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Nutritional Treatments For Mental Health

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD

Posted in Blog, Knowledge Base, M, N Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
23 comments on “Nutritional Treatments For Mental Health
  1. Ingrid J. Walker says:

    I suffer from Fibromyalgia and other methylation deficiency symptoms, as revealed on my 23andME gene map. I have eaten a gluten free diet and taken Folate (5-mthf) and Tyrosine for about 3 years. Each has made a massive difference, but even after reducing my toxin exposure and my stress level, I am still quite ill. Can you give me some suggestion how I can proceed from here? Thanks

  2. Kem says:

    Thank you again for the helpful information.

    I wish this blog was around when I went through my own mental health crisis and thought antidepressants were the cure to all of my problems. It would have saved me a ton of money and heartbreak. I hope anyone reading this and contemplating their own mental health treatment takes your advice to heart.

  3. charmaine decardi says:

    I am a member of NAMI,(National alliance for mental illness) I would like to see your suggestions as protocol for educating anyone seeking help with mental illness. Sure would shed some light on the zillions of drugs these poor people have to experiment with, sometimes for years, before they find one that “works” for them.

  4. Dr E says:

    Hi Ingrid
    Every person’s case is unique so I can only suggest making an appointment with a Walsh trained physician in your area.
    Hi Charmaine
    A good place to start is for someone with a mental illness to get a copy of Dr. Walsh’s book and become familiar with his website. There is a “physician directory” on the site of physicians who have been trained in his protocols.

  5. bill says:

    I recently read that not everyone can use folic acid and that social anxiety can occur in these folks. The author recommended a folate derivative like “methyl folate” for these people. Dr E, are you aware of this work, if it is indeed a body of work? Can Me-folate help social anxiety? thanks!

  6. Gina Pera says:

    Hi Dave,

    You know I am a big fan.

    And that’s why I get concerned when you start to sound like one of the anti-psychiatry conspiracy folks.

    I know 1,000s of people with ADHD who benefit greatly from the stimulant medications (and from other Rx, sometimes, to treat the comorbidities that 75% of adults with ADHD have, perhaps because they are late-diagnosis).

    Their lives literally depend on informed public awareness. And painting these medications as a “Big Pharma” marketing scheme is not helpful.

    I also know many scientists whose life work is refining medications to better help people with psychiatric conditions. Their goal is alleviating suffering. That’s what they studied so hard for, for so many years. And it’s what they work so hard for, for so many years.

    To paint them as simply driven by avarice is not fair, and not true.

    Yes, it’s critically important to look at nutritional deficiencies and the like—something that only a tiny, tiny fraction of prescribing physicians do. It’s a national health crisis, if you ask me.

    But these deficiencies might sometimes be the result of an under-performing dopamine messaging system, and not the cause. For example:


    I’ve also received anecdotal reports of food and respiratory allergies/sensitivities resolving once the person is on stimulant medication.

    There is much we don’t know. So, it seems we should continue to to honor the evidence that these medications can truly be lifesavers and that nutritional deficiencies/abnormalities should be addressed as well. One does not rule out the other.

    Gina Pera

  7. Gina Pera says:

    As for this statement:

    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.

    I don’t know the full facts on this issue; I suspect we’ll never know, because we’ll never have access to treatment records.

    But in my experience this is more an indictment of poor prescribing patterns, especially of unskilled physicians thinking that SSRIs are “harmless”, failing abjectly to realize that prescribing SSRIs to someone with bipolar disorder or even ADHD can be disastrous in some cases. SSRIs can activate mania in bipolar and can exacerbate ADHD symptoms (including mood dysregulation and impulsivity).

  8. Dr E says:

    Hi Bill
    You can try methylfolate but begin with a small dose (available over the counter) 1000 mcg or less. The prescription product, Deplin, is 15 mg., and some people are very sensitive to it and experience such a rapid increase in serotonin that they feel anxious or agitated

  9. Dr E says:

    Hi Gina
    As you know I certainly prescribe both ADD stimulant meds and SSRIs when clinically necessary so I am not completely anti Big Pharma. However, having followed the adventures of Big Pharma’s drug testing policies, hiding data from the FDA (submitting only the ‘positive’ clinical trials and keeping the negative ones under wraps), I’m reluctant so concur that the majority of people in the industry exist to alleviate suffering. One of the reasons what you refer to as ‘poor prescribing habits’ occur is because physicians are flooded by slanted advertising material and besieged by drug reps who are trained to spout only the company sales pitches. Some of the new drugs are so expensive and so hard to sell that now drug rep gets a cash bonus every time a physician on his/her list writes a prescription for the drug he/she is promoting. The result is serious overprescribing of everything, not just ADD and SSRIs, but statins, blood pressure meds, antibiotics and so forth. Some meds–okay, we agree–but 20% of the population on psych meds–that’s too much!

  10. Bill says:

    Thank you!

    I woke up this morning thinking to write you about methylfolate, then here your blog. Amazing!

    So, methylfolate is basically going to increase serotonin?


  11. Gina Pera says:

    Definitely, it’s all too much, Dave. Thanks for your response.

    And notice I said the scientists I know at pharma companies.

    The marketing folks will be with us always, overstepping their binds and overselling their wares in every possible sector of society.

    If physicians are overly influenced by marketing reps, those are physicians I would avoid in the first place.

    With my personal physician, you will never see pharma “bling” in the office and you will never bump into them in the hallway. She simply doesn’t participate.

  12. Lori Miller says:

    I’m dealing with Lyme’s disease and often have white spots on my fingernails, which I’ve read has to do with a zinc deficiency. I also read that if you take zinc you should also take copper.

    So not sure what to do? I’d appreciate your advice.

    thanks so much for these columns. Very helpful! Lori

  13. Dr E says:

    Hi Lori
    Before taking either copper or zinc, just have your doctor test for these. The copper is tested as a substance called ceruloplasmin

  14. WilliamofOrange says:

    Gina Pera, if you were a fan of Dr E then you would know how sterile/impersonal managed care is. It’s one thing to be a clinical on the cutting edge in a teaching hospital, and quite another to be one trying to book as many 15 minute patient appointments in a work day to make ends meet. Another intellectually honest synonym for the words conspiracy and theory being linked together might be critical thinker. A true requirement to get decent Healthcare in this day and age as any sensible person perusing these forums would agree I’m sure. One can learn efficacy rates of psych drugs over time and more importantly drug drug interactions from free unbiased (not for profit/not sponsored) websites reporting 1000’s of patients clinical reactions. Thank God for free media. Let’s all use it as much as we can while we still have it. Thank you for you fortitude Dr E. Keep up the good work!

  15. We are thrilled that Dr. Kristen Donigan is assisting Dr. Walsh in training physicians in the clinical applications of advanced nutrient therapy this week during our Walsh Research Institute Physician Education Workshop, held in Oak Brook, Illinois. 18 patients are being seen by the 42 physicians from across the United States, Australia, Canada, and Europe who are attending the Workshop. Thank you Dr. Donigan for your dedication, and for sharing your expertise and time. – The Walsh Research Institute Team

  16. Gina Pera says:

    Sorry William, you will learn very little indeed from websites reporting patient clinical reactions.

    Your “free media” comes with a host of costs, most of which you do not see.

  17. WilliamofOrange says:

    Sorry Gina, I couldn’t disagree with you more. You sound like you feel you have a monopoly on info…you couldn’t be more wrong. Suffice it to say investigating with cross references is responsible…it’s ignorant to take one person or source of info as absolute, but there are sites with templates for descriptions of side effects with real people/emails behind them. It’s a good thing people don’t have to lobby for their right to investigate 🙂

  18. Gina Pera says:

    I don’t think I have a “monopoly” on info, William. But I certainly cannot agree with this statement from you:

    “One can learn efficacy rates of psych drugs over time and more importantly drug drug interactions from free unbiased (not for profit/not sponsored) websites reporting 1000’s of patients clinical reactions.”

    That might provide one data point. But I’ve seen this attempted, and it is sloppy, at best.

    There are too many other factors—correct (or not) diagnoses, pharmacokinetics/dynamics, dosage, and a host of others.

  19. WilliamofOrange says:

    Sounds bogus to me, like you’re trying to justify your job. People are catching on, preferring integrated medicine from doctors who take their oaths seriously rather than being strung out on the old standby traditional “consulting”.

  20. Kem says:

    This blog post has made a huge difference in my life.

    After reading this blog post back in May, I rushed to the library to borrow Dr. Walsh’s “Nutrient Power.” After reading through it, I discovered that I fit many of the symptoms related to zinc and B6 deficiencies. I then bought the highest quality zinc and B6 supplements I could find (zinc glycinate chelate and vitamin B6 pyridoxal-5-phosphate, for those interested).

    After three weeks of daily supplement usage, my brain fog is gone and my mood is upbeat. This is the most mental clarity I’ve had in a long time. I have so much more motivation and energy now that I’ve started to tackle some personal projects that I had been putting off for literally years.

    Thank you, Dr. Edelberg.

  21. Brent Peterson says:

    3 years ago, blood test revealed no zinc deficiency. 6 months ago, urine test showed big deficiency (w normal cooper levels). I have a lot of the symptoms. What test is best and can zinc levels fluctuate much? Also, do you believe in the tasting zinc assay test? Thx.

  22. Brent says:

    Any relevance to the liquid zinc taste test? If low, supplement for how long with how much? Do levels take long to rise?

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