by Catherine Carrigan, Honorary Board Chairman, Holistic Depression Network Author, Healing Depression: A Holistic Guide (New York: Marlowe and Co., 1999) President, Total Fitness Talk Presented at the Lyceum for Alternative Health Care Professionals, May 13, 2000, sponsored by Energetix, Ravinia Hotel, Atlanta, Georgia
Before I moved into the city of Atlanta about a year and a half ago, I had a huge garden. My garden was so big that I always said that if I didn’t have a certain kind of flower, you probably didn’t need it.
Today, I have my own business as a holistic health educator. My official title is personal fitness trainer. I have about seven major certifications, and I am always learning. I love to learn because the more I learn, the more I have to share with other people. My mission is to empower myself and my clients to achieve total fitness of mind, body, and spirit through individualized exercise and nutrition programs, ongoing education and positive partnership.
There are many different kinds of perennials, all of which respond best to different environments and different kinds of nurturing. When it comes to supporting people in depression, the same could be said.
I like to play with plants, and I like to play with people. I have no two clients alike. From my understanding of the scientific literature, it is in the exact nature of joyful, caring play that people actually get better. People get better when we see them as whole the way they are, when we become more their students than their mechanics, their surgeons or their exorcists, when we take the time to hone in on their specific needs, and about the separate priorities that exist for each one.
I learned a lot in my years as a gardener — about biochemical individuality, and about the heart connection. Showering our clients with true love and true care engages us in an alpha brain wave state, brings our heart rhythms into a state of true heart-brain coherence, and helps us to engage our literal deepest intelligence, the central nervous system in the heart, to embark on this dual work of detective, student, and honoring partner. When we are able to access this deep level of intelligence, not only do we heal them, but also ourselves in the process.
My book, Healing Depression: A Holistic Guide (New York: Marlowe and Co., 1999), was originally published in 1997. It became the best-selling book of the original publisher, Heartsfire Books, and was just purchased and reissued last year by a larger publisher in New York, Marlowe and Co. Since my book came out, I have become the honorary board chairman of the Holistic Depression Network.
But beyond these professional experiences, you could say I have had an avocation as a patient. For 18 years I was on lithium and antidepressants. My father and brother are both medical doctors. If there is a type of doctor you could name that is related to mental health, then I have probably experienced their services over the years — psychiatrists, psychologists, public assistance mental health workers, rolfers, Brain Gym practitioners, homeopaths, nutritionists, allergists, environmental health specialists, group therapy leaders. In fact, once, before I understood anything about energy work, I wrote a play called Contagious Diseases about group therapy. In the end, it was the woman who proclaimed herself to be “normal” who ended up shooting everyone.
My personal mission as a caring human being is to create a successful revolution in the treatment of mental illness, specifically depression. Nothing in my book is new. The research has been around most of the past half century. Up to this point, the so-called traditional medical arts practitioners have been in economic disagreement with those who have taken an orthomolecular or holistic approach.
What’s happening now, as I see it, is that the revolution is coming from ground up. People everywhere are getting tired of taking drugs that don’t work. People everywhere are tired of taking drugs that give them terrible side effects. And people everywhere are no longer believing that when they are told they have a diagnosis of mental illness, that what that means is that they will have to spend the rest of their lives taking drugs and going to a therapist to talk about their childhoods.
All this is creating an economic demand for people like you — people who are learning how to manage a whole-person approach to the effective treatment of depression.
I am honored to speak with you today because I believe that many of you will be responsible for restoring hundreds, perhaps thousands or tens of thousands of depressed patients to first a state of hope, and second to a state of wellness that up to this point they may never have experienced.
I know that with your training, you will see depression for what it is — a symptom of imbalance — physical imbalance, biochemical imbalance, energetic imbalance, electrical imbalance, emotional imbalance, nutritional imbalance. A good physicist would confirm to us that on some level, all these imbalances are the same thing.
What I would like to suggest, with all humility, is a protocol for restoring the depressed patient to a state of mental wellness.
1. Encourage self-responsibility. According to research by the American Medical Association, people who come to seek out alternative practitioners are at least partly motivated by the desire to take responsibility for their own health. My favorite writer, Dr. David Hawkins, author of Power Vs. Force, says that the real turning point for most individuals is a state of courage, where individuals empower themselves to face and cope with solutions. Below this, people are enslaved by shame, grief, fear, or pride, or a whole host of other low-consciousness mindsets. If you look at the research on antidepressants and placebos, antidepressants only work about 67 percent of the time — compared to 15 to 50 percent for placebo, and that also means that 33 percent are getting no relief at all. The scientific research on counseling is far less generous, with some studies actually suggesting that traditional counseling makes patients more neurotic, not less. But my role here is not to insult anyone’s professional success — I merely want to talk about what works. One key aspect that works is to encourage your patients to become an active participant in viewing themselves with scientific curiosity, figuring out what makes them stronger and what makes them weak. I myself have studied kinesiology, and practice Brain Gym and Touch for Health. Dr. Hawkins says that wisdom can be condensed to simply this: avoid that which makes us weak, and embrace that which makes us strong. True solutions are not always complicated. As you form partnerships with your patients, and encourage them to be equal partners in their own healing, you can get them to keep food, mood and weather diaries to discover when and how they get switched on and off.
2. Provide basic support for the neurochemistry. Research out of Harvard suggests that if patients are deficient in L-tyrosine, L-glutamine, or L-tryptophan, they will be depressed even if they take antidepressants. Further, the work of other doctors at Harvard has shown that essential fatty acids, which make up about one-third of the brain and which cover the neurons, are so effective for depression that a study was stopped on ethical grounds to give everyone fish oil. In addition to EPA, lecithin and GLA have also been found helpful for boosting mood. Three neurotransmitters are linked to depressive illnesses: dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. As doctors, you may order amino acid profiles, and you may recommend that patients examine their diets to make sure they are adequately consuming, digesting and absorbing proteins and essential fatty acids. Noni juice may be helpful for two reasons. One, the xeronine is supposed to simulate the action of serotonin, and second, it is supposed to support protein assimilation. I like the product Seacure because it contains not only all the amino acids, but also Omega-3 fatty acids. Also, Energetix has a product called Phenolic rings, which assists the body to produce its own serotonin. As your patients progress in their own healing, you may be able to educate them to attune when different aminos may be helpful. When they are exhausted from excessive stress, L-tyrosine may lift depression by providing the precursors for dopamine and norepinephrine. When they are anxious or have trouble sleeping, GABA may be helpful. In the meanwhile, a complete amino acid complex, taken on an empty stomach, along with re-examining the diet to make sure a person is consuming and absorbing adequate protein may be all that’s necessary. To give patients psychiatric drugs without making sure they have the raw materials they need to make the neurotransmitters could be likened to giving a rose bush fertilizer, and then forgetting to water it, or putting it in the dark. Megastudies show that antidepressants don’t work 33 percent of the time — and this may be why.
3. Educate your clients about the importance of what they eat every day. One of the main symptoms of carbohydrate intolerance is depression. Stress may exacerbate carbohydrate intolerance. Here, as you know, everyone is biochemically unique, so some of your clients will do better as vegetarians, while others will need meat. However, a 2-to-1 ratio of carbohydrates to proteins may be very helpful, while others will feel much better on an even lower carbohydrate ratio. On the other hand, carbohydrates boost serotonin production. You may be able to explain to your carbohydrate-addicted patients that they may be subconsiously self-medicating every time they lurch for a piece of chocolate cake. I like Dr. Judith Wurtman’s book, The Serotonin Solution, with its different recommendations for boosting serotonin production by separating small protein meals followed by small carbohydrate meals. Fiber is important to keep the digestive system working, and because there is such a high correlation between digestive and mental disturbances, anything you can do to help your patients clear, then assimilate and eliminate more easily will also help them mentally. Water is essential for running the central nervous system. In Brain Gym, we explain that your entire nervous system, being electrical, runs better when you are adequately hydrated. People who are chronically dehydrated tend to be tired and depressed.
4. Explain the stress-nutrition connection. One of the most common biochemical findings in depression is a high cortisol level. Cortisol, of course, does many nasty things, including rewiring the brain, breaking down lean mass, and interfering with learning and memory. One important goal of all effective holistic approaches to depression ought to be to lower cortisol. To do that, you lower not only emotional stress but also balance blood sugar, alleviate chronic inflammation in the body, and adopt cortisol-lowering techniques like yoga and meditation. When a depressed patient comes to you, one of the best tests you can order for them is an adrenal stress test — not just the kind that measures through blood in one-shot fashion, but the saliva test that shows how the body is responding — or has maladapted — over a 24-hour period. Very few doctors who prescribe the typical medications have the courage to educate their patients about how their depression is biochemically linked to the stress they are placing or have placed on themselves over the course of hectic lives. Some of the latest scientific research suggests that many people lack the peptide in their brains to enable them to handle cortisol. Also, high cortisol may inversely affect the thyroid function, so that your patients literally lower their own metabolism the more stressed-out they become. Because DHEA is the master hormone of the body, DHEA has sometimes been found helpful. But so are approaches that have been medically proven to naturally raise DHEA and lower cortisol –— like yoga and meditation.
5. Balance blood sugar. Roller-coaster blood sugar leads to roller-coaster moods. I am always explaining to my clients that while their muscles may store energy, their poor brains do not. Your brain depends on blood sugar and to a certain extent L-glutamine. When your blood sugar drops, your cortisol level goes up and your serotonin level goes down, and your brain is very, very sensitive — it can detect changes as small as 2 mg/dl in blood sugar. That means your mood can change with every meal you eat. To balance blood sugar, small, frequent meals may be helpful, as well as L-glutamine, and low-glycemic foods. People under stress may require two to three times more protein due to high cortisol levels. L-glutamine, up to 6 grams a day, has been found very helpful in treating addictions. The medical literature talks about how, in the case of manic depression, mood disorders may be highly correlated to addictions, and how going to Alcoholic Anonymous, or other 12-step groups, may be as important for rebalancing the body, as the medication. I encourage my addictive clients to eat every three to five hours.
6. Hire someone on your staffs who can help your patients with brain integration. When you are in a state of depression, your non-dominant hemisphere is 75-85 percent shut down. When you are no longer depressed, there are higher levels of electrical activity on both sides of the brain, and your brain is what we call in Brain Gym integrated. I am not a big fan of EEG biofeedback therapy because it can inadvertently raise certain brain waves – like theta brain waves – too high. Most people with depression have too much theta and/or too much high beta. The safest and most effective way I have found to improve brain integration is with a system of mind-body fitness called Brain Gym. I have one friend in Colorado who had a spontaneous remission of life-long manic depression after doing one Brain Gym session to improve his college performance — at the age of 40. Although these techniques were originally developed to help people with learning disabilities, they are radically and surprisingly helpful not only for integrating the brain but for uncovering and reversing the psychological self-sabotage programs that lock many people in a state of depression.
7. Determine individual biochemical deficiencies. Not enough of any one of essential vitamins, minerals or electrolytes may cause emotional depression. Since the standard American diet is just that – SAD – many people may overcome depression simply by making sure they are getting not only enough aminos and essential fatty acids but also B complex, calcium-magnesium, and Vitamin C to support the adrenals. Providing basic nutrition boosts immunity, which may be of major importance to enable your clients to become less sensitive to various allergies — both food and environmental allergies — that may be causing allergic reactions in their brains.
8. Identify and overcome individual toxicities. Dr. William Crook, author of The Yeast Connection books, talks about helping one woman get out of a mental hospital simply by enabling her to overcome candida albicans. In my own recovery, I would say going on a yeast-free diet improved my energy and mood by about 50 percent — it wasn’t the whole package, but it was a huge piece of the puzzle. Candida affects the midbrain, and, on a spiritual level, it’s about who’s really in charge. As we overcome candida, we take back our own power. In addition to toxicity, I talk in my book about how there are more than 40 chemicals known to depress the central nervous system, and many of us are exposed to these on a routine basis in the cars we drive and the offices where we work every day. Heavy metals and environmental allergies are well-known to be major factors. It may take years to detox the body completely, but with every layer lifted, new mental well-being can be achieved.
9. Establish a regular health maintenance program. It’s not enough to get rid of what we no longer need – to activate the large intestine element of Chinese acupuncture, letting go of the need to stay the way we are. Megastudies of what it takes for people to make major changes in their lives show a necessity for several common factors. No. 1, it must be an act of will – you must encourage your patients to thirst for mental wellness as much as they thirst for a breath of fresh air. No. 2, a mentor is extremely helpful – that is where you may come in, as someone with whom they can refer on a regular basis to complete the detective work of overcoming their individual biochemical challenges. No. 3, to make a major change in life patterns, it takes an average of about five to seven years. No one wants to hear that! No. 4, a person must engage in health-supporting behaviors every day and make a major recommitment, such as going to a meeting, at least once a week. In my own practice, one of the main hurdles individuals face is giving themselves permission to take the time to take care of themselves – to take an afternoon off to lower their stress level, to take an hour for lunch, to take an hour every other day for exercise. I believe embracing mental health, learning to activate the lung partner, the self-worth aspect of the metal element in Chinese acupuncture, is of equal importance in overcoming depression.
As part of this regular health maintenance, I recommend the following elements:
Keeping a food, mood and weather diary. This is one of the simplest biofeedback, self-help tools available. First, numerous studies suggest that people who keep diaries manage to heal themselves on more than just psychological levels. Second, I encourage my clients to think of themselves as athletes. If you were a professional athlete, you would know whether you ran better in Nikes or Reeboks, whether your best times came after you ate steak and eggs for breakfast or granola. I am always asking my clients, “What are you doing right?” Keeping a diary helps us to reinforce the behaviors that make us feel better, helps us tune in to what makes us feel bad, and encourages us to tune in to the higher intelligence of the body.
Sunlight. We are almost like plants – we need at least 20 minutes of sunlight every day just to make our hormones, and medical research suggests some people need as much as two hours a day of sunlight to avoid seasonal affective disorder. Here in Atlanta, we live at such a latitude that we can receive healing light all year round.
Fresh air. Negative ions that we breathe outdoors are known to lift the mood. One of my favorite poems is by Wordsworth: “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers/little in nature we see that is ours.”
Deep breathing. Yogis of course have the emotions down to a science. In anxiety, our breathing is reversed. In a state of joy, we are breathing in a deep circular pattern, our heart comes into coherence, and we begin to produce alpha brain waves, alleviating pain, accessing our own natural tranquilizers and antidepressants. Yoga kriyas for breathing have been documented to help overcome depression.
Movement. In the one-sided state of depression, there is very little electrical activity in the brain. A person on a stationary bike has more electrical activity in their brain than a person watching an educational video. The truly depressed person will have such low electrical activity that making basic decisions is very difficult. However, getting up and moving, embracing the flow of chi in their entire system, will enable them to activate both hemispheres of their brains so that they can then begin to rationalize. Research out of Princeton now even suggests that regular physical activity may grow new brain cells.
Wear devices that protect against electromagnetic field disturbances. The Clarus company makes necklaces that accomplish this. Many of your patients may be coming to you after spending hours in front of computer screens, driving in automobiles that upset not only their electrical fields but also the electrical activity in their brains. Many people with high beta brain waves are apparently more sensitive to computers, microwaves, and other electrical devices. Helping to restore the electrical field may go a long way to restoring energy levels and improving mood.
Rest. When our cortisol level is high and we get depressed, that should be a very simple biofeedback signal that we are better off stopping and reevaluating our choices. In our overachiever society, where everyone spends more hours every week driving their cars on the interstates than outdoors exercising, or many times even with their families, the whole concept of stopping and resting to restore ourselves is almost unusual. Rest allows us to restore the adrenals. Rest allows the cortisol levels to return to normal. Long-term stress and long-term cortisol will literally alter a person’s hormonal profile. Give your patients permission to take time every day and every week to have fun, rest their minds and rest their bodies. This is a spiritual principle taught very well in the Bible, but even the most spiritual people often feel they are worth nothing unless they are working or doing every waking hour of the day.
Get outside. In order to activate the right posterior parietal lobe, we have to be able to see in three dimensions. When we feel joyful, we are accessing this part of the brain. Many people spend hours in front of two-dimensional computer monitors and TV screens, and then top off a 12-hour work day by trying to read themselves to sleep – all two-dimensional visual activities. I teach an entire three-day course in natural vision improvement, which is all about activating the muscles of the eyes, and learning to see beyond two dimensions to activate our full use of senses, engaging more of brains, and feeling joyful. When you go outside and take a walk, you increase the electrical activity in your brain, you breathe negative ions and see in three dimensions. With time alone, engaging the whole brain, you have an opportunity to process. Sometimes the solutions are that simple.
Teach your clients how to tune in to their own higher guidance to be able to tell what strengthens them and what switches them off. I know that many of you practice homeopathy, and are attuned to vibrations. This is about encouraging your clients to embrace higher vibrations. I practice two forms of kinesiology – Brain Gym and Touch for Health. If I start feeling bad, I can immediately check myself for what is switched off – virtually any time, anywhere. Teach your patients these tools so that they can not only figure out what’s wrong, but figure out how to rebalance themselves. This is about self-empowerment. The old way of treating depression took low-energy people and made them A) ashamed of themselves by giving them psychiatric labels, thereby giving them more baggage to overcome, and B) highly dependent on not only medications but also on outside practitioners. Teach your clients how to take care of themselves, and you will be so successful that you will have plenty of business. Higher consciousness efforts that come from love, honoring and respect will always win out over greed, enslavement, and shaming.
10. Not only learn more about the heart connection, but begin to practice it. Five minutes of pure anger will raise cortisol levels for at least six hours. I am always explaining to my depressed clients that while anger may be a logical response to many of life’s aggravating events, if we really want to be happy and healthy, it is better for us to learn how to forgive. I believe that effective counselors of the future will be more like spiritual advisors who can explain the science of how every thought affects body chemistry. It’s not about stuffing our lower selves, it’s about learning how to transform them – first, by setting our intentions on a conscious level, and then by using kinesiology or other body-centered methods to reverse a lifetime of self-defeating thought patterns. Five minutes of true caring, of actually feeling love and appreciation as opposed to just thinking it on an intellectual level, will change your EKG in such a way as to bring it into a state of true coherence. When your heart EKG is producing these beautiful sine waves, your vagus nerve, the largest nerve in the body, instructs your brain to go into an alpha state. Just about everybody can benefit from more alpha – this is the true flow state, when we are living in seeming effortlessness, accessing higher intelligence. With kinesiology, we can learn to embrace what makes us strong, and certainly being around people we care about, and actually learning to move from our hearts rather than our heads, can go a long way to bringing about true joy. Many of the people who work with me are extremely successful and intelligent. I am always explaining that if you really understand that the electrical rhythms of the heart are 30 to 60 times more powerful than the EEG brain activity, you will be more motivated to realize that your deepest intelligence will come from your heart.
Although many of these techniques are simple, it is not always easy for us to change the way we have been living our lives.
When I work with people, I ask them to make commitments to themselves to engage in one or two new behaviors for one week. I always joke that when new clients come to me, being twinkie eaters, soda pop drinkers, couch potatoes, workaholics, and negative thinkers, I could easily send them off with a prescription to deal with everything all at once – their anger, start exercising six days a week, go off to the health food store and buy tofu and organic vegetables, start juice cleansing, get up every morning and do Brain Gym followed by yoga and meditation, and keep a journal of everything they did right over the past week – and that would go over not in the least.
One of the best ways to encourage health-fulfilling behavior in your patients is to practice these things for yourself. Over the years, I have come to realize that the work that I do for myself, on myself, is the work I do for other people, and that I can not be of assistance to others if I am exhausted, overworked, stressed out, or otherwise imbalanced.
Last year, I was approached by two local psychiatrists who were interested in integrating alternative medicine into their medical practices, which happened to have been hammered financially by the HMO’s. These two medical doctors worked six days a week, 12 hours a day, each had chronic back or shoulder pain that they were not dealing with, either through the traditional or medical routes, and were almost as afraid of being criticized by their peers if they ventured outside of drugs or talk therapy as they were unhappy about not making as much money as they used to. If we are going to assist others with mental wellness, let’s at least start on that path ourselves.
None of us has to be perfect in order to be of service, thank goodness. Authenticity, being our true selves, is more important than perfection. But the more we are able to engage our own work, the easier it will be for our clients to actually follow. I am a big believer in integrity. I practice what I preach, which is not perfection – I don’t believe in perfection – but I do believe in sincere attempts to focus on what is really important.