When I talk about medicine and mental health to large audiences, I often start with the following imagery and facts: think of a woman you know who is radiantly healthy. I bet your intuition tells you she sleeps and eats well, finds purpose in her life, is active and fit, and finds time to relax and enjoy the company of others. I doubt you envision her waking up to prescription bottles, buoying her way through the day with caffeine and sugar, feeling anxious and isolated, and drinking herself to sleep at night. All of us have an intuitive sense of what health is, but many of us have lost the roadmap to optimal health, especially the kind of health that springs forth when we simply clear a path for it. The fact that one in four American women in the prime of their life are dispensed medication for a mental health condition represents a national crisis.
Humans have used mind-altering substances to try to dull and deaden pain, misery, sorrow, and suffering since time immemorial, but only in the last few decades have people been persuaded that depression is a disease and that chemical antidepressants are the remedy. This is far from the truth. Many of my patients have been to multiple doctors, bumping up against the hard ceiling of what conventional medicine has to offer. Some have even tried integrative medicine, which aims to combine both traditional medicines (i.e. prescriptions) with alternative treatments (e.g. acupuncture). After all, they are told that there are great natural complements to all the wonders pharmaceutical products have to offer. But the reason they can’t find a solution is because nobody has asked why. Why are they unwell? Why are their bodies creating symptoms that manifest as depression? Why didn’t they stop to ask this important and obvious question the first time they experienced a flat mood, anxiety, insomnia, and chronic exhaustion?
Before I even get to the answers, let me be the first to tell you that the only path to a real solution is to leave the medical world you know behind. This, the journey I will take you on, is not just about symptom suppression, it’s about health freedom. First let me tell you that I was once a typical doctor, not to mention a typical American who loved pizza, soda, birth control, and ibuprofen. My message is from a personal journey and thousands of hours of research that has compelled me to share the truth about prescription-based care: we’ve been duped.
Yes, my entire training was based on a model of disease care that offers patients only one tool – a drug – and never a shot at true wellness. We’ve handed over our health to those who seek to profit from it, and we’ve been buying into a paradigm based on the following notions:
- We are broken.
- Fear is an appropriate response to symptoms.
- We need chemicals to feel better.
- Doctors know what they are doing.
- The body is a machine requiring calibration (via drugs). A little too much of this, too little of that.
I call this collective set of notions the Western Medical Illusion. It sets up a vicious system that ushers you into lifelong customer status, dependent and disempowered.
As you can likely guess by now, I love to rant. But I do so with the best evidence science can offer, and there’s a lot we know today about the real root cause of depression – and how to treat the condition safely and successfully – without a prescription pad. If there’s one lesson I will drive home, it’s this: shed the fear, take back your inner compass, and embrace a commitment to your best self, medication free. Even if you don’t already take a prescription drug, I bet you still doubt living the rest of your life prescription free and reliant on your own inner intuition to know what’s best for you. The idea of supporting your body’s innate wisdom may sound quaint at best or like dangerous hippie woo-woo at worst. From now on, I want you to embrace these new ideas:
- Prevention is possible.
- Medication treatment comes at a steep cost.
- Optimal health is not possible through medication.
- Your health is under your control.
- Working with lifestyle medicine – simple everyday habits that don’t entail drugs – is a safe and effective way to send the body a signal of safety.
How can I make these statements, and what do I mean by life-style medicine? I’ll be presenting scientific proof. When I first meet with a woman and her family, I speak about how to reverse her anxiety, depression, mania, and even psychosis. We map out the timeline that brought her where she is and identify triggers that often fall under one or more of the following categories: food intolerances or sensitivities, blood sugar imbalances, chemical exposures, and thyroid dysfunction, and nutrient deficiency. I forge a partnership with my patient and witness dramatic relief within thirty days. I do this by teaching my patients how they can make simple shifts in their daily habits, starting with the diet. They increase nutrient density, eliminate inflammatory foods, balance blood sugar, and bring themselves closer to food in its ancestral state. It’s the most powerful way to move the needle because food is not just fuel. It is information (literally: “it puts the form into your body”), and its potential for healing is a wonder to me every single day.
Achieving radical wellness takes sending the body the right information and protecting it from aggressive assault. This isn’t just about mental health; it’s about how mental health is a manifestation of all that your body is experiencing and your mind’s interpretation of its own safety and power. It’s also about how symptoms are only the visible rough edges of a gigantic submerged iceberg.
Not that none of these concepts connects with substances in the brain that might be “low.” If you had to define depression right now, before reading further, chances are you’d say something about it being a “mood disorder” or “mental illness” triggered by a chemical imbalance in the brain that probably needs to be fixed through medications like Prozac or Zoloft that will lift levels of brain chemicals associated with a good mood. But you would be mistaken.
So many patients today who are being shepherded into the psychiatric medication mill are overdiagnosed, misdiagnosed, or mistreated. Indeed, they have “brain fog,” changes in metabolism, insomnia, agitation, and anxiety, but for reasons only loosely related to their brain chemicals. They have all the symptoms that are mentioned in a Cymbalta advertisement that tells them to talk to their doctor to see if Cymbalta is right for them. But it’s like putting a bandage over a splinter in the skin that continues to stir inflammation and pain. It’s absolutely missing an opportunity to remove the splinter and resolves the problem from the sources. And it’s an iconic example of how conventional medicine can make grave mistakes, something the pharmaceutical industry is more than happy to encourage.
In holistic medicine, there are no specialties. It’s all connected. Here’s a classic case in point: Eva had been taking antidepressants for two years but wanted to get off it because she was planning to get pregnant. Her doctor advised her not to stop taking the drug, which motivated her to see me. Eva explained that her saga had begun with PMS, featuring a week each month was she was irritable and prone to crying fits. Her doctor prescribed a birth control pill (a common treatment) and soon Eva was feeling even worse, with insomnia, fatigue, low libido, and generally flat mood dogging her all month long. That’s when the doctor added the Wellbutrin to “pick her up,” as he said, and handle her presumed depression. From Eva’s perspective, she felt that the antidepressant helped her energy level, but it had limited benefits in terms of her mood and libido. And if she took it after midnight, her insomnia was exacerbated. She soon became accustomed to feeling stable but suboptimal, and she was convinced that the medication was keeping her afloat.
The good news for Eva was that with careful preparation, she could leave medication behind – and restore her energy, her equilibrium, and her sense of control over her emotions. Step one consisted of some basic diet and exercise changes along with better stress response strategies. Step two involved stopping birth control pills and then checking her hormone levels. Just before her period, she had low cortisol and progesterone, which were likely the cause of the PMS that had started her whole problem. Further testing revealed borderline low thyroid function, which may well have been the result of the contraceptives – and the cause of her increased depressive symptoms.
When Eva was ready to begin tapering off the medication, she did so following my protocol. Even as her brain and body adjusted to not have the antidepressant surging through her system anymore, her energy levels improved, her sleep problems resolved, and her anxiety lifted. Within a year she was healthy, no longer taking any prescriptions, feeling good – and pregnant.
I require my patients, and I implore you to think differently about health-care decisions and consumerism. Part of my motivation in writing about depression was to help you develop a new watching, questioning eye that you can bring to every experience. For my patients to be well, I know that they will need to approach their health to an extreme commitment to the integrity of their mind and body. Personally, I have no intention of ever returning to a lifestyle that involves pharmaceutical products of any kind, under any circumstances.
Because we are looking at the body as an intricately woven spider web – when you yank out one area of it, the whole thing moves. And because there is a more powerful way to heal.
It’s so simple that it can be considered an act of revolution.
You might think of yourself as adverse to conflict – someone who wants to keep the peace, keep your head low, and do what’s recommended. To be healthy in today’s world. However, you need to access and cultivate a reliance on yourself. And you’re going to do that by first shifting your perspective forever. Look behind the curtain and understand that medicine is not what you think it is. Drug-based medicine makes you sick. I will go so far as to say that hospital care makes you sick; though estimates vary, it’s reasonable to say that hospital care claims tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives annually due to preventable medical mistakes such as wrong diagnoses and medications or surgical errors, infections, and simply screwing up an IV.
The Cochrane Collaboration, a London-based network of more than 31,000 researchers from more than 130,000 countries, conducts the world’s most thorough independent analysis of health-care research. Based on the data from the British Medical Journal, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and the Centers for Disease Control, it has found that prescription drugs are the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer. And when it comes to psychotropic drugs, the Cochrane Collaboration’s conclusions are compellingly uncomfortable. In the words of the Collaboration’s founder, Dr. Peter Gotzsche, “Our citizens would be far better off if we removed all the psychotropic drugs from the market, as doctors are unable to handle them. It is inescapable that their availability creates more harm than good.
By and large, doctors are not bad people. They are smart individuals who work heard, investing money, blood, sweat, and tears into their training. But where do doctors get their information? Whom are they told to trust? Have you ever wondered who’s pulling the strings? Some of us in the medical community are beginning to speak up and to exposed the fact that our training and education is, for the most part, bought.
“Unfortunately in the balance between benefits and risks, it is an uncomfortable truth that most drugs do not work in most patients.” Before I read this quote in the prestigious British Medical Journal in 2013, I had already begun to explore the evidence that there really isn’t much evidence to support the efficacy of most medications and medical interventions, particularly in psychiatry, where suppressed data and industry-funded and ghostwritten papers hide the truth. Another 2013 study published in the equally respected Mayo Clinic Proceedings confirmed that a whopping 40 percent of current medical practice should be thrown out. Unfortunately, it takes an average of seventeen years for the data that exposes inefficacy and/or a signal to harm to trickle down into your doctor’s daily routine, a time lag problem that makes medicine’s standard of care evidence-based only in theory and not in practice. Dr. Richard Horton, the editor in chief of the much-revered Lancet at this writing, has broken rank and come forward about what he really thinks of the published research – that it’s unreliable at best, if not completely false. In a 2015 published statement, he wrote: “The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness.”
In 2011 the British Medical Journal performed a general analysis of some 2,500 common medical treatments. The goal was to determine which ones are supported by sufficient reliable evidence. The results:
- 13 percent were found to be beneficial
- 23 percent were likely to be beneficial
- 8 percent were as likely to be harmful as beneficial
- 6 percent were unlikely to be beneficial
- 4 percent were likely to be harmful or ineffective
The treatments in the remaining 46 percent, the largest category, were found to be unknown in their effectiveness. Put simply, when you visit a doctor or a hospital, you have only a 36 percent chance that you’ll receive a treatment that has been scientifically proven to be either beneficial or likely to be beneficial. Such results are strikingly similar to those of Dr. Brian Berman, who analyzed completed Cochrane reviews of conventional medical practices, finding that 38 percent of treatments were positive and 62 percent were negative or showed “no evidence of effect.”
Are these exceptions? I would like to argue that they aren’t. This is because the whole pharmaceutical approach is predicated on wrong-headed information. Pharmaceutical products as we know them have not been developed or studied with modern science’s most relevant principals in mind, such as the complexity and power of the human microbiome, the impact of low-dose toxic exposures, autoimmune disorders as a sign of environmental biochemistry. Because medicine operates under the now antiquated one gene, one illness, one pill rubric, efficacy will be measured through a skewed lens, and safety cannot be accurately assessed or discussed with individual patients.
Many of us move through life with a sneaking fear that the other health shoe could drop at any moment. We can easily fall prey to the belief that our breasts are ticking time bombs that infections are just a cough or handshake away and that life is a process of adding more medications and drugs to put out small fires as we age. Before I stopped prescribing, I had never once cured a patient. Now people are cured every week in my practice. As I mentioned, my patients are my partners. We collaborate, and they work hard. They work hard at a time when they can’t lift a finger – when the prospect of walking to the corner drugstore with a slip of paper twinkles like the North Star in their dark sky. They follow my lead because they feel inspired by my conviction and hope in this new model – one that asks the question “Why?” and has the goal of not only symptom relief but an incredible boost in their vitality.
Excerpted with permission from the book, “A Mind of My Own,” by Kelley Brogan, M.D.
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KELLY BROGAN studied cognitive neuroscience at MIT before receiving her MD from Weill Cornell Medical College. Board certified in psychiatry, psychosomatic medicine, and integrative medicine, she is one of the only doctors in the nation with these qualifications. She is the author of the best-selling book, A Mind of Your Own: What Women Can Do About Depression That Medication Can’t. She practices in Manhattan and is the mother of two young daughters. Check out her website.