fluvoxamine.

Inositol and bipolar depression
Another study indicated that patients with bipolar depression also reacted favourably to inositol doses of 12g per day. The results of this third study were not as positive as the effects found for bulimia and panic disorders, but the patients did show improvements in their clinical status.

What is inositol?
Inositol is a so-called sugar alcohol which is found in many foods, especially cereals with a high bran content. Although nutritionists have been aware of inositol for many years, this is the first research that indicates that inositol may help to alleviate certain psychiatric conditions.

Inositol supplementation is known to help premature infants survive respiratory distress syndrome. Inositol plays an essential role in the physiology of phospholipids, which are important for the proper functioning of all membranes, including the membranes lining the lungs of premature infants. In addition, inositol has been identified as a compound that acts as a ‘second messenger’ helping with the release of calcium during the transmission of nerve signals that control muscle movements.

It seems likely that these three recent research studies have identified new roles for inositol. Although these investigations are of a preliminary nature and more research is required to obtain more conclusive evidence, the results do indicate that inositol may help patients suffering from psychiatric conditions such as bulimia nervosa, panic disorder and bipolar depression. It has been suggested that inositol supplementation could be used as an alternative for certain psychiatric drugs and/or as an adjunct to conventional therapy.

From a dietetic point of view, the potential of inositol supplementation in treating bulimics, is welcome news. Such patients may also benefit from eating a diet rich in unprocessed grains and cereals, which are known to contain inositol.

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