Until now, my favourite mental health book was titled “Healing Without Freud or Prozac: Natural Approaches to Curing Stress, Anxiety and Depression” by David Serban-Schrieber (2004). The author was a psychiatrist who had become frustrated by the two key mainstream approaches to healing mood problems- talking therapy and drug therapy. When I read his book, it made enormous sense to me and it struck me as very sad that we have lost touch with so many basics. If there was one thing that Dr Serban-Schrieber would pick as important to mental health, “it is the nature of your relationships with other people. I have to say that this is so critical. We are highly social animals. That emotional brain is totally tuned in to how we are connected with folks around us, especially those we love and care about - but also how we contribute to our community, whether we are valued by the group as a whole - that emotional brain is extraordinarily sensitive to that.
If the emotional brain is going awry, the whole physical state is going awry as well.”
The book details seven approaches to healing mental illness, all of which use the body as the doorway to transforming mental pain rather than attempting to tinker with brain chemistry or better understand the problem by talking about it. Some will be familiar, such as acupuncture, physical exercise and omega-3 essential fatty acids, while others are less well known- one involves circadian rhythms; another developing "heart rhythm coherence" with biofeedback; a third, a technique known as EMDR, makes use of eye movements. But they are all backed up by research evidence for their effectiveness. Dr Serban-Schreiber replaced his previous approaches of drugs plus talk therapy with these strategies and got better results, after observing how traditional cultures were using them to effectively treat mood disorders.
Twelve years later and another psychiatrist, Kelly Brogan, has gone through an identical process of becoming disillusioned and replacing drugs and talk therapy with whole body healing. It’s a confronting testament to the power of the pharmaceutical and medical industries that in those 12 years, instead of swinging closer to valuing a whole body approach to inflammation as a root cause for mood problems, we have instead continued to prescribe and swallow more and more and more psychiatric medication.
In “A Mind Of Your Own- the truth about depression and how women can heal their
bodies to reclaim their lives” (2016) Dr Kelly Brogan says- “We think (because our doctors think) that we need to “cure” the brain, but in reality we need to look at the whole body’s ecosystem: intestinal health, hormonal interactions, the immune system and auto-immune disorders, blood sugar balance and toxicant exposure. And we need natural evidence-based alternatives to psychiatric medications- treatments that target what’s really awry in our bodies. That means strategic dietary supplementation and non-invasive remedies like light therapy and cranial stimulation, but also smart (ie biologically compatible) food and exercise choices, restful sleep, a detoxed environment and meditation/relaxation practices. The best way to heal our brains is to heal the bodies in which they reside. Or as I also like to put it, free your mind by healing your whole body.”
Dr Brogan’s book is wonderfully mind opening. It opens by ruthlessly obliterating the weak evidence base for our modern anti-depressants. It then explores the ever-expanding evidence base around whole body inflammation affecting brain function. I really like her analogy that anxiety and depression are like the Overheat Guage on our whole-body engines. These mood disorders are shouting out to us that our engines are inflamed and we need to stop and look at what is causing all that overheating. Instead, most of us just keep on barrelling down the highway at full speed, unwittingly causing more overheating.
What I find so satisfying about functional & integrative medicine is that we try so hard to always consider what is overheating people’s engines. Sometimes it is obvious, and sometimes it takes a real detective mission to work it out. And as Dr Brogan says- “Mental health will always be grounded in whole body health. When you discover the real imbalances underlying all your symptoms- physical and mental- and take steps to address them, you can restore your health without resorting to problematic drug treatments and endless psychotherapy.”
Dr. Danielle Stewart