The link between nutrient imbalances and mental disorders
A lot is going on in brain research these days. Seriously, the news feeds I get seem to have 2 or 3 discoveries every week relating to causes of mental disorders. The research might point to parts of the brain that are underdeveloped, or that aren’t well connected, or don’t get enough blood flow. Sometimes the focus is on brain chemistry, like not enough of a neurotransmitter. And other stuff.
Do all of these findings fit together to form a comprehensive picture? At neuroscience conferences, is there a lot of backslapping and “thanks; your research provides a missing piece to my theory”? Or, are rival scientists heckling each other’s Powerpoints and getting into fistfights?
For those of us who are not neuroscientists, we can only try to understand the basics, and hope that this increase in knowledge will translate into improvements in treatment and maybe even prevention of disorders.
This came to mind because I recently finished reading the book Nutrient Power: Heal Your Biochemistry and Heal Your Brain by Dr. William Walsh, who gave two presentations at the conference I attended in February. He is an internationally recognized expert in nutritional medicine, with a database containing results of 3 million blood and urine samples from more than 30,000 mental health patients. It was hard to grasp everything Dr. Walsh presented about biochemistry, but his results were compelling. What follows is my hopefully not-too-terrible overview of his findings. If you also become persuaded the man knows what he is talking about, there’s a way you can directly tap into his knowledge base, with an excellent chance of seeing improvement in the person you know who has mental health challenges.
To get the scoop from the source, click on over to the Walsh Research Institute (WRI) website. On the Video tab, you get several chances to hear Dr. Walsh explain what he has found.
Dr. Walsh, who has a PhD in chemical engineering, got into this line of work many years ago as a result of his volunteer work with the inmates of a prison in Illinois. The fact that some really bright people, from loving and stable families, were behind bars for committing horrible crimes got him wondering: why? He obtained permission to have chemical studies run on some blood and urine samples from the inmates, just to see if anything unusual turned up compared to the general population.
He found differences, all right. There were some striking patterns in nutrient overloads or deficiencies. Over time, he expanded his studies to include non-incarcerated people with autism, ADHD, behavior disorders, schizophrenia, depression, and even Alzheimer’s. More samples, more patterns in chemical imbalances. And here’s the best part: the vast majority of patients who are willing to take a fine-tuned array of nutrients selected to correct their particular imbalances … get better! They have a lessening of symptoms, sometimes to the point of no longer needing medication, or at least being able to decrease the dose (and therefore not having the unwanted side effects). You can see some of their testimony on the WRI website and among the reviews for Nutrient Power on the Amazon website.
Now you might ask, WHY do some people have biochemical imbalances? And, WHY do biochemical imbalances lead to disturbing mental processes?
As to WHY some people have imbalances, Dr. Walsh believes epigenetics is a major factor. (At the conference, he said something like, “If you haven’t heard of epigenetics yet, you will soon. It’s the next area of research that’s going to be huge.” It reminded me of the “plastics” advice in the movie “The Graduate”.) What is epigenetics? The glossary of Nutrient Power gives this definition: “the study of changes in gene activity that do not involve alterations to the genetic code, especially DNA methylation and histone modification”. In other words, we aren’t talking about mutation, but about something related to a person’s environment (prenatal exposure, diet, toxins, lifestyle) that messes up how a gene normally goes about its business of ensuring the molecules we need to function properly are getting produced.
Regarding mental disorders, epigenetics helps explain why there often appears to be a hereditary connection, but the disorder doesn’t appear to be inherited exactly following Mendel’s laws. A family can have a set of genes that could be trouble, if a family member is exposed to a particular contaminant. Another way of saying this is, some people have an inborn predisposition to mental disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, or autism, if the wrong trigger comes along. No exposure, things are OK; but the unlucky or unwise family member(s) who are exposed to the toxin end up with genes that don’t do their job very well. And that leads to problems.
Chemical imbalances arise not just when a person intakes too much of this and not enough of that. They can also happen with a goof-up (thanks to goofed-up gene expression) in the chemical processes that regulate what gets into or stays in the system. That can be the case when a person’s digestive tract doesn’t absorb or break down the ingested nutrients the way it should. (Many mental health patients also have digestive tract issues, like with gluten or casein intolerance, right?) Or, maybe digestion is fine, but there’s a problem with the organic chemicals that hang on to the nutrient, or that keep it from entering the brain because it doesn’t belong there, or that help escort it out of the system.
One type of goofed-up chemical process you’ve probably heard about (at least indirectly) is oxidative stress, which means there’s too much oxidation going on. This results in too many molecules with damaging properties getting formed. Free radicals are one such group of molecules. If free radicals are around, they tend to muscle their way into chemical processes, taking the place of the normal molecules that make things go smoothly. Maybe none of that sounds familiar, but you’ve probably heard dietary advice about getting enough antioxidants. Ohhhh.
As to WHY chemical imbalances can lead to mental disorders, some of the molecules our bodies produce are neurotransmitters, like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, among others. You can understand why if something goes haywire regarding their manufacture, or their reuptake at the synapses between brain cells, it could affect how a person thinks, behaves, or responds to stimuli.
Hopefully, that amateurish discussion made at least a little sense. Of course, Dr. Walsh gives rigorous scientific explanations regarding each mental disorder (or subtype of a disorder) and the chemical processes that go awry. Below, I’ll share a bit more about the overriding patterns he has found.
- A very common imbalance in mental health patients is the ratio between copper and zinc. Often, it’s too much copper, not enough zinc.
- Overmethylation, and undermethylation, can both cause problems. Methyl is a dominant factor in epigenetic processes, and has a powerful impact on neurotransmitter activity.
- Folate deficiencies and overloads can both cause problems. Folate is involved in synthesizing DNA and RNA, and helps prevent changes to DNA.
- Pyrrole disorders are also not cool. Loosely, they involve a double-deficiency in Vitamin B6 and zinc, and can result in reduced levels of serotonin, dopamine, and GABA.
- Other bad things are severe oxidative stress, malabsorption (both mentioned earlier), glucose dyscontrol, and imbalances in other metals, minerals, and biochemical too numerous to mention here.
- Nutrient overloads can cause more problems than deficiencies. It is NOT A GOOD IDEA to simply give a multivitamin to a person with a mental disorder. They may do more harm than good.
Here are some things to know about nutrient therapy:
- It is not something to try on your own. Many times the only way to achieve positive results is with a precise assessment of many chemicals in the bloodstream, combined with a review of the patient’s medical history.
- Work with a lab experienced in conducting the specialized tests that are needed on blood and urine samples. Mensah Medical is one lab that works in conjunction with the Walsh Research Institute. Although it is in Illinois, staff members periodically fly to locations on the east and west coasts of the US to conduct clinics. Links to other labs can be found on the WRI website.
- Sometimes nutrient therapy involves taking many capsules and tablets. There are compounding pharmacies that can reduce the number of capsules by at least half.
- Sometimes symptoms get worse before they get better, but improvements are usually seen anywhere from a week to within three to six months after the start of therapy.
- There are a few conditions or types of people for whom nutrient therapy may not be effective. Injury, illness, and substance abuse are among the things that may interfere. Of course, noncompliance in taking the capsules leads to non-results!
It is exciting to think about moving beyond the trial-and-error of current psychiatric treatments to a treatment that gets to the core of an individual’s problems, with high probability of improvement and minimal side effects. Depending on the feedback I get from you, Dear Readers, I can devote future blog posts to providing a more in-depth look at particular findings (like, what patterns does Dr. Walsh see in ADHD, or what is his assessment on school shooters, or what’s so special about methyl, or ….) Let me know if you want to read more about any of this, OK?