Field Notes

Food Insufficiency Linked to Lack of Mental Health Services During Pandemic

A national study published in Public Health Nutrition found that Americans experiencing food insufficiency were three times as likely to lack mental health support during the COVID-19 pandemic than those not experiencing food insufficiency.

The most extreme form of food insecurity, food insufficiency occurs when families don’t have enough to eat. Among a nationally representative sample of 68,611 adults who participated in the US Census Household Pulse Survey in October 2020, 11% reported food insufficiency. Of those, 24% also reported an unmet mental health need compared with 9% of food-sufficient adults.

“Hunger, exhaustion, and stress related to not getting enough food to eat may lead to depression and anxiety,” says lead author Jason Nagata, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco.

“The experience of food insecurity could lead affected people to prioritize food over other needs such as seeking health care, using up considerable time and energy to navigate food pantries and free meal services, or locate and visit affordable food stores.”

Food insufficiency also was associated with higher use of psychiatric medications: 27% of food-insufficient adults reported psychiatric medication use compared with 19% of food-sufficient adults.

“To better address these problems, medical professionals, social workers, and clinicians can screen patients for both symptoms of anxiety and depression to ensure they have sufficient access to food,” says coauthor Kyle T. Ganson, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work.

The researchers argue that clinicians should assess for food insecurity and provide referrals to food assistance programs.

“Policymakers should focus on increasing funding for food assistance and mental health services as part of pandemic relief legislation,” Nagata says. “Expanding access to supplemental food programs may help mitigate the need for more mental health services during the pandemic.”

— Source: University of Toronto


High-Salt Diet Disrupts Circadian Rhythm in Mice

Although health experts have long known a high-salt diet (HSD) is harmful to the cardiovascular system, new research finds that it also may disrupt the body’s internal rhythms directly. The research was presented virtually at the Seventeenth International Conference on Endothelin.

Disruption of the body’s circadian rhythm is associated with increased risk of metabolic syndrome, inflammation, mood disorders, cancer, and even premature death. With an estimated 90% of the US population older than age 2 consuming too much salt, these new findings could have widespread implications.

The region of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) synchronizes all the clocks throughout the body. The SCN contains a type of receptor called endothelin B receptors. Elsewhere in the body, endothelin B receptors play a key role in managing sodium. In fact, medications that block endothelin B receptors are prescribed to manage pulmonary hypertension.

Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham fed mice an HSD and measured their movement throughout the day as well as their neuronal activity. Although their total activity was similar to that of control mice, HSD mice didn’t follow sleep-wake patterns established as normal by previous studies.

A hallmark trait of the SCN is to have higher neural activity during the day and less at night. However, HSD mice exhibited significantly elevated neuronal excitability at night as compared with control mice. “Neuronal excitability at night could lead to decline or mistiming of sleep-wake, hormonal, and physiological rhythms,” researchers wrote.

Nighttime neural activity abated when the mice were treated with an endothelin B receptor blocker. This abatement demonstrates both that the endothelin system may affect circadian rhythms and that endothelin B receptor medications could have unexpected impacts on the body clocks of people taking them.

— Source: American Physiological Society