If you’ve experienced depression, anxiety, or ADD or if you’re just curious about why everyone you know seems to be taking a mental health med these days, you might want to glance at “America’s State of Mind,” a report on our current and incredibly pervasive use of psychiatric drugs. With more than 20% of us medicated in this way, do appreciate that if you’re now in a Starbuck’s, a cubicled office, or a crowded classroom, every fifth person you see is on a psych med.
These drugs are chemicals created to alter your brain chemistry, ideally for the better though sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. We’ve also got to face up to the fact that the real motive in developing these meds was not to benefit mankind, but to enhance the bottom line of the multinational pharmaceutical giants. Once people start on psych meds, most remain on one or more for the rest of their lives, so this is some serious money. Consider the antipsychotic drug Abilify, for example. At $900 a month, with side effects that include obesity and diabetes, you wonder if there isn’t a better way.
Some research shows that virtually all the perpetrators of school shootings were either taking or withdrawing from SSRI antidepressants. The “suicidal thoughts” black box warning on SSRIs when administered to teens should really be expanded to cover homicidal thoughts as well.
Once you get a handle on the vast and steadily increasing population taking psych meds, the billions and billions of dollars involved, you can begin to grasp the real reason nutritional treatments for mental health disorders have been marginalized almost out of existence.
But some doctors are fed up with the drugging of the US mind.
Metabolic imbalance to blame?
That metabolic imbalances might underlie various mental health disorders was first seriously investigated in the 1950s by Abram Hoffer, MD, a Canadian psychiatrist who coined the term orthomolecular psychiatry. The work was continued by pharmacologist Carl Pfeiffer, MD, who with fellow biochemist William J. Walsh, PhD, founded the Pfeiffer Treatment Center (now closed) in suburban Warrenville, IL.
Walsh currently operates the not-for-profit Walsh Research Institute, conducting training seminars for doctors who think there must be a good alternative to placing 20% of Americans on psychiatric meds. By the way, if you click through to the Institute and look very carefully, way in the back of the photo taken of physician attendees you’ll see the smiling faces of Drs. Donigan and Serrato from WholeHealth Chicago. Walsh is not a physician, but his goal is to train physicians to carry on his work.
Walsh is a very clear writer, and his book Nutrient Power: Heal Your Biochemistry and Heal Your Brain is accessible and concise. The book offers no one-size-fits-all solution, like Grain Brain, which posits that eliminating gluten will solve many problems (though I hasten to add that quitting gluten does often help).
70 years of research on nutrients and mental health
I’ll try to summarize what Hofer, Pfeiffer, and now Walsh have been exploring for almost 70 years.
First, although the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists more than 300 psychiatric conditions, it’s the Big Six that receive the most attention: depression/anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, ADD/ADHD, autism, and Alzheimer’s. Fortunately, these six are unrelated to each other. ADD kids aren’t at risk for schizophrenia, people with bipolar for Alzheimer’s, and so forth.
But in the Hofer/Pfeiffer/Walsh research (which has undergone some changes over 70 years), there occur what Walsh calls “repeat offenders.” These are metabolic abnormalities found in patients with the Big Six conditions. The abnormalities are relatively easy to diagnose with blood and urine tests, and because treatment involves primarily over-the-counter nutritional supplements, they’re also relatively easy to treat.
The metabolic abnormalities in people with the Big Six conditions are:
- Copper overload The mineral copper plays an important role in the synthesis of neurotransmitters, especially norepinephrine. When there’s too much copper, there’s a deficiency of dopamine, a situation found in ADD, autism, bipolar disorder, and paranoid schizophrenia. With copper overload, there is also often a deficiency of a second mineral, zinc, and evidence of excessive oxidative stress, measured via urine as elevated levels of chemicals called pyrroles in the body.
- Vitamin B-6 deficiency This vitamin is needed for the brain to synthesize serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, and can be measured via a blood test. Most people who are B-6 deficient also have elevated pyrroles.
- Zinc deficiency is by far the most frequently observed chemical imbalance in the mental health population. 90% of patients with depression, behavioral disorders, ADHD, autism, and schizophrenia exhibit depleted levels of zinc in the blood.
- Methyl/folate imbalances Work with methylation has been Walsh’s major contribution to orthomolecular psychiatry. Patients with a variety of mental health disorders are either “under-methylators” or “over-methylators” and, depending on their status, may respond dramatically well to folic acid, SAMe, or the amino acid methionine. To test for methyl/folate imbalances, doctors measure levels of histamine in the blood. Methylation is needed to clear excess histamine. Therefore, high histamine = low-or-under methylation.
- Oxidative stress is essentially an imbalance between the production of destructive free radicals and the ability of the body to counteract/detoxify their harmful effects through neutralization by (as you’d guess) antioxidants. Walsh maintains that measuring levels of urinary pyrroles is the most effective means of testing for oxidative stress.
- Amino acid disorders Amino acids are compounds (some produced by the body, others not) that combine to make proteins. Amino acids such as tryptophan, tyrosine, and phenylalanine are needed for the brain to manufacture the key neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine.
Other metabolic abnormalities connected to mental health disorders include thyroid problems (both overactive and underactive), food sensitivities, imbalances of fatty acids (too little omega 3 and too much omega 6), episodes of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), and exposure to toxic metals. Psychiatric symptoms can also be caused by illness or drug side effects.
If you or a family member are interested in this nutritional approach to treatment, Walsh’s book is a good place to start. Most of the diagnostic tests I’ve mentioned are covered or partially covered by conventional health insurance. Drs. Donigan and Serrato have attended the Walsh seminars, so if you want to schedule a visit, do so with one of them.
David Edelberg, MD