Natural Approaches to Treating Mental Illness 

I really can’t paint the picture enough to show just how severe my OCD was. People meet me today and say how “normal” I seem, and tell me they just can’t imagine another version. It wasn’t overnight, and not always easy, but my journey certainly was my own.  I did almost everything they said. Well, not really, but I did start with therapy. I was impressed with the statistics I found on ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). But I was lucky; I had good health insurance and access to a therapist who I liked, who was taking new patients, and who was familiar with my condition. This is not often the case. I never tried SSRIs, though if my progress after therapy had regressed, I may have considered it. Diminished libido and weight gain were two side effects that dettered me. But really, those are the options most of the time… therapy and medication. I knew there had to be more, and there is. 

The thing is, mental health issues are often a combination of psychological inflexibility and physiological causes. Hormone imbalance, nutrient deficiency, genetics, traumatic brain injuries, chronic inflammation, infection and other diseases can all trigger or inflate psychological symptoms. Behavioral symptoms can then manifest including insomnia, eating disorders and addiction. Psychotherapy can truly do an incredible job at addressing not only stress reduction, but teaching self compassion and instilling invaluable skills to handle “spikes” in symptoms when they arise. Other ways to reduce stress include yoga and meditation. 

Now, to target the other piece of the puzzle, we need to find out what else is happening in the body. Testing and proper diagnosis of any underlying condition is important. Some of these tests can be ordered by a “regular” doctor, but a naturopathic doctor would be the one to order more specialty tests such as neurotransmitter analysis. This underlying condition (or physiological cause), if there is one, and/or chronic stress can contribute to neurochemical imbalance like low serotonin and dopamine.  Luckily, there are options for correcting these imbalances such as neurofeedback, targeted amino acid therapy, nutrition and botanical/herbal medicine. I’ll break down some of these options. 

Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback that uses EEG to get real time display of brain activity with the goal being to teach self regulation of brain function. Leads are placed on the scalp and a computer screen shows brain waves. The individual then can learn to slow down or speed up brain waves. It’s kind of like learning to be aware and regulate your breathing. Pretty cool, right? It can be useful for ADHD, anxiety, depression, autism, OCD, PTSD and epilepsy. 

Targeted Amino Acid Therapy is based on Pfeiffers Law which states that If a drug can be found to do the job of medical healing, a nutrient can be found to do the same job. Amino acids are the building blocks of neurotransmitters and neurotransmitters are what become imbalanced with psychological inflexibility and a multitude of biological causes. Even gut issues can contribute to neurotransmitter imbalance because GABA and serotonin are made in the gut. Any condition that causes nutrient depletion can interfere with the production of neurotransmitters as well.  What is important to know is that this therapy must be tailored and targeted to the individual because neurotransmitter imbalance can look differently in everyone. For example, if we lined up 100 people with low tryptophan (the amino acid precursor of serotonin), we would see people with conditions including aggression, alcoholism, anorexia, ADD, insomnia, sexual dysfunction, and sleep disorders. 

Nutrition is one of the most foundational areas to look at when supporting someone’s mental health. I read a study many years ago, conducted in Australia. A link was found between sugar and anxiety! Makes sense, sugar is a stimulant and can even act as a hormone in the body. Food sensitivities and allergies also flare up psychological symptoms. 

There are many options available and the beauty is that when one thing gets better, often the rest follows. It sounds overwhelming, but I like to look at like an orchestra; when a few adjustments are made, the whole symphony sounds new. A tweak here and there, and we get brand new music! The journey looks different for everyone, but there is always hope and progress to be made. Essentially the goal is to increase one’s ability to tolerate psychological discomfort, address the biological contributors to the symptoms, and to alleviate as much stress and reduce triggers as much as possible to allow the person to heal tolerably and gently. 

Not everyone will respond to the same treatment because not everyone has the same factors contributing to the manifestation of their symptoms. The key is to embrace your own healing journey; to know there are more options out there than what was once traditionally prescribed and to not give up.

OCD Gone

That’s right; it’s pretty much gone.  The illness that defined me and served as the source for much of my suffering is finally at bay.  I had tried everything (except SSRIs) and many things had helped, but not cured.  I actually did not believe OCD could go away.  Here’s what happened:

I went to a naturopath.  I had seen naturopaths before, but none like this.  In fact, I have seen quite a few medical professionals including your classic MDs, specialists, and alternative practitioners.  To me, I wasn’t on the east or west side of medicine, I just wanted someone, anyone, to help me.

I went to see this particular naturopath for my chronic systemic infections.  I was sick a lot and was told by my current doctors that all the tests had been done and there was nothing more to try, but I am not one to be content with that answer.  And when I say I was sick a lot, I’m talking not serious stuff, but enough to disrupt my life.  During my last quarter in college, I had gotten Whooping Cough twice, Strep Throat once, a Staph infection, a sinus infection, an ear infection, and countless UTIs and yeast infections.  This is why I dropped out of school; I physically was not healthy enough to tolerate the stress.

The naturopath informed me that I had a hormonal imbalance, high cortisol levels, food allergies, a fatty liver and imbalanced serotonin levels.  She told me to avoid certain foods, and to stop smoking pot.  She suggested progesterone cream and some supplements for my hormones.  She also prescribed a host of different supplements.  I followed every bit of advice she gave me to perfection.  That first week, I slept better than I had ever in my whole life.  I was able to get weed out of my routine in a few weeks.  After a month, I was a different person.  I felt calm, I was no longer compulsing and my brain was no longer obsessing.  I tried bringing some of the foods she told me to eliminate back into my diet, and I experienced very unpleasant results, which verified what she had said (not that I needed verification).

I still have my bad days, but the tools I learned in therapy are enough to help me cope with that.

What I have learned from this experience is that health most certainly does not come for free; it takes work.  I have also learned that to heal, one must heal the whole body.  We are a balanced system and if one thing is off, who knows where the symptom might pop up?

I believed that if my OCD would just go away, I would be unstoppable, or at least that my life would be infinitely better.  My life is much better, but I am facing a different set of challenges.  Though the OCD caused a lot of my pain, it was not the source of all my pain.  The OCD is a symptom of even more shit I need to work through.

So, I am in therapy again.

When my OCD was at it’s worst, I wanted nothing more than for it to leave me alone.  Now, I want more…. to be happy.

5 HTP and the Hormonal Therapy Results!

First, the results:

About 5 or 6 months ago I started natural hormonal therapy with natural progesterone cream.  I noticed a dramatic difference that first month.  Not only was my period just 4 days instead of 5, but my PMS was virtually gone.  I got a little scared, wondering if perhaps this was a fluke month, but each sequential month brought similar results, give or take a little PMS.  I mentioned this to my facialist who told me she used to use progesterone but switched to 5 HTP.  I did some research on it and decided to try it…

5 HTP

5 HTP is a naturally occurring amino acid and a precursor to serotonin.  Yes, serotonin, our favorite word!  Cause that’s the thing, for serotonin to pass the blood brain barrier, it needs tryptophan; they’re like buddies.  It is marketed as a mood enhancer, appetite suppressant and a sleep aid.  The first and latter sounded pretty good to me so I gave it a try.  My period showed up ten days early and things felt totally off.  I realized that in taking progesterone and 5 HTP I was elevating the progesterone levels too much.  I stopped taking the progesterone and am now just taking 5 HTP and things are much better.  I do find it to help, unlike St. John’s Wort which does nothing for me.  And unlike certain herbal supplements that relax you like chamomile tea, I actually notice a huge difference.  It took about a week to notice a change and the days where I don’t take it, I can tell.  It makes me less anxious and helps me to fall asleep.

The moral of the story is that if you are taking birth control or other forms of HT, then maybe you shouldn’t take 5 HTP.   Other than that, it helps with my mood and sleep.

*NOTE*

I am off 5HTP and back on progesterone.  The daily benefits of 5HTP were nice, but my menstrual cycle went back to its usual PMS before when I wasn’t taking anything.  Since my period is a great source of my OCD I decided to ditch the 5HTP and do the progesterone again.

Hormonal Imbalance in detail

Hormonal Imbalance can affect both men and women in the following possible ways:

  • fatigue
  • PMS (women)
  • headaches, foggy thinking
  • UTIs (women)
  • acne
  • depression, anxiety
  • hair loss
  • low sex drive
  • allergy symptoms
  • sleep problems
  • mood swings
  • hunger cravings
  • weight gain

I know what you’re thinking- so what symptom isn’t on the list?  Good question, but there’s an even better answer.  Every multi-cell organism has hormones.  Hormones are essentially chemical messengers that transports a signal from one cell to another.  Hormones are responsible for maintaining homeostasis and regulate all kinds of functions like sleep, eating, fertility, puberty…  The thing is if your hormones are imbalanced, your whole body from your physiology to your mental state can be “wrong”.

I felt like things were not right.  I mean when something feels wrong with my body, I’m the first one to know about it.  It’s easy to forget about little nuisances because we get used to them, so taking a fresh look at your life can be helpful in evaluating your health.

In my recent posts I have explained how my OCD spikes during PMS.  So much anxiety and craziness, I feel like there’s a connection between OCD and hormonal imbalance.  Remember the magic word: Serotonin?  Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which is a hormone too, so is it so crazy to think that all this stuff is connected; that maybe a hormonal imbalance is causing or at least exaserbating my OCD?  Nope, it sure isn’t!

How do you get a hormonal imbalance?

  1. Eating commercial foods – this means foods that are not organic and have been treated with pesticides, hormones and antibiotics.
  2. Toxins – things like window cleaner, perfume, basically anything that is composed of synthetic chemicals.
  3. Hormone Therapy – this includes birth control (pills, patch…) , or hormone replacement therapy (HRT)

Birth Control Pills/Patch

Women are often prescribed birth control not for prevention of pregnancy but  for acne, mood swings or PMS.  Can you see where I am going with this?  Birth control is loaded with Estrogen, way more than your body needs by 10 times!  This estrogen is commercially made from things like the urine of mares, and is used by the body, but not in the same way as your natural estrogen.  The body gets the fake stuff in abundance and says “wow, this stuff works good, let’s stop making our own estrogen and just use this stuff.”  This can really change your body’s natural chemistry and create an estrogen dominance.  For many women, this can make their menstrual cycles much worse and cause many of the symptoms previously listed.  Many women claim success with the use of birth control because maybe they had low estrogen to begin with, but the myth that birth control will work wonders on everyone  is causing more harm than good.

I’m not saying to stop taking birth control!  If you are experiencing unwanted side effects, talk to your OBGYN about a lower estrogen brand, or switch to a non hormonal method of contraception.

I mentioned how taking hormones can cause a problem and they can, but not when done properly.  If you find out you have a hormonal imbalance, say low progesterone, you can supplement with natural progesterone cream made from phytoestrogens (plants).  Natural is just that, natural!  It is safe with no risk of blood clots or other nasty symptoms.

I recently sent away for a home saliva test ($60) and found out I have slightly low estrogen and very low progesterone.  You can buy these tests online and take them at home.  There are different tests for different hormones so it’s a good idea to take a symptom test online first and see which hormones are most likely the culprit.  There are different tests for men and women.

I don’t take birth control, and I eat organically, so I am assuming that the anxiety caused by my OCD is throwing off my cortisol levels.  Cortisol is the stress hormone, so when I am stressed (a lot of the time), I use up all this cortisol and my body runs out and converts my progesterone into more cortisol.  Yikes!  So my current treatment is to supplement with natural progesterone cream, and increase my intake of soy and other phytoestrogens.  I am hoping that this will help with the PMS and decrease the stress in my life therefore getting my cortisol back to normal.   If  I can help my PMS, that’s a lot less OCD manifesting in my life.

When working on your hormones, and especially if you don’t have a dr. (like me), go slowly, do your research and give it about 3 months to see a difference (from what I read).  Listen to your body.  Your body knows and it will tell you.

I’ll post results after 3 months of treatment.  Remember that your health is important, whether it be in dealing with your OCD or your physical health.  Many times one health problem can cause another, so treat your whole body, not just the symptoms.  Be safe!

“Magic” Mushrooms (psilocybin)

I’ve read many studies that have come out in the last few years expressing how psilocybin mushrooms can help OCD, not just for a day, like many drugs, but indefinitely! I was so scared to try this, but I was desperate. To date I have done mushrooms just twice, but this has helped reduce my OCD symptoms by ~75%.

painting

The first trip was very enjoyable, and not at all scary.  I took .25mg ativan beforehand since mushrooms can increase the heart rate and when mine climbs too high, I usually go into a panic attack.  At first I felt very “buzzy”, almost like my whole body was tingling.   I also felt a bit warmer.  I giggled like a kid and my emotions felt very simple.  Like when I felt joy, it was pure joy.  The colors and patterns were amazing!  I did not take a very high dose so my visual hallucinations were minor.  I began to come down four hours later and was a little bummed.

I was expecting an instant epiphany and I didn’t get one, so I assumed it didn’t work.  I went to sleep and could hardly move the following day with a horrendous stomach ache and diarrhea.  I do not recomend taking mushrooms on an empty stomach!

And speaking of epiphanies, I can’t say that I didn’t experience one, as I did experience a mind-shift; a change in my perspective.  I feared acquiring a new personality, like drugs would change me, but it’s really not like that.  Mushrooms are fairly gentle.

The following day, I realized I had not done many of my compulsions! I was surprised that a substantial change had been made.  I was ecstatic and hoping it would last.  The effect is related to hyperactivity in the frontal cortex. I am not cured, but I am the most normal I have ever been, and this feeling has lasted for months. My OCD is at a minimum.

Mt second trip was much more intense.  I took them the second time more for recreational purposes, rather than medicinal ones.  I decided not to take ativan before hand.  Bad idea.  I started to panic.  My fear of another stomach ache snowballed and I left happy and went right into panic and nausea.  I hid my face under a blanket because the lights were insanely bright (pupils dilate a lot).  After my fiancé calmed me down by turning on Friends I was completely fine.  The bad trip lasted maybe 20 minutes and then I was fine.  I doubt it would’ve happened had I been in a decently relaxed mind set before taking mushrooms (which I did on a full stomach of carbs and fruit).

After I calmed down, the experience was incredible.  My paintings had come to life and my concrete ceiling had become a river with electric blue snakes.  The characters on Friends were much more beautiful that usual.  The silly jokes brought me joy and I was delighted in general.  I went to bed and had no stomach problems.

Taking only two doses over the last 8 months has changed my life immensely.  I think my OCD symptoms have emerged a little, but absolutely in no way like how I was before.  I would also add that a bad trip is nothing to fear.  Do not take mushrooms alone for your first time and take them in an environment in which you feel safe, like your home.  Do not use on an empty stomach, and for those who have a sensitive stomach, consume mushrooms in tea form with a little ginger.  If you are prone to panic attacks or heart conditions, please do your research and be careful.

If you google search “ocd mushroom study” you will find many valid results.  Here is one article by the BBC.

Tramadol

Tramadol is an atypical opioid used to treat moderate to severe pain.  Because of its effects on serotonergic system, it has been suggested tramadol could be effective in treating anxiety, but at this time, the FDA has not given it a green light for use in treating anxiety or depression.

I came across tramadol on accident.  I purchased some because it is marketed as a pain killer, but upon taking it, I discovered not only were my OCD symptoms relieved quite a bit, but I was in a bit of a happier mood.  I took tramadol a few more times and got curious if there was any information on the internet in terms of tramadol being used for OCD, and as it turns out…

Tramadol has a half life of 5-7 hours.  I find that if I take it, I must do so in the morning because it will still be going strong (even at a small dose) till nightfall.  By the next day, I feel mostly back to normal.  The other reason I do not recommend taking it at night is because one side effect is insomnia and this was definitely the case with me.

Tramadol is not a miracle pill though.  Besides insomnia and other possible side effects, dependency is a risk.  The other drawback is the crash.  Sometimes I find my OCD spikes the following day after taking tramadol.  I take tramadol only on serious days, maybe once a month.  This drug should not be used with MAOI’s. Please use caution.

*UPDATE* 12/1/09

I thought I would take tramadol today because my OCD has been a bit annoying since I got back from my vacation. I don’t travel well and when I do, I usually have my OCD spike a bit.  It has spiked and tramadol seemed like a good idea, but I remember a couple times back my jaw tensed up and I couldn’t hear as well, and the last time I took it, my jaw locked a little and I got tinnitus (ringing in ears) that lasted about 18 hours.  I have since read that tramadol is ototoxic (can cause temporary or permanent damage to ears including tinnitus).  Because of this information, I have decided to not use tramadol anymore.  As much as I appreciated the drug, it’s not worth it to me.

Stay safe!

Marijuana

This solved my eating disorder.  Marijuana stimulates the hypothalumus, which means it stimulates hunger.  As far as OCD is concerned, this drug acts almost like a focus breaker, and getting a break from a thought I’ve had for hours is paradise.  Some people get paranoid, but for me, tv is an easy fix to that because it’s very easy to get distracted and change your thoughts to something else.  It also is the best sleep aid I’ve ever used.  I also prefer this to pharmacologicals because it is natural and there is virtually no risk of addiction.

There is a lot of propaganda out there about marijuana, and most of it is totally ridiculous and untrue.  I recently watched a film called “The Union: The business of Getting High” which is great to see if you are nervous about trying it or if you want to learn anything about it.

Here is a link to an article by BBC:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4338634.stm

Also, here is a great link to a page detailing the myths and facts about marijuana (includes sources)

http://www.drugpolicy.org/marijuana/factsmyths/