Bristol Benjamin Meaker Distinguished Visiting Professor Joseph Hibbeln, National Institute of Health (NIH), USA

Interactions of religious beliefs, dietary habits and mental health outcomes

Visit dates to be confirmed for 2021/22


As a Commissioned Officer in the United States Public Health Service for 27 years, it has been my duty and privilege to advance practical treatments and prevention strategies for serious mental illnesses. I am fortunate to be internationally recognized as a founding pioneer of the field of nutritional psychiatry. While nearly all fields of medicine have long recognised the importance of nutrition, psychiatry has only recently realised that adequate intakes of nutrients are critical for fundamental brain function, neuroimmunology, the microbiome and mental health. Unfortunately, many modern diets are deficient in these nutrients and likely to be contributing to the increasing risks of common and debilitating mental illnesses. Common correctible dietary imbalances, especially the intake of essential fatty acids, may contribute to inadequate resilience against mental illnesses including major depression, suicide, aggressive disorders, ADHD, pain and addictions. I have been assessing this question by integrating data from epidemiological, nutrigenomic, basic and clinical science research studies.  I have achieved many of my primary goals of establishing this field within psychiatry, establishing clinical efficacy and developing recommendations for optimal nutrition adopted by professional and Governmental organizations.  

Especially productive has been my involvement with the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, investigating the residual effect of nutritional insufficiencies in pregnancy, on childhood neurodevelopmental outcomes and relevant gene nutritional interactions. This work established net nutritional benefits of fish consumption over risks of trace mercury exposure in pregnancy (Lancet 2007) and impacted international policy regarding dietary advice: (World Health Organization 2010, US Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 and 2015, FDA-Net Effects Document/draft advice, 2014, European Food Standards Agency, 2014).


Depression and anxiety are common and appear to be increasing in frequency. Prevention is obviously the most important aim when studying these disorders. However, to derive preventative measures, first it is important to study the ways in which people become susceptible to the disorders and what factors appear to be preventive. It is then important to determine whether any associations appear to be causal, or whether they can be explained by other features such as social class or childhood circumstances.

Dr Hibbeln is an expert in the ways in which nutrition affects the brain. He will explore the information collected by the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) from the time of pregnancy until the children were aged 26 to determine whether the diets they consumed at different ages had any association with their mental health during their adolescence and early adulthood. From previous studies a prior hypothesis is that fish will have a beneficial (protective) effect. Information concerning possible genetic and epigenetic influences will be used to ascertain whether any associations are likely to be causal. The results will be used to inform the population concerning appropriate diets for different ages.

During his fellowship he will also develop plans for writing a popular book (or series of books) for the lay public. In this way the results of his years of detailed research will be able to have an appropriate impact on the general public in Britain as well as in North America.

CAPT Joseph Hibbeln is hosted by Professor Jean Golding, Population Health Science.

Details of the following talks will be posted in dued course.

1. Nutrition above the neck: Seafood and Dietary Fats in Mental and Neurological Health

2. Vitamin B12-Rich Foods, Methylation in Glutaminergic Neurotransmission and Likelihood of Self-Harm in Adolescence.  

3. Alcohol misuse, addictions and nutritional requirements for neurological health.

4. Impacts of modern diets on vulnerability to pain and pain management.