Mood Enhancers: Part One
Mood Enhancers: Part One
“…one pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small and the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all…” White Rabbit: Jefferson Airplane
Actually, the “ones that mother gives you”, if they are medically endorsed, are more likely to speed your demise than most of the illegal drugs, as recent statistics indicate. But we are not here to talk about legalizing street drugs, nor about making pharmaceutical drugs illegal – although that combination of approaches would save a lot of lives.
I say this because of the documented increase in suicidal thoughts among those using antidepressant drugs. In fact, I once had a young woman I was consulting with tell me that she came off “crystal meth” (a dangerous street drug: methamphetamine) easier than withdrawing from Prozac, with far less suicidal thoughts.
Dangers of Pharmaceutical Antidepressants
There is no longer any doubt that antidepressants increase the risk of suicide, violence and homicide at all ages. Even the FDA admitted, in 2007, that SSRIs can cause madness at all ages and that the drugs are very dangerous: “All patients being treated with antidepressants for any indication should be monitored appropriately and observed closely for clinical worsening, suicidality, and unusual changes in behaviour, especially during the initial few months of a course of drug therapy, or at times of dose changes, either increases or decreases. The following symptoms, anxiety, agitation, panic attacks, insomnia, irritability, hostility, aggressiveness, impulsivity, akathisia (psychomotor restlessness), hypomania, and mania, have been reported in adult and pediatric patients being treated with antidepressants.” (Source)
Effectiveness of Pharmaceutical Antidepressants
A meta-analysis done in 2015 examined all the data on antidepressants approved between 1985 and 1997. “It quickly became apparent that many of the assumptions about the relative potency of antidepressants compared to placebo were not based on data from the contemporary trials but from an earlier era. Specifically, it became evident that the magnitude of symptom reduction was about 40% with antidepressants and about 30% with placebo.” (Source)
So, the average antidepressant drug is only about 10% more effective than a placebo. And this is generous. Another clinical overview had this to say: “The aim of this review is to evaluate the placebo effect in the treatment of anxiety and depression. Antidepressants are supposed to work by fixing a chemical imbalance, specifically, a lack of serotonin or norepinephrine in the brain. However, analyses of the published and the unpublished clinical trial data are consistent in showing that most (if not all) of the benefits of antidepressants in the treatment of depression and anxiety are due to the placebo response, and the difference in improvement between drug and placebo is not clinically meaningful…Other treatments (e.g., psychotherapy and physical exercise) produce the same benefits as antidepressants and do so without the side effects and health risks of the active drugs. Psychotherapy and placebo treatments also show a lower relapse rate than that reported for antidepressant medication.” (Source)
And this is from the respected journal, Frontiers in Psychiatry, authored by a respected psychologist (Irving Kirssch). Following the link (just above) to his article, is most enlightening for those seeking to observe the difference between real science, and the pharmaceutical lies that pass for science these days.
One major theme in this newsletter concerns a major error in the pharmaceutical approach to depression. And to understand that error we will begin with a basic primer on neurotransmitters.
These are the chemicals that transmit signals from one neuron to the next, across the synapses of the brain. Neurons are the electrically excitable nerve cells found in the nervous system that process and transmit information. They are the core components of the brain and spinal cord, and are also found at the endings of motor neurons where they stimulate the muscle fibers to contract. Neurotransmitters are also produced in the glands, including the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands.
The major neurotransmitter systems are the norepinephrine system (wakefulness or arousal), the dopamine system (voluntary movement and motivation, pleasure, addiction, love), the serotonin system (memory, emotion, sleep and temperature regulation), and the cholinergic system (voluntary movement of the skeletal muscles, learning, memory and adrenaline production).
There are two main classes of neurotransmitters: excitatory (“makes you larger”) and inhibitory (“makes you small”). Excitatory neurotransmitters include acetylcholine (the cholinergic system), dopamine and norepinephrine, while the inhibitory neurotransmitters are GABA (Gamma aminobutyric acid) and serotonin.
Dopamine is the big boy, though. Dopamine is your number one evolutionary reward mechanism. It is especially released when we learn something new, that is when we make the connections that give the “a-ha!” experience, and when we fall in love. While testosterone is the lust or desire component in a relationship, dopamine is the nesting or “love” feeling, and the reason why love and addiction are so related. In fact almost all drugs, from coffee and sugar to cocaine and heroin, run on the dopamine pathway (except psychedelics), as do most addictive tendencies from gambling and sex addiction to social media obsession.
The smart monkey has learned to reward itself outside of the paradigm of evolution. Unfortunately, there is a big problem with this, and that is that constant dopamine stimulation in excess (such as with hard drugs and now also social media) will destroy dopamine receptors. This leaves the addict needing more and more to get the same feeling, until so many receptors are fried that one can no longer get high on life, and needs the drug just to maintain the most basic level of mood.
The Mistake Drug Companies Made
So, being inhibitory, serotonin and GABA can be thought of as relaxing, and reducing anxiety. Drugs like Valium work on GABA pathways and, of course, we are familiar with the SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors), a class of drugs commonly prescribed as anti-depressants (eg. Prozac). And this is where the problem occurs.
Now, let’s say that one is depressed (“small,” that is, too withdrawn). This person is generally lacking in excitatory neurotransmitters: they need “get-up-and-go”, “joie de vivre”, if you will. They need to feel good about getting up and moving forward, and yet how do we treat such a person medically? We put them on SSRIs. Think about that. We are taking someone with too many inhibitory transmitters and not enough excitatory ones, and we are further inhibiting their functions. This is why many people act and feel like a zombie on these medications. Contrary to the idea that the depressed need more serotonin (SSRIs), what they actually require is more dopamine. (In part two, we will offer some solutions by looking at a variety of natural dopamine precursors.)
Adding to the problem of mood imbalance is the modern lifestyle.
It is normal for all of us to need and use both classes of neurotransmitters. Historically, we would get up with the sun and retire not long after it set. This would keep our circadian rhythms balanced. The body’s primary timekeeper, the circadian rhythms control the cycles of body metabolism and behaviour. The cycle of sleep and wakefulness are part of its job as well as synchronizing the nervous system and secretion of hormones. All of which impacts mood.
Our day would begin with the excitatory neurotransmitters giving us “get-up-and-go” vibes. Later, as the day declined, dusk would trigger the release of serotonin and melatonin and we would begin to shut our bodily systems down, as we moved toward sleep mode. (As a related aside it is my belief that sunglasses keep people mellow, or “cool”, by mimicking sunset and initiating some inhibitory neurotransmitter release.)
Now, however, we work late under artificial lights, do night shifts, fly across time zones, try to sleep in rooms lit by street lights, pump coffee and stimulants in the evening, and so on. Divorced from the cycles of nature it is no wonder that our brains get confused.
Parasympathetic and Sympathetic
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who prefer stimulants (“uppers”, or “larger”) and those who prefer sedatives (“downers”, or “small”). This tends to be based on whether one is “sympathetic-dominant” or “parasympathetic- dominant”. We all have both aspects in our autonomic nervous systems (the things that go on in our bodies that we don’t consciously do), and for ease of understanding we can think of the sympathetic nervous system as the gas and the parasympathetic nervous system as the brake. Both these functions require the neurotransmitters that we are discussing.
Our sympathetic nervous system deals with stress and the “fight-or-flight” response, and those whose system is dominated by this branch of the autonomic nervous system tend to be thin and highly-strung, and thus are more often struck by anxiety.
Our parasympathetic nervous system is involved in the functions that do not require immediate attention (survival issues) and have been categorized as “rest and repose” responses. It allows for normal, calm behaviors to occur (as well as performing many other functions including digestion, salivation and excretion of bodily wastes). Those who are parasympathetic-dominant tend to be heavy-set and of a slower disposition, and would more often be prone to depressive disorders. This would explain why, in the study quoted above, physical exercise was a more effective antidepressant than drugs were.
Next time we’ll take a look at the two main nervous system aberrations: anxiety and depression, and the proper way to treat them naturally.