Ask someone about the cause of depression and chances are their reply will include the words ‘chemical imbalance’, or ‘serotonin deficiency’. Because of this widely held belief, the taking of antidepressant medications to fix the problem appears to be the most obvious solution. Yes, medication may offer some relief, but it will not cure you and it definitely won’t get to the bottom of why you are depressed in the first place.
New York based psychiatrist Dr Kelly Brogan put down her prescription pad years ago after coming to the realisation that nutrition and lifestyle interventions were a far more powerful treatment for depression than medication. She is the author of “A mind of your own”, in which she shares with her readers the truth about depression and debunks the serotonin theory. Her book details natural protocols for helping women to heal their bodies and reclaim their lives.
Dr Brogan explains that depression is your body’s way of getting your attention. It is trying to let you know that something isn’t right, that it is struggling. She uses this example, “If you had a piece of glass in your foot, would you put a bandage over it and take a pain-killer in the hope that it will stop hurting and get better? No, of course not. Likewise, taking antidepressants takes away the opportunity to remove the glass and resolve the problem at its source. “
She encourages her patients to view depression as an invitation to take back control. This often entails significant changes to their diet and lifestyle, but for those prepared to take responsibility and who put in the effort, the needle moves quickly and dramatically. In her experience, nutrition is the absolute game changer. With our Western diets, we have strayed far off the path. There is now a mismatch between the evolution of our genes and our lifestyles. The increased consumption of inflammatory foods such as gluten, artificial sweeteners, processed carbs, refined sugar, GMO’s, soy, corn and dairy and to some extent caffeine and alcohol, has created the perfect storm for the rise of ill-health in modern society.
To make matters worse, we don’t sleep enough, we don’t move enough, our stress management is poor and our environment is toxic. Did you know that even a short course of antibiotics can disrupt the gut microbiome (your gut flora) for up to a year or more? No longer can one dispute the role all these factors play in causing inflammation, which is at the root of chronic disease as well as mental health disorders. Inflammation predominantly comes from the gut, therefore to heal depression, one needs to heal the gut. The good news is that we can largely do that with food.
“My clinical success rates are so high because I recognize that depression is a symptom, not a disease, and I treat the cause: inflammation.” – Dr Kelly Brogan
Balancing blood sugar is another critically important step towards healing. Dr Brogan explains that sugar impacts our brain in 3 ways. Firstly, sugar spikes insulin and harms our gut microbiome, causing inflammation. Secondly, sugar upsets hormonal balance by increasing cortisol levels and disrupting the balance of sex hormones. Finally, sugar damages cell membranes and blood vessels. These 3 factors can all lead to depression. Artificial sweeteners like aspartame are just as bad as they also confuse hormones and change the microbiome.
Dr Brogan believes that basic lifestyle interventions can facilitate the body’s powerful ability to heal itself. She recommends an Ancestral/Paleo style diet that includes liberal amounts of healthy fats like coconut oil, ghee and avocado, nuts, seeds and berries, quality sourced animal proteins as well as large quantities of leafy greens and cruciferous veggies. Red meat features prominently. In a study entitled Red Meat Consumption and Mood and Anxiety Disorders, researchers found that those who ate less than 3-4 servings of beef or lamb a week were twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression and/or anxiety.
Her protocol excludes dairy, sugar, gluten and alcohol. After the initial 30 days, which has to be strict – no exceptions and no excuses – she advocates the introduction of starchy veggies like sweet potato, carrots and butternut. In her experience, women tend to do better when they don’t overly restrict carbohydrates for too long. Another dietary addition that is made after the first 30 days is resistant starch (a prebiotic fibre) that feeds the good gut flora. Resistant starch can be found in boiled and cooled white potatoes, green bananas and potato starch powder. She has found that the inclusion of some healthy carbs keeps the thyroid gland and hormones happy and surprisingly can actually help to balance blood sugar.
B vitamins, curcumin (the active ingredient in turmeric) and probiotic supplements also form part of her treatment plan as does fermented foods like sauerkraut and coconut kefir. Environmental toxins like the chemicals found in cosmetics and household cleaners must be minimised and where possible eliminated. Sleep, movement, exposure to natural sunlight and behavioural techniques (like meditation or breathing exercises) aimed at promoting relaxation are immensely important as well.
Another myth that Dr Brogan debunks, is that antidepressants offer real benefit. There is compelling science that suggests that if these medications do, in fact, relieve depression and anxiety, it is most likely because of the placebo effect. Evaluation of published and unpublished data, in two meta-analysis, demonstrated a non-clinically significant difference between placebo and antidepressants. She says that, “a placebo effect doesn’t mean that you were fooled or tricked. It doesn’t mean you’re making it up or that you’re gullible. It means that a complex physiologic cascade of events was kicked off by your experience of taking a pill with the promise of relief.”
Millions of people all over the word take antidepressants, despite the fact that long-term studies have repeatedly shown that antidepressants worsen the course of mental illness. Unfortunately, what is often not spoken about are the real risks involved. Liver damage, weight gain, emotional numbness, suicidal thoughts and sexual dysfunction are but a few of the known side effects.
According to Dr Brogan, there is a better and more effective way to find healing. A way she says that “first does no harm”. When patients come to her wanting to get off their antidepressants she requires them to make the necessary changes to their diet and lifestyle. Once they have built up their resilience and begun to heal, she will then take them through a very careful weaning off process. Stopping meds abruptly is very dangerous and should never be attempted without medical supervision.
A simple first step towards improved mental health is to change your breakfast. Cereals and toast are not doing your blood sugar, brain or gut any favours. Here is the recipe for Dr Kelly Brogan’s breakfast smoothie loaded with healthy fats, protein, and antioxidants.
Breakfast Smoothie Recipe
- 1/2 a cup of frozen organic cherries (or other berries)
- 240 ml of fermented coconut water, coconut water, or filtered water
- 3 tablespoons of collagen hydrolysate as a protein base
- 1 tablespoon of sprouted nut butter or sunflower seed butter
- 3 pastured egg yolks
- 1 tablespoon of coconut oil
- 1-2 tablespoons of ghee
- 1-2 tablespoons of raw cocoa powder
Blend and enjoy!
Here is her YouTube video of how to make the smoothie.
Dr Brogan is a Manhattan-based holistic women’s health psychiatrist, author of the New York Times bestselling book, A Mind of Your Own, and co-editor of the landmark textbook, Integrative Therapies for Depression. She completed her psychiatric training and fellowship at NYU Medical Center after graduating from Cornell University Medical College, and has a B.S. from MIT in Systems Neuroscience. She is board certified in psychiatry, psychosomatic medicine, and integrative holistic medicine, and is specialized in a root-cause resolution approach to psychiatric syndromes and symptoms.