A revolutionary breakthrough in understanding mental health and improving treatment for anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD, and more

Dr. Chris Palmer is a psychiatrist and Harvard researcher who works at the intersection of mental health and metabolic health.

Below, Chris shares 5 key insights from his new book, Brain Power: A Revolutionary Breakthrough in Understanding Mental Health and Improving Treatment for Anxiety, Depression, OCD, PTSD, and More. Listen to the audio version, read by Chris himself, in the Next Big Idea app.

1. The field of mental health is failing.

Mental illnesses are on the rise. They are now the leading cause of disability on the planet. We are struggling to address the problem because no one can answer a simple enough question: What causes mental illness? Instead, we know some of the factors involved, such as genetics, neurotransmitters, hormones, inflammation, trauma and stress. Without knowing the exact cause of mental illness, we cannot develop better treatments.

That’s where I was as an academic psychiatrist until 2016 when I was lucky enough to help a patient lose weight. This man was a 33-year-old man with schizoaffective disorder, a cross between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He had tried 17 different drugs, but they had failed to stop his hallucinations and chronic delusions. Plus, they made him over £100. Weighing in at 340lbs, he asked for my help in losing weight and we decided to try the ketogenic diet. Within two weeks, he not only started losing weight, but I noticed significant changes in his psychiatric symptoms. He was becoming less depressed and was making better eye contact. Most surprisingly, within six to eight weeks he spontaneously reported that his long-standing hallucinations were disappearing and that his paranoid delusions were also regressing. He began to realize that they weren’t true and probably never had been.

“Within two weeks, not only did she start losing weight, but I noticed significant changes in her psychiatric symptoms.”

This man went on to lose 160 lbs and has maintained it to this day. But more importantly, he was able to do things that he hadn’t been able to do since his diagnosis. He was able to complete a certificate program and go public without being terrified of paranoid delusions. He was even able to perform improvisations in front of a live audience. I was flabbergasted, so I embarked on a journey to understand what just happened and how that can help us better understand what causes mental illness.

2. Mental health and physical health are inseparable.

One of the most important parts of this journey is the connection between mental illnesses and physical illnesses, such as diabetes, heart attack, stroke, obesity, chronic pain disorders, and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. All of these illnesses have strong two-way relationships with mental illness. This means that people with mental illnesses are more likely to develop these physical disorders, and people with any of these disorders are more likely to have mental symptoms or be diagnosed with mental disorders.

3. Mental disorders are metabolic disorders of the brain.

All of this research has led me to conclude that mental disorders are actually metabolic disorders of the brain. Now, although most people think of metabolism as burning calories (usually in relation to weight), metabolism is much more complicated than that. It is central to the definition of living organisms because it plays a role in the function of all our cells. When there are metabolic problems in a cell, that cell won’t function properly.

“People with mental illnesses are more likely to develop these physical disorders, and people with any of these disorders are more likely to have mental symptoms or receive a diagnosis of mental disorders.”

While this may sound new, it’s actually simply integrating decades of clinical neuroscience and metabolic research. Neuroscientists and psychiatrists have known since the 1940s that people with chronic mental disorders have metabolic abnormalities in the brain and body.

4. Mitochondria are the unifying link for mental illness.

While metabolism is extraordinarily complicated and involves countless metabolic pathways, there is one unifying link that helps us understand metabolic issues: the mitochondria. While most people know mitochondria as the powerhouse of the cell, they are so much more.

Mitochondria take food and oxygen and turn it into ATP, which is the energy currency of all cells. That’s why they are called the powerhouses of the cell. But they also play a direct role in the production and regulation of neurotransmitters, including those like serotonin and dopamine. Mitochondria also play a direct role in the production and regulation of important hormones, such as cortisol, estrogen, testosterone and progesterone. Mitochondria play a direct role in regulating immune system function and are involved in turning inflammation on and off. Many of you will be shocked to learn that mitochondria play a direct role in the human response to stress, and this includes physical stressors, such as hunger, but also psychological stressors.

Perhaps most importantly, mitochondria play a role in gene expression. They are the single factor most responsible for turning genes on or off in our cells. In fact, mitochondria are the only way to connect the dots of mental illness. They link all the risk factors we know play a role in mental disorders, and they link all the treatments we know can help. The only way to understand how treatments can help someone with depression is to understand metabolism and mitochondria.

5. Metabolic treatments can work wonders.

The man I described in my first insight is not the only patient I have treated with a metabolic approach. In fact, I have treated dozens of other patients with chronic depression, anxiety disorders, OCD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. There are numerous patients around the world who are putting their chronic mental disorders into complete remission, without psychiatric medication, using metabolic treatment strategies. We have a study of 31 patients with treatment-resistant mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and chronic depression, all treated on a ketogenic diet. 43% of them experienced a complete remission of their chronic ailments and most of the patients took less medication as a result of the treatment.

“Within months, all of his schizophrenia symptoms were in full and complete remission.”

In case you’re thinking that maybe this is a temporary improvement in symptoms due to weight loss, let me tell you another story. This is the story of a woman named Doris. Doris has given me permission to use her real name. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was 17. You have experienced hallucinations and delusions daily. Over the next several decades she tried numerous antipsychotic drugs and mood stabilizers, but they failed to stop her symptoms. She has gained a lot of weight from these treatments. She had a court-appointed guardian. She doris met every definition of schizophrenia. She was plagued by her illness and between the ages of 68 and 70 she attempted suicide at least six times and was hospitalized for those suicide attempts.

At age 70, Doris was referred to a weight loss clinic at Duke University, where they were using the ketogenic diet. Within two weeks, she not only began to lose weight, but she experienced a dramatic reduction in auditory hallucinations. Within months, all of her schizophrenia symptoms were in full and complete remission. Within six months, she was off all her psychiatric medications and was in full and complete remission. Doris continued to live for another 15 years, symptom free, drug free, out of psychiatric hospitals, no more psychiatrists. She was even able to get rid of the court-appointed guardian because she learned to take care of herself.

Stories like this don’t happen in psychiatry with current treatments. It’s a new day in mental health. One full of hope and possibility.

Now, I want you to understand that the ketogenic diet is not the focus of my book. Rather than, Brain energy it takes people on a scientific journey to understand what causes mental illness and the different strategies we can use. Yes, this includes dietary changes, but it also includes things like exercise, sleep, identifying and treating hormonal imbalances or vitamin or nutrient deficiencies, and reducing or managing substance use. There are many strategies to choose from, but what I am convinced is that most people with mental illness can get better.

To hear the audio version read by author Christopher Palmer, download the Next Big Idea app today:

Hear key insights in the upcoming Big Idea app

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