By Jurriaan Plesman BA(Psych), Post Grad Dip Clin Nutr
NOTE: Crime and punishment is a political hot potato. Ultimately it is the community that will decide whether criminals should be punished or rehabilitated. So far professional counsellors have failed to convince the public that counselling works. One of the possible reasons is explained in this article, which was published in the Hypoglycemic Health Newsletter of June 1990. It is reprinted here with minor alterations. Since that date the NSW Department of Corrective Service has introduced some group rehabilitation programs in the Probation and Parole Service, but the thrust of the argument presented here still stands: the emphasis in rehabilitation is still based on the ‘psychological’ model and generally ignores the biological aspect of human behaviour. It is to be hoped that counsellors of the 21st Century will be trained in clinical nutrition, in addition to their more traditional studies in psychology and sociology.
Although I am retired, I recently rejoined the Probation and Parole Service at the Long Bay Parole Unit as a temporary Officer in a relieving capacity. My major task was to assess prisoners as to their suitability for release to Parole and also I was involved in the classification of prisoners upon their entrance into gaol
I was struck by the fact how little is being done in the ‘rehabilitation’ of prisoners and by the idea of the revolving door of crime. Many prisoners keep on returning to gaol and do not seem to learn from experience. This is despite the ‘professional’ help from psychologists, welfare officers, education officers, drug and alcohol counsellors, and Probation and Parole Officers. This is not to say that these Services are a waste of time; without them the crime rate may even be higher. The cost of keeping an offender in prison is about $305. per day (or $110,000 per year) and about 60 per cent of prisoners return to gaol after after their first offence. Prison Statistics
My frustration is because I view criminal behaviour with a bio-psycho-social model, whereas most professionals engaged in the treatment of criminal behaviour base their approach on the narrower psycho-social model. Briefly this means that I consider that the biological aspect of behaviour to be as important as the psychological or sociological aspects.
In fact, there are many psychologists who believe that you need to treat the biological aspect of human behaviour before considering the psychological aspects. Julia Ross.
I feel the neglect of the biological factor in the ‘science’ of behaviour has contributed to the general failure of professionals in the treatment of criminal behaviour. The mounting recidivism in crime has caused the public’s disillusion with social scientists in solving crime in the community. This disenchantment has now been translated into political reality. The return to old-fashioned retribution and punishment in crime, the downgrading of professional services by the present Government is the result from this failure and short-sightedness. This is typified by the emergence of the present Minister as head of the NSW prison system.
What went wrong?
There was a time when social scientists seem to have all the answers for our social ills. There was an expectation that these professionals founded on the studies of psychology and sociology would be able to care for, diagnose and treat people exhibiting “abnormal” or deviant behaviour. About fifteen years ago the mood changed and the word went around that “nothing works in counselling”; an argument put forward by experts with mountains of statistics to support it. Evidence for this was convincing. This appeared especially to be true in the treatment of drug addiction in which I have a particular interest. The success rate is about 5 per cent, with or without psychological intervention. However all that this debate showed was that ‘counselling alone’ did not work! See also: Psychotherapy Ineffective?
The relation between clinical nutrition and psychological counselling
The bio-psycho-social model of counselling does not exclude the traditional psychological aspects of behaviour, but it predicts that ignorance or disregard of the biological aspect of behaviour is doomed to failure. Similarly, clinical nutrition without psychological intervention often fails because practitioners overlook the effects that a long history of a metabolic disorder has on personality development. Generally, a whole new range of social skills needs to be relearned.
This is clearly demonstrated in the treatment of, for instance, sexual offenders, or violent offenders or compulsive shoplifters. Clinical nutrition can help these offenders overcome their chronic fatigue syndrome and their tendency to act on impulse. But it can’t teach them to re-asses their sexual attitudes, self-image, how to resolve conflict situations or establish satisfying relationships. In most cases neither the psychological nor the nutritional approach alone will help offenders. It is certainly true in the case of drug addiction.
Criminal behaviour related to a metabolic disorder
We will endeavour to explain criminal behaviour from the angle of Clinical Nutrition. Here, we can only use a tiny slice of this new area of knowledge as an example to explain some aspect of criminal behaviour for which no satisfactory answers have been given by social scientists; especially concerning recidivism. (This means the constant tendency towards repetition of criminal behaviour despite previous punishment.)
A recent survey revealed that 73 per cent of the total prison population acknowledged a substance abuse problem of some kind. Perhaps a further percentage of prisoners have psychiatric disorders. We are speaking of a fairly sick prison population.
Also recently, medical research has demonstrated that there is a genetic factor in alcoholism, known by clinical nutritionists for some time. Psychologists do not dispute these facts, but are inclined to interpret this connection in terms of childhood experiences. The bashing alcoholic father is seen as being responsible for the bashing alcoholic son. Mothers of hyperactive children will often try out various parenting strategies in dealing with offspring who do not seem to respond to punishment. They are then said to be ‘inconsistent’ or ‘overprotective’ mothers. Hyperactivity often leads to failure in school, rebellion and then on to drug-addiction of one kind or another.
The truth is there are several studies which show that drug addicts and alcoholics suffer from unstable blood sugar levels, which happen also to be one of the main causes of childhood hyperactivity. (Criminal Behavior and Hypoglycemia and here and here)
We will use these few facts to explain some aspects of criminal behaviour.
Unstable blood sugar levels affect the brain
The brain, although 2 per cent of the total body weight requires about 60 per cent of glucose as its source of energy1. Within the brain cell, glucose is converted to pyruvate, then to acetyl-CoA and then released into energy in the Krebs Cycle. (Image) This is a metabolic pathway (or the Citric Acid Cycle) right inside the mitochondria of the brain cells. At the junction where pyruvate is converted to acetyl-CoA several, vitamins and minerals are needed as co-enzymes: vitamin B1, B2, B3, B5, Vitamin D and the minerals magnesium, manganese, iron and zinc. Two thirds of the total energy locked up in glucose is released at that junction.
Thus this is an important part of the total glucose metabolic pathway. A deficiency of any of these vitamins or minerals will block the release of two thirds of energy to the brain. People with low energy levels to the brain are likely to resort to alcohol as a cheap form of energy. There is substantial evidence that alcoholics and drug addicts are found to be zinc deficient.
Zinc deficiency has been isolated as a major factor in drug-addiction
The causes of zinc deficiency in an individual could be classified under three headings;
1) Deficiency in the food. Zinc is derived from the soil and certain areas in NSW are known to be low in the zinc content of the soil. This may be aggravated by agricultural practices that grow food crops, year in year out, without replacing zinc and other essential minerals into the soil. The solution is to obtain organically grown food.
2) Malabsorption of zinc. Some individuals have problems absorbing zinc either at the gut level or more likely through the membrane of cells. Zinc carrier molecule located within the membrane carry zinc ions into the cell and some individuals may have fewer of these specialized protein molecules because of genetic factors. Some races are known to be zinc deficient – American Indians and Eskimos – and it is suspected that Australian Aborigines are also in this category. Such people on a high Western carbohydrate diet – requiring high levels of zinc – may not obtain the necessary energy. They then resort to alcohol as a cheap source of energy, also requiring zinc for its metabolism.
3) Heavy metal intoxication caused by excess copper, cadmium, mercury, thallium and lead – having similar chemical properties as zinc and located in the same area of the Periodic Table of Elements – enter the regulator sites of enzymes thereby inactivating them. A zinc deficient person is more likely to pick up heavy metals in an attempt to obtain zinc. A heavy metals is like a key that doesn’t fit the lock. Tobacco is high in cadmium. High copper levels have been found among some hyperactive children, probably due to the copper content of soft water from copper piping. Again, hypothyroidism may be at the root of energy production and produce low levels of blood sugar.
Fortunately, there are diagnostic medical tests for the above conditions. Thus far we have looked at energy starvation of the brain at the cellular level. That energy is derived from glucose in the bloodstream. Hence, irregularities in the blood glucose levels can affect behaviour.
Blood sugar levels and violence
Some people have unstable blood sugar levels affecting their behaviour, again partly inherited and partly the result of a faulty diet. If you examine the victim closely one will find that he had the problem from early in his life, long before he began to be addicted to either alcohol or drugs. The path is not necessarily towards addiction or criminal behaviour, but often we detect a pattern of depression, impulsive behaviour, hyperactivity, moodiness, unexplained fatigue, inability to concentrate. It may lead to failure in schools that do not cater for hyperactive children. There is usually a history of allergies, recurrent sniffles and vague illnesses. But let us focus on blood sugar levels and link this to criminal behaviour.
When we consume excess sugar the body will attempt to control the resulting high glucose level by secreting insulin into the blood stream produced by the pancreas. It can result in hyperinsulinism bringing down the blood sugar levels. Thus excess sugar can cause a low blood sugar level. Insulin converts excess glucose into glycogen and stores it in the liver or muscle tissues. No glycogen is stored in the brain, hence it has to get its source from other parts of the body. Or again the oversecretion of insulin by the pancreas could be caused by factors other than overconsumption of sugar. Hypoglycemic dips (sudden drops in blood sugar levels) have been recorded when people come into contact with their allergies. Whichever way, a sudden drop in blood sugar causes the brain to be starved of glucose – its source of energy.
In response, the pituitary gland in the brain sends a message to the adrenal gland to pour adrenaline into the blood stream. Adrenaline is a fast acting hormone – unlike glucagon, a pancreatic hormone normally used to raise glucose levels – which liberates the bonded molecules of glucose contained in glycogen to raise the blood sugar level. The upsurge in glucose feeds the brain with energy again.
However, adrenaline is the fight/flight hormone – the kind of hormone needed in the jungle when we are faced with our deadly enemy. It readies the body for quick action to fight or to flee. This explains the shakes, the trembles, the nervous reaction of a person that has too much adrenaline in his system. It has no appropriate civilized outlet for excess energy locked up in his system.
It also explains the hyperactivity, impulsiveness, extreme mood swings, the alternating feelings of restlessness and exhaustion of the drug addict or alcoholic. He needs a depressant drug (alcohol or drugs) to offset the effects of adrenaline, to make him feel normal again.
However, the consumption of alcohol may raise his blood sugar level too high initially, which results in a sudden drop again – the hypoglycemic dip – followed by the adrenergic reaction. He is full of adrenaline again and ready to fight. This time his brain is inebriated and it can exercise little control over primitive impulses. This is exactly what happens in criminal behaviour.
Many violent offences are committed under the influence of alcohol or drugs beyond the control of the inhibiting part of the brain and often described as being ‘out of character’. Domestic violence usually involves alcoholic consumption by either the husband, the wife or both. Often the offender can’t give a rational explanation of his behaviour and would say he was stupid. How true this is, for part of his brain is out of operation.
There are many other biological reasons for abnormal behaviour which for lack of space can’t be dealt with here. Clinical nutrition aims at rectifying these disorders through appropriate dietary means. See: Silent Disease and Mood disorders
Clinical nutrition; a branch of clinical ecology
Clearly the psycho-analytical approach to criminal behaviour has no place when that behaviour results mainly from a disorder of a physical nature.
In 1990, very little is known about the combined effects of man-made chemicals on the immune system. Sixty thousands of them are now in the environment. A group of clinical ecologists in Australia – including Dr Mark Donohoe, Dr Joachim Fluhrer and Dr Peter Dobie – have found that chemicals are absorbed from foods and the environment at a much higher rate than previously thought, possibly by up to 10 times greater.
It would not be surprising to find that the brain has become the target organ of the twentieth century. These can potentially attack our DNA or genetic make-up. Children under the age of seven have a less developed protective brain barrier and are more vulnerable to these pollutants. This results in all sorts of physical and mental disabilities. Many of them finish up in our gaols.
Lighting and behaviour2
Scientists have known for a long time that deprivation of natural day light can affect behaviour. Studies show that cool-white fluorescent lighting in rooms can cause hyperactivity and aggression, compared to a group of subjects who benefited from full-spectrum fluorescent tubes more closely duplicating natural day light. The body’s ability to absorb calcium was diminished by a lack of ultraviolet light from the sun. Many prisoners are locked up for up to 20 hours in cells lighted with fluorescent tubes. Many prison officers work in similar conditions, which could have disastrous effects when they meet.
The calming effect of pink
It has been shown that pink coloured rooms have a calming effect on behaviour as it tends to reduce muscle tension. Some correctional institutions in America have used “pink rooms” (the pink colour is 620 nanometers) for prisoners prone to exhibit outburst of anger or violence with a great deal of success.
Some doctors and counsellors have taken advantage of this knowledge by having their interviewing rooms specially ‘coloured’ and arranged on principles derived from other studies of ‘environmental psychology’.
This goes to show that behaviour is determined by a multiplicity of factors based not only on psychology or sociology, or even on nutrition but by the total environment of man.
Man’s ability to choose behaviour among alternatives – his free will – is limited by the state of his environment and health. When his environment – including his physical health – is sick he can’t choose and he becomes a recidivist.
Working in the prison environment it is obvious that recidivism – incurable criminal and violent behaviour – points all in the direction of physical disorders.
What is astounding is that the biological aspect of this kind of behaviour is totally ignored, even scorned and ridiculed by so-called professionals concerned with the treatment of criminal behaviour. Clinical nutrition – in conjunction with the psycho-social approach – as a tool in treating behavioural disorders is still banned in our prisons and in our hospitals, in our Community Health Centres and in the Probation and Parole Service. (See Dr Jay Harley) “Drug Rehabilitation Centres”, and other counselling agencies dependent on Government funds ignore clinical ecology: hence their poor performance! It is reaching a point where clients are becoming more aware than their counsellors, patients more aware than their doctors. No doubt, strong opposition to this approach stems from general ignorance and abhorrence of science by social scientists. They generally work in these areas, and most of them are educated in the ‘humanity’ faculties of the universities.
This is one of the major reasons why social science has fallen into disrepute. The present Government on a wave of public impatience can get away with the virtual dismantling of professional support system in the gaols. People have quite understandably lost faith in ‘behavioural scientists’.
Looked at it from a historic point of view, we know that the present trend away from ‘rehabilitation’ and towards ‘discipline’ is equally going to fail. When people are actually hit with this reality a new breed of counsellors will probably emerge, based not on the narrow psycho-social model but rather the bio-psycho-social model.
It will be mandatory for future counsellors not only to be skilled in psychology and sociology, but also in basic biochemistry, clinical ecology and nutrition. Only then can the counselling profession regain the respect of the public, when it can show that “counselling does work!!”