Mental Health and Naturopathic Medicine

The Integrative Approach to Mental Health

One’s mental health is a reflection of both the mind and the body. There are effective, long term strategies to improve mood, increase energy, decrease anxiety, and balance neurotransmitter function. Creating an individualized program to address the underlying causes of mood and mental disorders is a powerful path towards greater health and happiness.

When I am working with a patient who is suffering from mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, of psychiatric illness, the first step is to do a thorough health assessment. The brain is an organ like the liver, heart and lungs. For the brain to function optimally, it needs to be supported by a healthy physical body. Much insight can be gained through a good history, physical exam, and assessment of lab work. Getting to know the patient, their goals, and their history helps us to co-create a program to enhance mental and physical health.

The next step is to address possible underlying causes of physical and mental issues. When the body is supported to function at its best, there is greater balance in the body and mind. Each of the following medical issues can profoundly affect mood and mental functioning.

Nutritional deficiencies – Patients receive coaching on how to optimize their food intake, focusing on creating a diet that fuels the brain at every meal. Specific nutrients are required for optimal functioning of the neurotransmitters that govern mood and more.

Hormone balance – Changing levels of estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and more can affect our mood and both mental and physical functioning. Naturopathic programs to enhance hormone function naturally or with bio-identical hormones can provide a much needed boost.

Thyroid levels – Assessing the thyroid is a complex task requiring detailed knowledge of the biochemistry of the body. Often low thyroid levels are missed, and this common cause of mood disorders is overlooked. Naturopathic strategies to optimize thyroid function help to increase mood, energy, mental acuity and more.

Digestive Issues – Without optimal digestive function, the brain function will be compromised. The digestive organs are where we take in the nutrients essential for neurotransmitter function. It is also where we eliminate waste and toxins from the body. Many patients experience better mood, greater mental acuity, and increased energy when their digestive concerns are addressed in a real and lasting way.

Food allergies – Many people don’t know that there are foods they eat that are creating fatigue or worse symptoms. In fact, at least 30% of people with schizophrenia are allergic to gluten (celiac disease), vs. only .3% or the total population. Celiac disease can decrease circulation to the brain, cause atrophy of parts of the brain, and cause calcifications of the brain. Proper assessment of celiac disease and coaching on the complexities of gluten elimination, are essential for recovery in these people.

Adrenal function – The adrenal glands produce hormones like adrenalin and cortisol that are intimately linked with brain function and nervous system regulation. Chronic stress, chronic pain, excess stimulants and allergies can all deplete or deregulate the adrenal glands. With a program of lifestyle changes, pain management, and natural medicines, the adrenal glands can become better regulated. Anxiety is reduced, energy is enhanced and mental processes are optimized.

Pain – Chronic pain is a major source of depression for many people. Naturopathic physicians are trained in physical medicine and can assess and treat chronic pain with a variety of techniques. Laser therapy is an excellent choice for degenerative and arthritic issues, as well as other muscle / tendon / nerve issues. A program to reduce inflammation in the body can help to reduce pain and enhance health.

Sleep Issues: Insomnia can rob you of your vitality and push a delicate nervous system seriously out of balance. Many people can overcome insomnia through good sleep habits, relaxation techniques, behavioural therapy and natural medicines. Pharmaceutical medicines are a last resort and are associated with a significant increase in pre-mature death from cancer and other causes.

The next step in overcoming mental health issues is stress management coaching and counselling. I’ve spent many years developing a powerful tool kit for helping patients manage stress and enhance their resilience to life’s challenges on the physical, emotional and spiritual planes. For instance, at the Macdonald Centre for Natural Medicine, I lead weekly relaxation classes. During this nine week series of noon-hour classes participants experience guided visualization for self healing and mindfulness training. Alternatively, patients can enjoy individualized relaxation sessions. During these one-on-one sessions, I discuss the patient’s particular stresses then guide them through an individualized relaxation and visualization session. Patients feel relaxed and refreshed and come away with practical tools for coping with daily life. More in-depth trauma counselling, addiction counselling and marriage counselling is available through an in-house referral to a trained counsellor.

Finally, there are natural and pharmaceutical medicines that can enhance the nervous system and balance neurotransmitters. I work with patients to help them assess all their treatment options, from herbal medicine, amino acid therapy, nutritionals and pharmaceutical medicines.

Dr. Deidre Macdonald is a licensed naturopathic physician who has been practicing for 16 years in downtown Courtenay. She received her psychology degree from UBC and her medical doctorate from an accredited naturopathic medical school in Portland, Oregon. For more information contact her office at (250) 897-0235 or via this website.

The Beneficial Bacteria within – The Human Microbiome

The Human Microbiome: The Beneficial Bacteria Within

Time magazine, Scientific American, and National Geographic have all recently published articles describing exciting new research on the human microbiome, the trillions of bacteria and other microbes that call our bodies home. There are over 1,000 species that make up the human microbiome and all together, they weigh in at about three pounds. Science is showing that these beneficial bacteria play a critical role in the healthy functioning of the body. However, studies also show how easy it is for helpful bacteria to get caught in the crossfire between antibiotics and their intended targets. The wide spread use of antibiotics and other aspects of modern life have significantly altered the human microbiome. There is now strong evidence that the inadvertent destruction of beneficial microbes in the human bacterial ecology is likely a contributing factor in the increase in obesity and immune related diseases in Western society.

The complex ecosystem of the microbiome contains trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that inhabit our skin, genital areas, mouth and especially intestines. These good bacteria in our intestines help us digest our food, particularly our fiber. They help us absorb nutrients like vitamin B12 and biotin. Bacteria throughout the body are part of the defensive team against harmful bacterial overgrowth like staph infections, meningitis, traveller’s diarrhea and more. Good bacteria help the immune system to mature and to maintain a balance between pro and anti-inflammatory immune responses. Therefore, they help prevent allergies and auto-immune responses, where the immune system attacks our own tissues. Good bacteria even help moisturize our skin.

Interesting research shows that even bacteria we associate with disease may be of benefit. Helicobacter pylori is a bacteria that lives in the stomach and is associated with peptic ulcers. Antibiotics that target H pylori reduce ulcers, but are associated with weight gain. It turns out that H pylori is considered part of the normal bacterial lining of the stomach and it helps to regulate ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite. People who take antibiotics for H pylori have higher levels ghrelin, and therefore are predisposed to eating more and subsequently gaining weight. Years ago, 60% of the population carried H pylori. Now only 6% of children have it due to the widespread use of antibiotics for common infections. Could this factor play a role in the epidemic of obesity in our society?

Modern medical practices have radically changed the microbial make up of our bodies and are affecting our health in ways we are just beginning to understand. The overuse of indiscriminate antibiotics is one culprit, as is the increase in c-section deliveries. For thousands of years babies have benefited from receiving their first dose of essential bacteria from vaginal deliveries. The natural birth process gives infants lactobacillales, the bacteria needed to digest milk. C-section babies lack these essential bacteria in their microbiome, and this contributes to allergies and digestive problems.

The increasing rates of allergies, asthma and autoimmunne disease appears to be linked to the changes in our modern microbiome. While genetics play a role in the inheritance of a hyper-active immune system, there is evidence that parents may pass on their altered microbiome as well. (There is an interesting article being presented at a gastroenterology conference I will be attending this spring on the connection between Crohn’s patients and the altered microbiome of their relatives.)

What can an individual do to maintain or enhance their microbiome to ensure optimal health? First, one can take general steps to improve their health and therefore reduce the need for antibiotics. Naturopathic physicians help guide and coach their patients on lifestyle practices that lead to optimal health and on natural medicines to enhance immune function.

Second, when possible avoid the use of antibiotics for infections. In my pharmacology training at UBC, our instructors emphasized that science shows many people overestimate the power of antibiotics to help common infections. For instance, taking antibiotics for strep throat and ear infections reduces the time spent in pain by only a few hours versus placebo while causing significant diarrhea for some people due to the effect of stripping the intestinal microbiome. Naturopathic physicians can prescribe antibiotics but prefer to bolster the body’s own infection fighting mechanisms with natural medicines. Ultimately, having a strong immune system and aggressive early intervention for colds and flus help prevent viral infections from setting the stage for bacterial infections like sinusitis and ear infections.

Third, many of us already have both deficient levels of good bacteria and an overgrowth of harmful organisms that have already taken hold. Antibiotics and other medications can not only strip the good bacteria, but allow for naturally occurring internal yeasts such as Candida albicans to proliferate to unhealthy levels. There are ways to re-establish the healthy microbiome in the body. Naturopathic physicians have been addressing this issue head on for decades and have successful protocols for enhancing their patients’ microbiome. Taking good quality probiotics supplements while reducing the overgrowth of opportunistic harmful bacteria and intestinal yeasts through supervised programs is very beneficial to overall health, energy and immunity.

I am very excited that science now has the tools to explore and understand the human microbiome. In my naturopathic medical practice, I have worked with thousands of patients to improve their internal bacterial environment and have seen the profound impact that doing so has on their health. I look forward to having new tools and protocols to more specifically address chronic autoimmune and digestive issues in the future.

Scientific American, June 2012, The Ultimate Social Network
National Geographic, January 2013, The Secret World of Microbes
Science and Society Journal, Who are we? Indigenous microbes and the ecology of human diseases
Curr. Issues Intest. Microbiol. (2003) 4: 1-8, Studies on Colonization Resistance of the Human Gut Microbiota to Candida albicans and the Effects of Tetracycline and Labtobacillus