Are Psychiatric Medications the Answer to Mental Health?
By Jen Donovan
If we assume that we need a medication to fix mental illness, we also assume that the illness is a simple malfunction that only requires a pill to correct. But physiologically speaking, a symptom is simply a demand for change. It is a signal to the body that the current homeostasis needs adjusting. Mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety therefore play an evolutionary purpose: short term, they are signals that something in the brain is imbalanced or inflamed. The problem is that in contemporary society many people become imbalanced and/or inflamed long term and chronic mental illness is the result. But a diagnosis of Anxiety, Depression, Bipolar or OCD does not signify WHY the brain has become imbalanced or inflamed, only that it has. We can see these diagnoses as a “pain signal” from the brain. Inflammation is a necessary biological process that alerts us to injury or illness. The problem is that it becomes chronic and longer term disease can manifest as a result.
While psychiatric medications can certainly be life saving for those in acute distress, they are not the answer to the true problem. This is because they do not address the root cause, they simply put a patch on a leaky tire while driving over a road full of nails. If we do not address the underlying cause of the imbalance or the inflammation, holes will continue to be popped in those tires. We need to clean up the nails on the road and stop the same problem from repeating.
Additionally, Dr. Kelly Brogan in her book “A Mind of Your Own” makes a compelling case for many psychiatric medications ultimately doing more harm than good. She cites several studies showing that medicated people with mental illness actually have worse outcomes than unmedicated people with mental illness. There is evidence that psychiatric medications actually lengthen episodes of depression and hinder recovery. On top of that, there are sometimes dangerous and uncomfortable side effects, potential long term changes to brain chemistry we do not fully understand, and the dreaded withdrawal symptoms when you want to get off of medication.
A root cause approach to mental illness acknowledges that the symptoms are a signal of underlying imbalance and inflammation. In this perspective, medications are unnecessary and potentially damaging except in extreme instances of acute crisis and stabilization needs. A root cause approach recognizes that medication is a “patch” that will not address the deeper cause of the “brain pain” being expressed by symptoms of mental illness.
What are these root causes of mental illness, and how can we begin addressing them through comprehensive lifestyle changes? Here are the five major causes and steps to take to begin healing the indicated imbalances:
1. Blood sugar regulation problems
Your body needs a very narrow window of blood glucose levels in order to thrive. Too low and the body starts to go into shock. Too high and the body becomes overwhelmed. Unfortunately, many people experience what is called “reactive hypoglycemia”, where blood sugar levels jump back and forth from too high to too low, leaving our nervous system in a state of constant anxiety, stress and fatigue. In order to balance your blood sugar and keep your mood steady throughout the day, try the following recommendations:
-Eat your first meal before 10am. Even if you are feeling nauseous or not hungry, try to take a few bites.
-Prioritize protein and fat in your meals, especially for breakfast. Avoid “naked carbs”- always eat carbohydrates with fat and protein. For example, instead of just eating an apple, eat an apple with some almond butter. Always have starchy grains like rice with chicken and butter. If you want something sweet like honey, have it in a bowl of full fat yogurt.
-Try not to go more than 4 hours without eating something, even if it’s just a snack. If you start feeling shaky, irritable, or light headed, you’ve already gone too long without eating.
2. Nutritional deficiencies
A brain starved of nutrition is an anxious and depressed brain. In fact, 20% of our total calorie intake goes to brain function. Additionally, there are key nutrients that our brain needs to run optimally. These include minerals, B vitamins, vitamins A and D, amino acids, and essential fatty acids. To make sure you are getting plenty of these nutrients from foods, most of your meals should be built around the following items:
-Whole food sources of animal proteins (meat, eggs, and seafood), a variety of vegetables, healthy plant fats (primarily olive and coconut oil), fermented foods, unrefined salts, spices, and small amounts of fruit.
-Different people have different tolerance levels for starchier and harder to digest foods such as grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. If you don’t notice a difference in your symptoms on a whole foods diet including these items, pull them out for 4 weeks and assess. Add them back in one by one and see if you can target the effect each has on your system.
-Alcohol and caffeine can create a problem with nutrition absorption and neurotransmitter balance for some people. If you don’t notice a difference in your symptoms on a whole foods diet including these items, pull them out for 4 weeks and assess.
3. Microbiome imbalance
Studies in mice show that the make up of our gut bacteria can change behavior. Researchers have demonstrated this by switching the microbiomes of mice through fecal transplants and seeing behaviors such as anti social and anxious tendencies also switch accordingly. Additionally, the outer membrane of some pathogenic forms of bacteria known as lipopolysaccharides have a toxic effect on the body and the brain, which can cause an inflammatory and therefore psychological or cognitive response.
What are some simple, practical steps you can take to resolve gut issues that may be effecting your brain? It requires the elimination of foods and medications that are notoriously inflaming to the gut lining. Recommended eliminations include:
-Gluten and their cross reactants: all forms of wheat and barley, rye, oats and corn
-Refined sugar and artificial sweeteners (and their over 50 other names you may see on ingredients lists such as maltodextrin, sucralose, aspartame, dextrose, brown rice syrup, agave syrup, etc.)
-Refined seed oils (including canola, soybean, corn, sunflower, and safflower oil)
-Non organic foods (as you can afford) and GMO produce (which generally includes soy, wheat, corn products and other food additives such as modified food starch, hydrolyzed protein, etc.)
-Dairy should be temporarily eliminated (2-4 weeks) and then reintroduced to test for intolerance to both lactose and casein
-Antibiotics (except in a life threatening situation)
-Statins, NSAIDs such as ibuprofen, Tylenol, PPIs and antacids, and birth control pills
4. Thyroid malfunction (generally induced by toxic burden of some type)
Our thyroid is a major part of our endocrine system, which runs our hormone production, metabolism, and other regulatory functions. Unfortunately, hypothyroidism- in which thyroid hormones run low- effect a surprising number of us, even when conventional testing comes back normal, and can be a cause of fatigue, anxiety, and depression.
Low thyroid, although it can be related to many issues, is often triggered by excessive toxic load. Our body’s natural detoxification systems can handle a certain amount of toxic exposure but eventually we become overloaded and our thyroid becomes repressed as a result.
Here are some steps to take to reduce your overall toxic load and improve the function of your thyroid:
-Filter your water. Fluoride and chlorine displace essential minerals in our body and have a neurotoxic effect.
-Change out your cookware and food/water storage containers. Avoid Teflon/non stick, plastic and aluminum (including canned foods), and instead opt for cast iron, stainless steel, ceramic and glass.
-Avoid items with fragrances, flame retardants, parabens, toluene, triclosan, phthalates, lauryl/laureth sulfate, PEG compounds, and other toxic chemicals found in cleaning, hygiene, make up, and other personal care items.
-If you have the resources available, get tested for heavy metals, mold, and other chronic infections
5. Lifestyle stressors
Our sleep and stress levels greatly affect every one of the above 4 factors. We can detoxify our life style, eat the proper nutrients, work to rebalance our gut, etc., but if we are doing it in the context of sleep deprivation and constant fight or flight mode, it may not have the desired effect. Here are some lifestyle factors to promote a relaxed state in the nervous system that can more effectively heal from imbalances and inflammation:
-Get your 7-9 hours of sleep in. No excuses! This is the foundation of all other health practices, which cannot “stick” without a properly rested body. 10p-6a are the optimal hours for the most restful sleep.
-Do belly breathing each morning before getting up. This stimulates the calming part of your nervous system by stretching and activating your diaphragm. Put your hands on your stomach below your belly button to help target the right muscles.
-Get sunlight on your face in the morning for at least 10 minutes or invest in a broad spectrum light for your home.
I recommend Dr. Kelly Brogan’s book “A Mind of Your Own” for a deeper dive into each of these topics. Each of these topics are clearly detailed in their own chapters. Additionally, she has easy to understand suggestions for testing, supplementation, and other recommendations for thyroid and adrenal concerns for those with more complex and difficult to resolve symptoms. I especially appreciated her clear layout of optimal test ranges to help you interpret your own lab results if necessary.
Remember, mental illness diagnoses are simply labels: they give no indication as to WHY our brain is inflamed and imbalanced, causing us distressing symptoms. But there are reasons, and there are root causes for those reasons we can address through disciplined lifestyle changes. We can start with these tools and support the body with what it is truly