Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Strategy for Brain and Mental Health

Dr. Mark Hyman's "UltraMind" Strategy for Brain and Mental Health

Mental illness is on the rise, and conventional medicine cannot cure it. That's the message from Mark Hyman, MD, who offers an alternative answer in his new book, The UltraMind Solution: Fix Your Broken Brain by Healing Your Body First. He notes that an epidemic of "broken brains" affects millions of people worldwide, taking many forms -- anxiety, depression, dementia, addictions, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, etc. The common model for addressing these disorders is drug therapy... but drugs alone fail to address the underlying causes of mental disease.


The real cure for brain disorders lies outside the brain, Dr. Hyman explains. If you suffer from depression, for example, you are not suffering from a "Prozac deficiency" in spite of the fact that doctors may prescribe it or other antidepressants. Mainstream medicine's approach is to make a diagnosis based on symptoms, then suppress those symptoms with a medication rather than identifying the cause and fixing that. For example, many cases of depression are actually rooted in nutritional deficiencies or imbalances, including vitamin D, B-12, an omega-3 fatty acid deficiency, or a problem with digestive function or some other biological deficit. And, just about all these can be corrected without antidepressants. In fact, Dr. Hyman points out that most people who take antidepressants find that they offer only partial relief, lose effectiveness over time or simply don't work. These drugs also cause side effects such as weight gain and loss of sex drive, and more than half of people who take them quit within months.

In reality, everything that affects the body affects the brain, since it is one of the most vital organs of the body, and everything that affects the brain affects the rest of the body. Simply taking an antidepressant for depression -- or Ritalin for ADHD, or an anti-anxiety medication and so forth -- fails to take this basic body-mind connection into account. In Dr. Hyman's opinion, a new paradigm for mental illness must take a wider view of a person, not merely focus on the brain, since there are myriad causes of mental illness. This view should replace the shortsighted approach to treatment where a doctor marks down a diagnostic code on a patient's chart and prescribes the corresponding pill.


According to Dr. Hyman, there are seven key influences affecting your brain, your memory, attention, mood and behavior -- nutrition, hormones, inflammation, digestion, detoxification, energy metabolism and the mind-body connection. When one or more of these are thrown off-kilter, imbalances develop, which can manifest in mental and/or emotional illness. Identifying and addressing imbalances thusly enables the body's natural healing mechanisms to take over, bringing about dramatic improvements in mood, memory, attention, concentration, cognition and other brain functions.

Dr. Hyman recommends a three-pronged strategy for brain wellness: His book has quizzes to help identify which of your seven underlying systems isn't working... suggestions on how to fix the underlying problem causing the imbalance... and ways to nourish all these aspects so they can function optimally as an integrated system. We took a brief look at how each of the seven key systems affects mental health, and what you can do to help keep them in balance.

  • Are you eating right? Inadequate nutrition is at the root of many illnesses, both mental and physical. If your diet is loaded with fatty fast foods, processed foods and refined carbohydrates (e.g., white bread and pasta) you're not only missing the nutrients your brain requires to function properly, but also creating other chemical imbalances. To restore balance, eat a diet based on a variety of whole, unprocessed foods.
  • Is there a hormonal issue? Improper diet is among the factors that can lead to a hormone imbalance -- specifically, eating sugar and refined carbohydrates causes the body to pump out an overload of the hormone insulin into the bloodstream. Too much insulin can cause mood swings and behavior disturbances such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks and insomnia. Other hormonal imbalances are caused by swings in sex hormones, which can be a natural result of aging, or an improperly functioning thyroid gland, etc. See your physician to identify and treat hormonal issues.
  • Do you need to cool down inflammation? If the body is inflamed, the brain is too. Brain inflammation is implicated in nearly every brain disease, from Alzheimer's to autism to depression to schizophrenia. Sources of inflammation include refined carbohydrates, food allergens, stress and anxiety -- but on the bright side, Dr. Hyman reminds us that these are all fixable problems. In addition to eating healthier whole foods, getting plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, and taking steps to control stress, you can also add anti-inflammatory herbs such as turmeric, ginger and rosemary to your diet.
  • Is there a digestive problem? One of the most powerful ways you can fix your brain is to fix your gut, says Dr. Hyman. For example, if your digestive enzymes malfunction, undigested gluten from wheat or casein from milk can harm brain function. Strategies to resolve digestive problems might include eliminating food allergens, considering digestive enzymes and taking probiotics to bring digestive colonies of microbes back into proper balance.
  • Do you need to detox? Toxic chemicals in the environment such as mercury and lead underlie many neurological diseases. Limit exposure to these toxins to the greatest degree possible. For example, do not eat (or rarely eat) large fish such as swordfish or tuna that is likely to contain higher levels of mercury. If you live in an older house, be sure the water and paint are not contaminated with lead.
  • How's your energy metabolism? Mitochondria are the miniature energy factories in your body's cells, including those in the brain. The single most important thing you can do to support your mitochondria and boost your energy is to exercise. For energy problems specifically related to stress, toxicity or aging, Dr. Hyman prescribes supplements such as Acetyl-L-Carnitine, Alpha-lipoic acid, Coenzyme Q10, magnesium, riboflavin and niacin.
  • Are you stressed out? Closely examine your life, Dr. Hyman urges. Stress robs you of energy, so take action to more effectively manage it. For instance, make a promise to yourself that this week you will eliminate one thing that causes anxiety and add one that helps you heal and thrive.

Drugs can provide a temporary fix for brain problems, says Dr. Hyman, but these are not the long-term solution. As usual, it takes more work than popping a pill, but in the long run a healthy mind and body are worth it.


Mark Hyman, MD, author of The UltraMind Solution: Fix Your Broken Brain by Healing Your Body First (Scribner), UltraMetabolism (Atria) and The UltraSimple Diet (Pocket). Dr. Hyman is founder and medical director of The UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Massachusetts, and the former co-medical director at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Massachusetts. Visit his Web sites at www.ultrawellness.com, www.ultrawellnesscenter.com and www.ultramind.com.

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