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Violence, Sociopathic Behavior, Juvenile Delinquency,
Criminality: the metals toxicity & nutritional connection

Toxic Metals and Criminality
By Jack Challem

Some 30 years ago when Bill Walsh, Ph.D., was working as a scientist at Argonne National Laboratory and doing volunteer work at Stateville Prison in Illinois, he asked himself: Why would one brother become a law-abiding citizen and the other a lifelong criminal?

People have asked themselves the same question for thousands of years, going back at least to the biblical story of Cain and Abel. "I had always believed people were the result of their life experiences," says Walsh. "But in working with prisoners and their families, I found 'Brady Bunch' families with a criminal son."

The contradiction sent Walsh on a journey that, synchronistically, led him to Carl Pfeiffer, M.D., Ph.D., a nutritionally oriented physician. Pfeiffer understood how levels of essential and toxic metals could affect behavior, and he suggested that Walsh, an analytical chemist, was well suited to further investigate the problem.

In the 1970s, with other Argonne scientists and state-of-the-art analytical equipment, Walsh studied mineral levels in the hair of 24 pairs of brothers. In each case, one brother was "good" and the other was a "boy from hell." Mineral levels in the hair, explains Walsh, reflect those of the rest of the body.

The results stunned him. The good-natured boys had normal mineral levels, but the delinquents had two distinctive mineral patterns: One pattern consisted of very high copper and very low zinc, sodium and potassium; the other consisted of very low zinc and copper, and very high sodium and potassium. Most of the troublemakers also had lead and cadmium levels three times higher than those of their well-behaved brothers.

Walsh found the same mineral patterns in a group of 192 adults, half incarcerated criminals and half law-abiding adults. He also found specific behavioral traits that matched each mineral pattern. People with the first pattern would repeatedly lose their temper "like a volcano going off," and later feel remorse. People with the second mineral pattern never seemed to have a good day, were mean and cruel, oppositionally defiant, had no remorse and would have been described as sociopathic.

Mineral Metabolism Disorder

"It turned out that the violent kids were born with a metal metabolism disorder, an inability to properly manage trace minerals," explains Walsh. "This disorder is related to poor metallo-thionein activity in the gut." Metallothionein, a protein needed for the absorption of zinc, also plays key roles in detoxifying hazardous metals, such as lead and cadmium. Often, metallo-thionein levels can be boosted with supplemental zinc and other minerals.

In 1983, Walsh founded the Health Research Institute as a nonprofit corporation, and left Argonne five years later to pursue his newfound passion full time. Today, the complex, located in Naperville, Ill., consists of the research institute, the Pfeiffer Treatment Center and a compounding pharmacy for patients. The staff includes three physicians and eight nurses. Walsh is the center's chief scientist.

Walsh can tell stories that would make a Stephen King novel seem tame. Over the years, he has conducted hair mineral analysis of 28 serial killers and mass murderers, including Charles Manson. All of them fell into the two abnormal mineral patterns, with lead and cadmium levels typically being elevated. Manson had one of the most extreme mineral patterns among the 14,000 patients in the center's database. "Manson always blamed his behavior on how he grew up," says Walsh. "But based on the mineral analysis, he would have been that way regardless of how he was brought up."

The overall focus of the Health Research Institute and Pfeiffer Treatment Center, however, is on treating less chilling behavioral disorders in children and adults. The center works with patients who have violent and delinquent behavior, attention-deficit disorder, autism, depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Interestingly, some well-known but temperamental professional sports figures have also been treated here.

In a recent study, not yet published, Walsh analyzed 207 consecutive (i.e., random) patients diagnosed with behavioral disorders, including temper tantrums, destructive behavior and assaults, all of whom were treated nutritionally at the Pfeiffer Treatment Center. Of the assaultive patients who followed their prescribed diet and took supplements, 92% showed improvement and 58% completely eliminated this type of behavior. Similarly, 80% of destructive patients improved, 53% completely. Of those patients displaying verbal outbursts, 92% got better, with 11% completely eliminating this type of behavior.

Prison Studies With Diet and Vitamins

Like Walsh, Stephen J. Schoenthaler, Ph.D., a sociology professor at the Stanislaus campus of California State University, near Turlock, has also found a powerful link between nutrients and behavior. Twenty years of studies have made Schoenthaler, originally a skeptic, a believer in the benefits of nutrition and supplements. His conclusion: "People should be held responsible for what they eat, just like they are held responsible for when they drink and drive."

Schoenthaler and his colleagues have studied nutrition and behavior at juvenile and adult correctional facilities and in public schools. Sometimes the results have been startling. For example, one study of juvenile delinquents and adult felons in five states found that the "offenders with the worst behavior consumed the least vitamins and minerals." In California prisons, convicts with up to four nutritional deficiencies were 50% more likely to be involved in serious violent incidents, and those with five to nine nutrient deficiencies were 90% more likely to be involved in such incidents.

In a study of 8,000 teenagers at nine juvenile correctional facilities, Schoenthaler arranged to have diets high in sugar and other refined carbohydrates replaced with diets high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The change was attributed to budget cuts, so inmates did not realize they were in an experiment. During the year in which diets were changed, violent and anti-social incidents in the institutions decreased by almost half.

In the 1980s, Schoenthaler was involved in a study that changed the nutritional content of school lunches served to 1.1 million New York City public school students. In just one year, a more wholesome diet led to a 16% increase in academic performance and a 41% decrease in the number of learning-disabled children.

Schoenthaler has achieved similar results simply by adding a common daily multivitamin/mineral supplement to the diets of delinquents, adult felons and ordinary elementary school children. In one investigation, people receiving a multivitamin/mineral supplement displayed less anti-social or violent behavior, compared with those receiving a placebo. "The most common vitamins found to be low among children whose conduct and academic performance improved after nutritional intervention are vitamins B6 and C, folic acid, thiamine and niacin," he says.

How have prison authorities responded to Schoenthaler's research? At one institution, switching from processed to natural foods reduced the food budget by 39%. But sometimes good news can be embarrassing. In Alabama, dietary improvements at a juvenile facility led to impressive reductions in anti-social behavior. "But the authorities didn't like the findings because it showed that they had been previously warehousing kids, not rehabilitating them," Schoenthaler explained at the 15th International Conference on Human Functioning, held last fall in Wichita, Kan.

The Role of Food Allergies

When working with juvenile patients, psychiatrist Priscilla Slagle, M.D., of Palm Springs, Calif., sees irritability, anger and aggressiveness as common signs of food allergies. Slagle, author of The Way Up From Down (Random House, 1987), a classic book on how nutrition can improve depression, points out that people are often addicted to the same foods they are allergic to. People can self-test themselves simply by avoiding suspect foods, such as wheat or dairy, for a couple of weeks and seeing if they feel better.

"I would also look at the overall quality of the diet, as well as evaluating for allergies, and for signs of blood sugar instability," explains Slagle. "Because patient compliance is often an issue with teenagers, it may be easier for them to take supplements than to change the diet." Among the supplements that might be helpful: B complex, calcium/magnesium and 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan).

For the average stressed-out person-not a delinquent or criminal-Slagle advises limiting caffeine intake to one serving daily, and cutting out sugar, white-flour food products and alcohol for three to four weeks-"just to see if these changes make a difference."

Think Zinc

Nutritional deficiencies, mineral-metabolism disorders and food allergies may all be at play in delinquent and criminal behavior. But it's hard not to be drawn back to Walsh's elegant research on mineral imbalances and deficiencies. While it may not be fair to make a sweeping generalization, zinc levels seem to be consistently low among habitual criminals. The body needs zinc to make four metallothionein compounds, which play crucial roles in brain maturation during infancy and in protecting against brain-damaging metals, such as lead and cadmium.

In his most recent finding, Walsh found that children with autism have very high copper levels relative to zinc. He says that such a ratio reflects poor metallothionein function that, during infancy, would increase susceptibility to lead, cadmium and even mercury poisoning. The idea is intriguing, and it might explain why infant vaccinations have sometimes triggered autism, says Walsh. Mercury is used to preserve vaccines.

The bottom line in all this: Bad behavior-and a mean streak-may be more the result of mean minerals than mean streets. Looking to the future, Walsh believes that measuring mineral patterns in children might identify those at risk of becoming delinquents and criminals-at a time when dietary changes can be easily made.

Cases from the File

Bill Walsh, Ph.D., of the Pfeiffer Treatment Center in Naperville, Ill., says that each patient is prescribed an individually tailored diet and supplement program. Because of this, we've avoided indicating the specifics because they might not be suited to everyone.

Michael, 15 years old, had been incarcerated in an East Coast residential facility for violent behavior. Reluctantly, officials allowed him to receive an individualized multivitamin/mineral supplement program from the Pfeiffer Treatment Center. After one month on the program, he felt better, more athletic and less violent. By the second month he was symptom-free, and was released after one more month.

Cory, 5 years old, the son of a convict, was verbally abusive and threatened to burn his mother's hand and chop off her head. Tests indicated numerous nutritional deficiencies and imbalances, including an inborn defect in zinc and vitamin-B6 metabolism called pyroluria. After treatment with individually tailored vitamin and mineral supplements, he became more loving, contemplative and better able to deal with stressful situations.

Albert, at age 3, was killing hamsters and a year later, killed the family's pet cat. He hit his sister in the face with a brick and threatened to kill his mother. After taking vitamin and mineral supplements for 10 months, he was doing exceptionally well at school, was accepted into the scouts and had no behavioral problems.

Ludwig von Beethoven wasn't a criminal, but the 18th-century composer did suffer a variety of health problems. Some researchers believed these health problems were the result of mercury treatments for venereal disease. Last year, Walsh analyzed minerals in a lock of Beethoven's hair. It contained extraordinarily high levels of lead, which suggests that mercury treatments created a susceptibility to lead poisoning.

Selected References

The Pfeiffer Treatment Center, www.hriptc.org and Priscilla Slagle, M.D., www.thewayup.com

Schoenthaler, SJ "Effect of Nutrition on Crime, Intelligence, Academic Performance and Brain Function" Presented at the 15th International Conference on Human Function, Sept. 22-24, 2000, Wichita, Kan.

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