Will New Brain Biochemistry Findings Clear the Murky Waters of Depression?
Why Nutrient Therapy May Be the Answer to Depression
By Dianne E. Price
Reprinted with permission from Brain World (Fall 2014)
Fluoxetine, duloxetine, paroxetine: one pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small and the one that mother gives you doesn’t do anything at all. With depression becoming a half-trillion dollar disease in the U.S., the race to find a cure has been fanatical – and largely, futile. The issue is two-fold: We don’t know how to diagnose depression and we don’t know how to cure it. Though most observers would say that it remains riskier not to prescribe than to prescribe, the effects of clinical decisions gone wrong are jarring:
- May 23, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger went on a Friday night killing spree and murdered six people – and then, himself. Though his pharmaceutical cocktail of choice has not yet been confirmed, his 133-page manifesto included this note: “I will quickly swallow all of the Xanax and Vicodin pills I have left….” He explains that if the bullets don’t kill him, the mixture of pills will.
- In July 2012, James Holmes walked into a midnight showing of a “Batman” movie in Aurora, Colorado and opened fire, killing 12 and wounding 58. The Denver Post reported Holmes was taking generic Zoloft, an SSRI.
- Eric Harris, a 17-year-old gunman and his partner, Dylan Klebold murdered 13 people at their high school in the 1999 Columbine. At the time of the shooting, Harris was taking Luvox. Klebold had taken Zoloft and Paxil.
Determined to prevent future tragedies, William J. Walsh, PhD, has devoted more than three decades of his life to the study of brain biochemistry — or how neurotransmitters and neurobiology — run-amok can lead to mental illness.
With the 2012 publication of his book, Nutrient Power: Heal Your Biochemistry and Heal Your Brain, Walsh predicted the coming of a new age of psychotherapy: “As brain science advances, biochemical therapy may gradually replace psychiatric drugs as the treatment of choice for mental illness.” Two years later, that time has come.
After working with more than 30,000 patients, Walsh has identified specific chemical imbalances that lead to emotional and mental problems. At the May annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, Walsh unveiled what might be a real game-changer: the discovery of five distinct biotypes out of what was once lumped together as “clinical depression”: Undermethylation, Folate Deficiency, Copper Overload, Pyrrole Disorder, and Toxic Metals.
The implications of the bio-nutrient approach to treating depression are significant: fewer medications, potentially huge cost savings to our healthcare system, more job satisfaction for physicians, and true peace of mind for those with depression or anxiety who struggle to live a normal life.
Psychiatrists have used “depression” as a catch-all phrase for “a loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities for more than two weeks” but diagnosing depression has been more of an art – ferreting out a patient’s self-report – than precise science. Playing guessing games with an affliction that could be as innocent as temporary sadness to as threatening as suicide, has wreaked havoc not only on patients, but on psychiatrists and psychologists as well.
“What surprised even me about this work is the really high percentage of people who have a biochemical tendency for depression – 95 percent of the people we studied,” says Dr. Walsh. “That is a huge number – and most importantly, their depression seems to be correctable.”
Walsh’s study brings two important realizations to light. First, that inexpensive blood and urine testing can pinpoint the specific type of depression and hence, the most effective medication – that is, if medication is necessary; and second, that nutrient therapy may be the answer for many who endure depression.
Natalie Sadler, MD, a psychiatrist practicing in Carrboro, North Carolina, believes Walsh’s concept of epigenetics confirms what is already known in other aspects of medicine: “His approach allows people to take control of their lives, making choices about what they eat, and how nutrient imbalances can affect their mental health,” she says. “People are not doomed with bad genes. They can choose to change their body chemistry naturally.”
Though Walsh hopes for the day when brain chemistry and nutrient therapies are included in standard medical school curricula, the Walsh Research Institute in Naperville, Illinois has already trained hundreds of psychiatrists and physicians – some 200 in Australia and others from Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, the Philippines, and Singapore. Walsh hopes to train 1,000 physicians within the next five years.
“A few million women suffer from the debilitating – and sometimes life-threatening – effects of postpartum depression,” said Walsh. “Now, with simple blood tests, we can make a definitive diagnosis of copper overload, and with proper nutrient therapy, restore dopamine levels (the feel good chemical) and decrease norepinephrine (the anxiety/depression chemical), causing new mothers to feel like themselves again.”
So what creates the harmful nutrient imbalances? According to Walsh, a bad diet is not the cause of the problem, but can certainly aggravate it. “Take a kid who is already prone to violence – too much sugar can aggravate that tendency. 95 percent of violent children are low in zinc. We need to give our children nutrient-dense food.”
His discoveries may even have implications for who you should marry, or what you should do if you’ve married the wrong person. “We are an increasingly mobile society. More and more undermethylated people are marrying each other. We know that 98 percent of austistics are undermethylated,” he asserts.
In the case of Walsh’s discovery, one answer spawns a thousand questions. “’What is the beginning?’ ‘What is the actual cause?’ ‘How much is genetic?’ ‘How much is epigenetic?’ We know that over many centuries, people from different geographic areas have adapted physically to their environments. In terms of methylation, we know that some 52 percent of all Italians have an MTHFR mutation (methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase), a gene that processes amino acids; which less than 5 percent of Africans share.
“I feel like the guy who discovered King Tut’s tomb,” said Walsh. “It looks like a whole new world – and I can see a beautiful future ahead. The time will come when every newborn baby will be tested for abnormal epigenetics and nutrient balance. We will be able to identify problems early, and head them off at the pass.”
According to Dr. William J. Walsh
Undermethylated depression arises from low activity at serotonin receptors due to rapid re-absorption after serotonin is released into a synapse. This occurred in 38 percent of the patients studied and is not serotonin deficiency, but an inability to retain the serotonin in the synapse for a necessary amount of time. Patients usually report excellent improvement in mood with SSRIs, but for some serious side effects such as headache or loss of libido can occur. Nutrient therapy should avoid folates, but use SAMe, methionine. Other nutrients such as zinc, serine, inositol, calcium-magnesium and vitamins A, B6, C, D and E can be supplemented as needed. Symptoms and traits: Strong willed, tendency toward obsessive-compulsive disorder, calm exterior with high inner tension, competitive and perfectionistic, addictive tendencies, high libido and more than 75 percent exhibit seasonal allergies.
High copper depression is marked by extreme levels of copper in the blood and brain, causing a dopamine deficiency and norepinephrine overload. Increased copper retention is necessary to rapidly produce capillaries and blood vessels for the growing fetus, and some mothers are unable to eliminate the excess copper. Walsh suspects that postpartum depression is usually caused by copper overload. Seventeen percent of the depression patients in the study fit this category. Most reported little effect from taking SSRIs, but gained relief from embarking on nutrient therapy to normalize levels of copper.
Symptoms and traits: More than 95 percent female with onset during hormonal event, high anxiety, tendency to panic, estrogen intolerance, tinnitus, sensitive skin, intolerance to cheap metals.
Pyroluric depression occurs when serotonin production is impaired and there is a high level of oxidative stress. The production of pyrroles/ hydroxyhemopyrrolin can increase with stress, which in turn decreases zinc and B6 – nutrients that are essential for the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin (our happy hormone), melatonin (our sleep hormone), GABA (our relaxation hormone), and acetylcholine which is important for memory. SSRIs were advantageous for the 15 percent of the patients with pyroluric depression. Nutrient therapy includes normalizing B6 and zinc, adding antioxidants and augmenting with biotin and primrose oil.
Symptoms and traits: Severe mood swings, extreme anxiety and fears, poor short-term memory and reading disorders, little to no dream recall, sensitivity to light and noise, abnormal fat distribution.
Low-folate depression is of critical importance in that most of the shooters in some 50 school shootings over the past five decades likely had this type of depression, according to Walsh. For these patients, taking SSRIs can lead to suicidal or homicide ideation. Nutrient therapy using folic acid and vitamin B12 supplements helped patients in the study. For some, anti-anxiety drugs (benzodiazepines) such as Xanax, Valium, Klonopin and Ativan were also beneficial. Twenty percent of the patients in Walsh’s study fell into this category.
Symptoms and traits: High tendency for anxiety and panic, non-competitive in sports and games, food and chemical sensitivities, high musical or artistic ability, underachievement, sleep disorders, absence of inhalant allergies, low libido, tend to be “people persons,” constantly talking.
Toxic metal depression is caused by toxic-metal overload—usually lead poisoning. The removal of lead from paint and gasoline has lowered the frequency of these cases. Walsh estimates that about 5 percent of depressed patients fall into this category. Nutrient therapy concentrates on zinc, glutathione, selenium and other antioxidants – and calcium in the special case of lead poisoning. In severe cases, hospitalization and chelation may be necessary.
Symptoms and traits: Unrelenting depression, abdominal distress, tendency toward irritability and/or anger, absence of trauma or emotional triggers, food sensitivities, metallic taste in mouth, bad breath.