Beyond Pills: Gaining a Healthy Body, a Strong Mind, and an Empowered Life
In the history of drug sales, Prozac is a superstar. When the pill was first approved to treat depression over 25 years ago, it wasn’t just about marketing a new medicine, it was selling a new mindset.
The treatment philosophy behind Prozac and the many other mood-stabilizing medications that followed, is that depression and anxiety are caused by a brain chemistry imbalance. Take the appropriate pill (or combination of pills) to chemically correct your particular defect and symptoms are sure to fade.
Or so experts believed. Although psychiatrists, institutions, and drugmakers assured the public that there was solid science behind the drugs designed to alter brain chemistry, the theory has never been proven and the studies once used to support it are now seen as deeply flawed. In fact, research has shown that these medicines may actually worsen anxiety and depression over time and can be more addictive than opioids.
Despite growing evidence of harm, these drugs still reign as the standard of mental health care. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 10 percent of Americans over the age of 12 take antidepressants.
The majority of these prescriptions target women. Females are 2 1/2 times as likely to take antidepressant medication as males, and one in four women in their 40s and 50s are on drug treatment for depression.
In bold opposition to this trend is psychiatrist Dr. Kelly Brogan. Instead of taking pills, patients who come to Dr. Brogan’s Manhattan clinic receive treatment through dietary changes, detox programs, and even meditation.
These methods may seem a little out of place coming from a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Cornell University, but Dr. Brogan looks to research that challenges the prevailing paradigm.
For example, some recent studies indicate that depression is more likely to be caused by a poor diet, lack of exercise, and unrelenting stress—not faulty brain chemistry. With such research, depression joins the ranks of other chronic illnesses, such cancer and diabetes, that are also linked to the excesses of modern life.
According to Dr. Brogan, this new understanding of disease moves beyond our antiquated models of illness to reveal a profound connection to the natural world.
“There is an idea that runs all through conventional medicine: You identify the enemy, often within your very own body, and then you fight it to manage the machine,” Dr. Brogan said. “But there is a lot of elegant science that has come out in the past 15 or so years that really undermines the very premise of this perspective.
“The microbiome, for example, has changed the entire game of medicine because we can no longer think of germs as being bad across the board. We can no longer think of any single organ as functioning independently of the rest of the collective. That collective world extends all the way into the web of nature itself.”
In her new book, “A Mind of Your Own: The Truth About Depression and How Women Can Heal Their Bodies to Reclaim Their Lives,” Dr. Brogan shows that by treating inflammation and immune system dysfunction in the body, the mind can truly heal.
Epoch Times spoke with Dr. Brogan about why she broke away from the conventional treatment model and the big risks of psychiatric drugs that doctors rarely share with their patients. Dr. Brogan is board certified in psychiatry, psychosomatic medicine, and integrative holistic medicine.
Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Epoch Times: You once strongly believed in the conventional model of treatment. What convinced you there was a better way?
Dr. Brogan: Most physicians fly the coop, so to speak, because of their own health experience. I am a firm believer that no one ever changes their mind based on information. I was very entrenched in a conventional mindset. I assumed that if I just worked hard enough I would figure it out. I thought science was the only answer, God doesn’t exist, the universe is purposeless and random, and we’re just here to make it through. That was my general orientation. I was also a big believer in pharmaceutical medicine.
But nine months after I had my first child, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which is an autoimmune thyroid condition that is rather common postpartum. I knew conventional medicine had absolutely nothing to offer me. I knew that the treatment plan was a lifelong prescription. So I went to consult with a naturopath, which was extremely unlike me. But I did so because I intuitively knew it was the only way out.
She took me off of gluten, dairy, and sugar. She had me take supplements and start exercising. After six months, my antibodies, which were extremely high, came down to a normal range. Within a year, I was off of thyroid hormone and prescription-free.
This raised a lot of red flags for me. In my conventional training I never learned that you could put an autoimmune disease into remission. There was no such concept. And I certainly never learned that diet could help. Diet was like a politically correct window dressing that you would throw on a patient’s treatment plan. I had been a skeptic, but now I was activated. Why didn’t I learn about these things?
In the way the universe works, I received Robert Whitaker’s book “Anatomy of An Epidemic” from a colleague of mine. I still remember weeping as I turned the last page while on the subway, because I just watched the entire house of cards fall to the floor. I had just put myself through medical school. I had accumulated $200,000 in debt and probably got my autoimmune disease as a result of the stress of the experience. But I just let it all fall, because I knew from my own experience that there was more to the story.
So I went to PubMed.gov and spent several years obsessively reading and researching. I unlearned everything I had learned—not only about psychiatry, but about many medications that I had prized as being the greatest gifts of modern medicine.
I began to change my practice. I never started a patient on prescription medication again after I finished Whitaker’s book. The nature of my practice took on a very unusual ethos, and it continues to be a crucible of transformation for so many women.
It’s so much more than taking women off meds or helping them avoid meds. It’s really in many ways like a midwifery practice, where I am moving them through an experience that they’ve only ever been taught is dangerous or something they should run from. And it’s a beautiful thing. I absolutely love my job.
Epoch Times: You focus exclusively on women’s health. Is there something about female physiology that makes women more prone to depression and anxiety?
Dr. Brogan: It’s a complicated answer, because women are prescribed double the amount of antidepressants that men are. And I have seen many women started on antidepressants basically because they are annoying their internists with the complexity of their symptoms. Women are still very much dismissed for being almost Freudian-level hysterical. They are sent to the psychiatrist at the drop of a hat because the average internist takes about 10 minutes to discuss extremely complex problems that they are totally ill-equipped to investigate.
But there is also a physiological layer. In my focus on the inflammatory model of depression, I have found data to support the fact that women manifest more clinical behavioral symptoms with the same inflammatory response as men. In this same inflammatory environment, women are more likely to develop what is called sickness syndrome. The idea is that the symptoms of depression, for the better part of our evolutionary history, were actually adaptive. They were meant to do things like shut us down so that we can recover.
Some of this inflammatory response actually makes us more sensitive to social interactions. While it shuts us down in every other way, it actually fine-tunes our social perceptions so that perhaps we can reconnect with the people who are going to help us. It’s a beautiful, elegant model, not only for our physiology, but also for our consciousness and spirituality.
Then there are the many different hormonal imbalances women have that can masquerade as psychiatric: everything from premenstrual, postpartum, and perimenopausal. These windows in a woman’s life were never meant to be a cataclysmic meltdown period where they end up in psych units. They were meant to be almost ceremonial passages where women were shepherded into a next phase by female elders in the tribe.
We’ve strayed so far from that model that we now see our bodies as minefields of dysfunction, and in many ways they are because we are in a toxic soup of endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are negatively influencing our body’s ability to maintain balance.
Epoch Times: This idea that depression has a function is a big change from what our culture typically believes.
Dr. Brogan: I’ve taken a deep dive over the past several years into an experience of spirituality that has informed my practice in a deep way. It is that suffering grief, sorrow, and pain—these human experiences—are the portals to our greater self-actualization.
That’s the most intuitive thing in the world, right? The times that we grow the most are always in the shadow of our greatest challenges. But we’ve forgotten this. We don’t have any initiatory rites of passage in our culture anymore. We don’t have men going out on vision quests in the desert. We don’t have any relationship between elders and adolescents to help expose us to our own limits in a safe way.
So when we encounter something from our body, mind, and spirit that needs to be examined, we don’t listen to it. We don’t know how to listen to it.
A big part of my approach is to look for the question, invitation, message, and the symptoms. It can range from an indication that you have an acute vitamin B12 deficiency because you’ve been a vegetarian for 27 years and it’s not the right diet for you. Or it can be an invitation to embrace a different path in your professional life, to look at your marriage, to stop and examine what’s missing in your life. I do an entire overhaul with my patients, from the moisturizers they’re putting on their face, all the way to their relationships, careers, and home environment.
It’s a massive exploration. You move through it and become the most manifest version of yourself that never would have been if you resisted it, or adopted a zombie-like stasis.
Epoch Times: But what about those who say they feel better on psychiatric drugs? Does it mean that they may work for some people?
Dr. Brogan: That depends on what your goal is, and that’s why I believe that mindset is everything. If you believe, as I did, that the body is inherently flawed, that it’s a machine to be managed, and that if you don’t take advantage of what the pharmaceutical industry has to offer us, then you could really regret it because something really dangerous could happen, then an antidepressant could seem like a good fit for you, because you’re not cut out for this rite of passage and transformational process that I support.
Now, that would all be well and good if antidepressants were safe. We know from exploring the literature that antidepressants largely ride the active placebo effect, which is driven by direct-to-consumer advertising. We know they have an unpredictable chemical effect that some people may just happen to like in the short term, whether it’s sedating or perhaps energizing.
It is not unlike alcohol, which has a chemical effect, but we shouldn’t confuse it for resolving an underlying deficiency. You don’t think that someone is less anxious after two shots of vodka because they corrected their alcohol imbalance.
As long as we contextualize it properly and you happen to like the chemical effect of this psychiatric medication and it happens to be adaptive to you, that’s your choice. Where I buck against that cavalier perspective is that I don’t feel patients are sufficiently consented about the long-term, habit-forming nature of these medications. Nor are they consented with the long-term data, which, without exception, demonstrates that they will function worse on the medication. This is very difficult for people to accept, but that’s what the literature shows.
When I started countless patients on medication, I never told them that they might never be able to come off of it. Not because of their symptoms, but because they’re addicted to it and their body is totally dependent upon it. Once you know that, it might change your perspective on the slight benefit that you’re getting.
There’s also the signal of harm in the literature, which suggests that we don’t know how to risk-stratify patients for what’s called akathisia-induced impulsivity. This means that you could be a totally normal civilian, but within several doses or several weeks of doses on an antidepressant medication, you commit a heinous act of murder or suicide.
This is not sensational. This is not a rare phenomenon. There is a grassroots movement of people who have been victimized by these medications. It appears that many of them have a liver enzyme variant that leads them to a state of intoxication after several doses, but there is not a psychiatrist on the planet who is screening patients for this liver enzyme variant before starting them on medication.
Our entire society is suffering because of this. I challenge anyone to watch the media headlines for heinous acts of violence and defy this trend that every single one of these cases involves someone who is on psychotropic medication. Look at every school shooting, every case of infanticide, the German Wings pilot, Munich, or Nice, you name it—they either recently started medication, changed their dose, or abruptly tapered.
It is a phenomenon that the media is not willing to connect the dots on because it necessitates a total cessation of the prescribing of psychotropics until we can better understand how we are putting society at risk just trying to take the edge off of someone’s experience of distress.
[Editor’s note: Akathisia, a distressed state, is a side effect of antipsychotic and antidepressant medications.]
Epoch Times: If someone decides to come off of these drugs, withdrawal can be severe and even dangerous. How can you wean off them safely?
Dr. Brogan: I have learned the hard way that tapering off these medications is a multi-year process in most cases. Coming off of 100 milligrams of Zoloft would potentially take a year and a half, at the most rapid clip.
This is one of the untold stories of psychotropic medications. It’s not just antidepressants. The Mad in America website has an entire portal dedicated to withdrawal support. It is very possible, and I do believe that my patients often are initiated into their own lives through this process of chemical withdrawal. It’s not all bad, even if it is challenging. It’s almost like they’re offered another opportunity to move through an experience of struggle, and maybe suffering, into a freer, more enlightened version of themselves. It’s a harder way than avoiding medication entirely and just moving through your symptoms with consciousness, but there is an opportunity embedded in there nonetheless.
There are not many doctors who are experts at tapering off medications. In fact, patients and grassroots activists are more expert in medication taper than any doctors. I just launched an online course called Vital Mind Reset to empower people to do this on their own.
For the most part, this is a very patient-driven movement, and it is really an opportunity for you to learn about your relationship with this medication. You may be able to stop it cold turkey, but more often you have to figure out what pace works for you.
I very passionately believe in restoring physiological resiliency to the body through detox and dietary changes before you begin the process, and I never touch tapering off a medication unless a patient commits 100 percent to the principles I outline in my 30-day plan. Before I started instituting this principle, I was almost running an outpatient rehab when I began tapering patients off medications the way I had learned in my training. Now, you don’t even get a second appointment in my practice until you have committed completely, because it’s just not worth your time, not worth my time, and it’s also not likely to work.
Epoch Times: The bottom line is patience and commitment to a new lifestyle.
Dr. Brogan: Exactly. Self-love is at the heart of a lot of the experiences of depression, and it’s my belief that you fake it ’til you make it. Just choose any moment of your life to commit to a set of health care principles and from there will come an experience of self-trust and even self-love. My observation is that it works.