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Brains on fire

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Much of modern psychiatry rests on the assumption that mental illness is a biological or genetic disease. Nowhere is this more evident than with serious conditions like depression, bipolar disorder or even schizophrenia – all catch-all terms used to describe individuals who supposedly have lost contact with reality and suffer from delusions, hallucinations, illogical thought processes, or generally disturbed and even suicidal thoughts or behavior.

In some cases, medicine may be correct in blaming body chemistry, but by seeking the cause in some sort of faulty wiring in the brain itself, it could be fingering the wrong culprit. For years, studies have suggested that some of the behavior that we label depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder may in fact be caused by nutritional deficiencies and allergies.

And the latest information, the subject of our cover story this month (page 46), shows that the root of much so-called mental illness is a body and brain on fire.

Systemic inflammation is caused by an immune system in overdrive, which can wreak havoc on the body, causing all sorts of degenerative illness from type 2 diabetes to Alzheimer’s disease. But new evidence also shows that when cytokines – some of the key players in regulating the immune system – are disordered, they can also affect neurological function, causing any one of a litany of conditions we label ‘mental illness.’

A major infection such as Epstein-Barr virus can cause this kind of cytokine storm, but so can allergies and the typical Western diet. Numerous studies of schizophrenics have shown that foods containing gluten or dairy can often trigger psychotic events and behavior. Amino acids in these foods are similar to a substance called melanocyte-inhibiting factor (MIF), known to alter brain activity.

Many psychiatric patients given gluten produce a substance (leukocyte migration inhibition factor) that is similar to one produced by celiac patients, even though the psychiatric patients don’t exhibit other symptoms of gluten intolerance, such as malabsorption in the gut.

Numerous studies have shown that even severely disturbed, hospitalized patients markedly improve when dairy and gluten are eliminated from their diet, and relapse as soon as the foods are reintroduced.

Besides food allergies, numerous nutritional deficiencies such as in certain B vitamins like folate have long been known to cause psychosis.

The most well-known advocate of this approach was the late Dr Carl Pfeiffer, founder of the Brain Bio Center in Princeton, New Jersey. Dr Pfeiffer postulated that most psychotic patients have either abnormally high or low levels of histamine – the body chemical mobilized in allergic reactions – which is vital to the functioning of the nervous system. He also found that they were likely to have too much copper and deficiencies in zinc and other nutrients.

By manipulating their diet and adding supplements, Dr Pfeiffer achieved notable improvements in many patients.

More recently, we’ve discovered the role of sugar or a faulty microbiome in creating a brain on fire, which can be put out by cleaning up the diet and adding probiotics (see page 59), as well as other supplements.

More than 30 years ago, Drs Stephen Davies and Alan Stewart maintained that addressing nutritional imbalances, food allergies and hormonal imbalances “can. . . result in being able to gradually withdraw, in a controlled way, the anti-psychotic medication without relapse.”

And WDDTY panel member Dr Melvyn Werbach amassed many studies in the 1990s showing that patients with clinical depression made a full recovery just by being given folic acid supplements.
All these years later, we have even more information to suggest mental illness isn’t all in the head, or indeed the genes. New evidence from Kings College London shows that many cases of schizophrenia or bipolar illness are caused by environmental factors and not genes, and so are potentially reversible – something not usually told to patients suffering from a coterie of serious mental disorders.

The ‘sick brain’ theory justifies the medical approach to mental illness, with its armament of powerful drugs, lobotomy and electroshock. As Peter Breggin wrote many years ago in Toxic Psychiatry, “If irrationality isn’t biological, then psychiatry loses much of its rationale for existence as a medical speciality.”

That is even more true with new evidence that inflammation – increasingly seen to be the root cause of all diseases – may be the root cause of all mental illness, too.

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