Unless you are completely incapable of recognizing patterns and have instead been diligently absorbing typical mainstream talking points, you no doubt have noticed the striking correlation between psychiatric drug use and violence. Even Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, and former Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, have attempted to bring attention to this phenomenon. The number of cases of extreme violence committed either after beginning these drugs, or after stopping them, are legion. In every one of the recent well-publicized shooting incidents, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, even Columbine, psychotropic drugs appear to have played a role. But the question remains, with the risks of SSRIs being well established, are there any alternatives that are effective but safer?
As with any problem, it helps to first understand the mechanisms underlying the issue. SSRI stands for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. In a very basic sense, these drugs attempt to boost circulating levels of the serotonin neurotransmitter by preventing its reabsorption in the brain. What are the symptoms of low serotonin? From the Mood-Type Questionnaire in The Mood Cure by Julia Ross:
- Do you have a tendency to be negative, to see the glass as half-empty rather than half-full? Do you have dark, pessimistic thoughts?
- Do you really dislike the dark weather or have a clear-cut fall/winter depression (SAD)?
- Are you often worried and anxious?
- Do you have feelings of low self-esteem and lack confidence? Do you easily get to feeling self-critical and guilty?
- Do you have obsessive, repetitive, angry, or useless thoughts that you just can’t turn off – for instance, when you’re trying to get to sleep?
- Does your behavior often get a bit, or a lot, obsessive? Is it hard for you to make transitions, to be flexible? Are you a perfectionist, a neatnik, or a control freak? A computer, TV, or work addict?
- Do you really dislike the dark weather or have a clear-cut fall/winter depression (SAD)?
- Are you apt to be irritable, impatient, edgy, or angry?
- Do you tend to be shy or fearful? Do you get nervous or panicky about heights, flying, enclosed spaces, public performance, spiders, snakes, bridges, crowds, leaving the house, or anything else?
- Are you hyperactive, restless, can’t slow down or turn your brain off?
- Have you had anxiety attacks or panic attacks (your heart races, it’s hard to breathe)?
- Do you have facial or body tics, or Tourette’s?
- Do you get PMS or menopausal moodiness (tears, anger, depression)?
- Do you hate hot weather?
- Are you a night owl, or do you often find it hard to get to sleep, even though you want to?
- Do you wake up in the night, have restless or light sleep, or wake up too early in the morning?
- Do you routinely like to have sweet or starchy snacks, wine, or marijuana in the afternoons, evenings, or in the middle of the night (but not earlier in the day)?
- Do you find relief from any of the above symptoms through exercise?
- Have you had fibromyalgia (unexplained muscle pain) or TMJ (pain, tension, and grinding associated with your jaw)?
- Have you had suicidal thoughts or plans?
These seem to be pretty common problems, no? With a large pool of potential customers, is it any wonder that heaps of money are poured into the marketing of these drugs? As I mentioned, SSRIs are thought to boost serotonin levels by basically recycling old serotonin. But why try to keep the old stuff circulating around? If the body is failing to produce adequate quantities of serotonin, why not enable it to make what it needs? To do this, first you must start with the amino acid tryptophan which comes from protein-rich foods. Tryptophan is first converted into 5 hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) which is then converted to serotonin which is eventually converted into melatonin at night to facilitate sleep. Supplementation with either tryptophan or 5-HTP has been shown to be more effective in boosting serotonin levels than SSRIs and they do it with far fewer if any side effects. From The Mood Cure (my comments added in italics):
- In studies comparing 5-HTP with Luvox, a potent antidepressant drug similar to Prozac but more popular in Europe, (1) 5-HTP improved 68 percent of depressed patients as compared to 62 percent of those on Luvox, (2) both 5-HTP and Luvox improved depression levels about 50 percent, but 5-HTP has an 11 percent lower failure rate than Luvox.
- In another study, 5-HTP eliminated anxiety symptoms in 58 percent of patients as opposed to 48 percent on Luvox.
- In terms of side effects, serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac and Zoloft cause sexual dysfunction in 50-75 percent of users, while 5-HTP studies show no sexual dysfunction and few other side effects. In one study, 5-HTP had fewer side effects than the placebo!
- 5-HTP raised serotonin levels 540 percent, compared with Paxil’s 450 percent and Prozac’s 150-250 percent.
- Between 50 and 60 percent of former SSRI takers relapse into depression, OCD, SAD, PMS, insomnia, bulimia, aggression, addiction, anxiety, and panic unless adequate tryptophan is made available.
- Exercise alone can raise serotonin levels nicely. A ninety-minute walk can increase levels by 100 percent. A daily forty-minute walk prevents relapse into depression (after a successful round of SSRI taking) twice as well as does taking Zoloft. Because the working muscles can use other amino acids for fuel and repair, but not tryptophan, exercise works by increasing the concentration of tryptophan in the blood and allowing it to pass freely through the blood-brain barrier.
So thoughtful supplementation and exercise are more effective than prescription medications that have potentially dangerous side-effects. You might be wondering, if it’s really that simple, why don’t more people know about this? If there was any money in marketing cheap supplements and strolls around the neighborhood, I’m sure they would.
It’s very trendy nowadays to adopt a vegan diet for its purported health benefits. A complete refutation of this diet is beyond the scope of this article, however, it should be clear that if one of the primary raw ingredients for serotonin production is tryptophan, a diet that is low in quality sources of protein has a high likelihood of causing deficiencies. In addition, vegan diets are typically low in quality fats and cholesterol. As Lierre Keith explains in The Vegetarian Myth, this is also poses a problem:
Without fat, our neurotransmitters literally can’t transmit. Twenty-five percent of the body’s cholesterol is in the brain, the brain that is made up of over 60 percent saturated fat. The brain’s glial cells play a primary role in cognitive function: they provide “a substance that allows…synapses to form, and function. Without this substance your brain would be almost entirely useless.” The name of this wonder substance? Cholesterol.
Low cholesterol also means low serotonin levels, which mean depression. Cholesterol is essential for the brain’s serotonin receptors. In fact, people on low-fat diets are twice as likely to die from suicide or violent death. Dr. Beatrice Golomb did a detailed review of all the studies published since 1965 that examined a potential link between low cholesterol levels and violence. In her opinion, the correlation is causal.
It is now known that the Sandy Hook shooter, Adam Lanza, was a vegan and was likely taking psychotropic drugs. It’s not a great intellectual feat to recognize the probable sequence of events – vegan diet leads to depressive symptoms, depressive symptoms are diagnosed as low serotonin, low serotonin is treated with any number of the available psychotropic drugs that have been linked to violence…
Another potential cause of behavioral issues is gluten intolerance. For over 60 years, researchers have observed a link between gluten grain consumption and schizophrenia. In addition, newer research is showing that “children born to mothers with abnormally high levels of antibodies to gliadin had nearly twice the risk of developing non-affective psychosis later in life.” Better add mental health to the growing number of reasons to avoid gluten.
Other “Bad-Mood” Foods
When discussing methods of optimizing health through dietary interventions, it is often more important to focus on what NOT to eat. In her book, Julia Ross identifies what she call “Bad-Mood” foods. She provides compelling justification for each food’s inclusion on the list, but for the sake of brevity, I will simply list the primary offenders here: sugar, white-flour, gluten grains, industrial seed oils (corn, soy, canola, cottonseed,…), and soy. In addition, she includes common food additives that are potentially problematic: caffeine, colorings, aspartame, MSG, and pesticides.
The purpose of this article is not to claim that supplementation can solve all mental health problems or that psychotropic drugs are incapable of helping in certain situations. However, it should be clear that when faced with any problem, it is always best to understand the mechanisms involved and attempt to address the root cause. Based on the preponderance of evidence, I feel that the best way to do this is to first ensure that your body is receiving adequate levels of the nutrients and substrates it needs to maintain health. It’s my fervent belief that following the evolutionary template by adopting a mostly Ancestral/Paleo/Primal lifestyle will get many people most of the way there. For the tougher cases, other interventions may be necessary, but low hanging fruit should be picked first.
If you are interested in utilizing any of the supplements mentioned in this article, please read The Mood Cure or seek expert guidance for dosing recommendations as improper use can make certain problems worse.