By Zorayda “Jiji” Torres, MD
These days it’s impossible not to be concerned about our mental health. If you yourself don’t have symptoms of depression, anxiety, difficulty focusing, difficulty remembering, insomnia, and others, it is likely that you know someone who has. Mental health issues are on the rise, and is a major cause of reduced productivity and disability.
I am a functional medicine specialist now, but when I was practicing conventional internal medicine only, I witnessed a lot of cases of anxiety and depression that failed to respond to FDA-approved prescription medications. Moreover, many of the patients who had depression, anxiety, attention-deficit disorder, memory decline, etc. also had other non-mental problems like irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis, fatigue, eczema, allergies, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, etc. So one wonders if, for example, the depression is a result of the medical problem, or is another one of the medical problems. Are these mental health issues just confined to the brain, or are they just one of the manifestations of other dysfunctions in the body?
Our brain is an organ, just like the heart, liver, lungs and kidneys are. It is not isolated, and it is affected by our overall health. As a functional medicine physician whose focus is to look for the hidden causes of chronic diseases, what are the things I check when there is a mental health issue in my patients? Here is my short list:
1. Nutritional deficiencies/excesses. Our food is not just a source of calories for energy. They also provide us chemicals that we need to manufacture neurotransmitters like serotonin, melatonin, GABA, dopamine, etc. Protein, vitamins and minerals in our food provide the materials and support the enzymes that make these neurotransmitters. Healthy fats are important to create healthy cell membranes that appropriately receive and send chemical signals between cells. Overconsumption of refined carbohydrates and sugars can cause a cascade of unhealthy chemical reactions in the body that eventually affect the brain.
2. Gut health and microbes. There are numerous published studies showing a strong connection between the health of your intestines and your brain. The types of bacteria in your gut and the food you eat have major effects on what chemicals are created in your intestines, chemicals that eventually enter your bloodstream and affect your brain. Did you know that more than 70% of your serotonin, commonly known as the “happiness” hormone, is made in the nerve cells of your intestinal walls? Did you know that if you have a low amount of certain beneficial bacterial strains, that you may not manufacture enough of GABA, a calming neurotransmitter, and that if you have a large amount of yeast or certain unhealthy bacterial strains, that you may manufacture more of the “adrenaline” type of neurotransmitters, making you anxious, insomniac, and restless? There is plenty of research evidence showing that our gut bacteria have major effects on our emotions, behavior, and overall health. Unfortunately, traditional medicine has largely ignored that research. Most conventional practitioners are not even aware of them and do not check gut health when assessing patients with mental health issues.
3. Stress and Lifestyle. Stress increases inflammatory chemicals that have all been linked to depression, bipolar disease, autism, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s. Stress actually shrinks the brain! Inadequate sleep and lack of physical activity also have been proven contribute to difficulties with memory and mood.
4. Toxins. We live in a toxic world, whether you believe it or not. The questions are how toxic are you, and are you helping your body enough in avoiding and removing these toxins. One major category of toxins are the heavy metals, especially mercury and lead. Mercury is ubiquitous in our environment and is a great mimicker – can present as almost any chronic disease, including dementia and depression, because it disrupts so many biochemical and mitochondrial pathways. High body burden of these metals are easy to test for and are treatable.
5. Food sensitivities. Eating foods that one is sensitive to causes the gut to be inflamed and “leaky”, allowing for a dysregulation of the immune system, and widespread inflammation, including of the brain. It is helpful to be tested for food sensitivities, as the symptoms are not always immediate and apparent. The most common offending foods are gluten, dairy, food additives, and soy.
6. Genetic difficulties. There is a common genetic mutation in a biochemical process called methylation, that predisposes one to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, autism, schizophrenia, and many other serious medical problems. This mutation is easy to check for using conventional laboratories, and we can actually circumvent this mutation’s bad effects through nutrition and supplementation.
7. Hormone imbalances. Adrenal, thyroid, and sex hormones are usually affected by any of the above listed causes, so they are not usually the first abnormality that occurs. However, once affected, they need to be balanced in order for the person to feel better.
There’s my short list! As you can see, merely taking a pharmaceutical drug that is FDAapproved for depression, anxiety, ADD, etc, may not be the solution to your mental health issues. Seeking consultation with a Functional Medicine physician may be what you need in order to get to the root of the problem.
Dr. Torres is a board-certified internist with 17 years of experience. She knows the limitations of conventional internal medicine. Functional medicine is a new way of navigating through a person’s illness. Its main goal is to find the root causes of diseases and tackle those causes, rather than just naming the disease and prescribing the latest FDA-approved drug or procedure.
Zorayda “Jiji” Torres, MD
Internal Medicine, Functional Medicine
27499 Riverview Center Blvd, Suite 255
Bonita Springs, FL 34134
239-444-5636 . upstreammd.com