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.

Hypochondria and OCD

Comorbidity (the presence of one or more disorders) is very common among people suffering from OCD.   Some of these other disorders that can affect those with OCD include the following:

  • generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • eating disorders
  • social anxiety disorder
  • Tourette syndrome
  • Asperger syndrome
  • compulsive skin picking
  • body dysmorphic disorder
  • trichotillomania
  • panic attacks
  • depression
  • hypochondria

I love House M.D., reading about different pharmacological drugs, looking up diseases…Every time I get sick with a cold symptom, I look up all the possible diseases it could be.  When I had health insurance, I visited my doctor multiple times a week.  I knew the staff, the tests, the drugs; I very rarely needed anything explained to me, but I always asked a million questions about the possible side effects and such.

I recently got food poisoning, but before I knew what it was, I laid there in my bed, feeling nauseous until l flew into a blind panic, hysterically crying thinking my liver was failing and that I was going to die.  My husband reassured me that I was not dying and we went to the hospital where I was diagnosed, treated and discharged.  I was given a very strong pain killer of which I had never heard, and of course bothered me.  I slept for a week, but now I’m fine and writing this post.

It makes sense that people with OCD can also have other disorders, especially since they all seem to revolve around anxiety.  What I have done to help with this particular disorder is to stop looking up diseases.  As much as I want to, I don’t.  It’s like an addiction, but I know if do, it can lead me down a road of worry.  I still watch House M.D., but with the understanding that the medical mysteries on the show are highly unlikely to occur.  If I or my cats are ever sick or showing symptoms (not life threatening), I wait for three days to monitor, before I see a doctor.  Following this rule really helps because it keeps me in order.

Hypochondria to me feels like a time bomb.  The more I feed the addiction of reading about diseases, the more I worry about what could be wrong with me.  When I get sick, I usually panic, but I do my best to stay healthy by eating organically, learning relaxation techniques and by walking (I’m not much of an exercise person).

Health can be a tricky thing.  It can be overwhelming to try to be healthy and to avoid sickness, but what helps me is to do things that make me happy and not things that promote worry.