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MindFreedom member Sue Westwind explores the intersection between what are typically called “nutritional” or “orthomolecular” and a wholistic approach to mental and emotional recovery.

“Bridging Between Alternatives: Notes Toward a Unity of Mind, Body & Spirit.”

Date Published:

Aug 01, 2007 03:00 AM

Author: by Sue Westwind

    Tried and true alternatives formental health recovery exist along a varied and rewarding trail I liketo call The Nutrient Path.  A broad term, including the use of vitaminsand supplements, dietary changes and detoxification methods, it canalso encompass attention to such things as sleep, light, spiritualityand relationships. Any technique based on nourishment of the individualfits.  What doesn’t fit is viewing the person as a machine withseparate, unconnected components. The Nutrient Path also posits theperson as basically good, not a seething brute underneath it all whomust struggle to control the competing forces of ego and id.

Unsung heroes

   The ancestor of this approach is Orthomolecular Medicine. There aregrandfathers in this movement that bucked the medical model and left abody of significant work. One is Abram Hoffer, MD, a Canadian who was apractitioner then administrator in the mental health system when hebegan to experiment with Vitamin B3 (niacin) for schizophrenia. Theresults with both children and youth were exciting but the researchmoney was headed elsewhere: into Pharma’s coffers. Vitamins could notbe patented, and the system was somewhat embarrassed by Dr. Hoffer’stalk about vitamins.  The good doctor left in disgust, took to privatepractice where he helped many over the decades, ran follow-up projectsto show that the healing held, and wrote several books still in printand pertinent.

    Another prolific researcher/writer and bravesoul was Dr. Carl Pfeiffer (Nutrition and Mental Illness).  After hisresearch dollars in the system dried up he founded the Brain Bio Centerin Princeton, New Jersey.  Dr. Pfeiffer’s discovery about B6 andzinc—“pyroluria”–was a major contribution. He studied and helped notonly schizophrenics,  but what was then termed “juvenile delinquents,”coming up with nutrient profiles for four types that key specifictoxic-metal load and nutritional deficiencies to varying violent oranti-social behavior. In our time, these ideas have been favorablytested with diet and supplements in high schools and prisons.

Todaythe Pfeiffer Treatment Center in Chicago carries on his work. Headscientist William Walsh, along with MDs, nutritionists, andpsychiatrists all dedicated to nutrient therapy made breakthroughs onthe autism-ADHD epidemic, and continue to treat all so-called mentalillnesses and behavior disorders in adults and children from all overthe world. William Walsh discovered Beethoven was poisoned by lead; theCenter also studied plasma and hair samples from certain mass murderers(Charles Manson, the first disgruntled postal employee) and found thatthey were much, much more inundated with toxic metals than the generalpopulation. The Center help inner-city youth in a particular schooldistrict with nutrient therapy for academics and behavior. Learn abouttheir projects and research at

    In theforefront of advocacy for this approach—through a busy website,, with helpful articles about endingpsychiatric drugging, plus a comprehensive directory of doctors andother alternative practitioners who assist—is Safe HarborInternational. They hold conferences, sponsor support groups, andlistserves where persons like you and me can share information aboutnutrients that work for them.

More pills?

Someof us are skeptical, though. It sounds like biopsychiatry’s old songand dance: “biochemical imbalance.”  It can even look the same—as inthe case of vitamins/supplements—more pills!  More magic bullets!  Morethings to ingest!

    Special diets can also be a challenge.Most people have their food issues, body image issues. We struggle withobesity, anorexia, food as addiction, food as reward.  But have wedeeply considered food as a toxin?  Forget the common shame-triggersover eating too much or too little, counting carbohydrates orcalories.  For sensitive individuals, certain foods create allergies,or intolerances, that can foster psychosis.  Here are the voices ofsome of our allies in this field:

Most people never suspect thatamong the most ordinary food they eat every day lurks a potential mooddisaster. The items that tend to have this upsetting effect are (I’msorry) bread, pasta, bagels, and cookies made out of flour ground fromthe grain wheat and its cousins rye, oats, and barley…These unhappygrains, whether “whole” or refined, all harbor a peculiar proteincalled “gluten” (think glue), which can irritate, inflame, and rupturethe lining of the digestive tract…depression and manic-depression canresult because the nutrients responsible for regulating our moods can’tbe absorbed…gluten has been implicated in mental illness since at least1979… (Julia Ross, The Mood Cure)

Celiac disease [glutenintolerance] is the most common—and one of the mostunder-diagnosed—hereditary autoimmune conditions in the United Statestoday…celiac disease affects approximately 1 percent of the U.S.population (approximately 1 in every 100 people)—and 97 percent of themare undiagnosed. ( Peter H. R. Green, MD, Celiac Disease: A HiddenEpidemic

Alexander Schauss and co-workers found an apparentrelationship between heavy milk drinking and anti-social behavior. Whenthe diets of young criminals were contrasted with those of adolescentsfrom a similar background, it was found that the juvenile delinquents[sic] consumed almost ten times the amount of milk that was drunk bythe control group. (Frank A. Oski, MD, Don’t Drink Your Milk! NewFrightening Medical Facts About the World’s Most Overrated Nutrient)

   Other beloved friends that can make us feel worse are caffeine and junkfood. In the journal Recovery and Re-emergence Jamie Alexander notesthat caffeine

is so toxic that the accumulation of it in thesoil around plants that produce it (through discarded leaves andberries decomposing) can kill the producing plants. (“Function andDysfunction in a Drug-Dependent Society”, Journal No. 5)

Manyfeel that it’s S.A.D.—our Standard American Diet—processed andartificial, that triggers many of our problem thoughts and behaviorsthat neither Pharma’s drugs nor other alternative therapies can reach.

Personally speaking

   My own psychiatric incarceration was teenage-Sixties’ style. I ran awayfrom home, lived for getting high, slept with my boyfriend andpanhandled in the park.  My parents pronounced it madness; the hospitalsaid “paranoid schizophrenia.”  Back then, the terms substance abuseand anorexia did not exist.  So I was forcibly drugged and left towonder why their drugs were better than mine.

    Six monthslater I decided to play the game and went back home, continued gettingmy juvenile jollies more covertly, and soon was on my own.  Idiscovered anti-psychiatry, Madness Network News, radical politics,feminism, R.D. Laing and John Weir Perry.  My take on madnessvacillated between dismissing it as a sexist plot, or exalting it asvisionary experience.  

    Through the following decades ofstruggling with debilitating migraines and the anxiety-depressioncycle, I discovered a spirituality based on the Earth.  Nature healedme a great deal, but I remained plagued by symptoms that, for somereason didn’t respond to imagery, meditation, therapy, and the land.

Listening to autism

   At midlife I started paying attention to the ticking of my biologicalclock. After marrying someone equally intent on raising a child,infertility and miscarriage were our sad lot until the adoption of agorgeous infant girl.  We reveled in parenting until her second year oflife, when her quirks became unmistakable deficits in speech,sociability, and cognitive skills. At age 2 and ½ years old, she wasdiagnosed with autism.

    Our experience with treatments taughtme that the mental health recovery movement has much to learn from theautism saga.  We have so much in common already.  We are all diagnosedfrom the psychiatric Inquisition’s bible, the DSM-IV—until the 1960’s,autism was called “childhood schizophrenia.”  And if we examine certainfacets of the autism community, we see a resource for inspiration andsolidarity.

    First, parents are fierce advocates andactivists.  We have to be: the professionals tell us there is no hope,no cure, no viable treatment, and until recently recommendedinstitutions for life.  Second, we come together in massive networks toexchange information and support research toward recovery. Our heroesdon’t cling to the medical model.  And third, there is a tacitdisavowal of pharmaceuticals:  our kids are enough in their own worlds,we don’t need drugs to dampen and zombie them further. 

   But where the most learning can come from the autism saga is in thewide openness to alternatives.  Anything to help a child—it’s a truismthat often we put the suffering of others, especially innocents, aheadof self-care.  Parents who might never be open to the “paralleluniverse” of alternative medicine had nowhere else to go.  They found aworld where new concepts like food allergies, gastrointestinal yeast,toxic metals, and stealth viruses mandated an overthrow of acquiescenceto medical authorities.  While more conventional means might be used intandem with natural medicine, the overall quest is for what works.

   Big Pharma and its lackeys insist on sleuthing out the elusive geneticmarker as the cause of autism: a rationale, if they “find” it—tosynthesize and patent a new drug for our kids.  Sound familiar? Let usfully understand what differentiates the medical model from theNutrient Path.  Nutrient use prefers the model of environmentalmedicine—what in the environment, not your messed-up genetic self, ailsyou?  And what is a nourishing treatment that goes to one importantroot of the problem?

We learn from the autism saga thatepidemics are not genetic, that possibly the mercury, aluminum,formaldehyde, and live viruses in childhood vaccines may be responsiblefor the epidemic.  But probably not by themselves. Tens of thousands ofsynthetic chemicals are proliferated without their effects ever havingbeen studied.  It’s the synergy of toxins that might make thingsterribly worse than just one culprit.  And some see autism as the farend of a spectrum that includes, working back toward lesser symptoms,Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD, learning disabilities.  It’s been suggestedschizophrenia is parallel toxic load, the only difference being that it“strikes” later in life. With one in six children worldwide tagged witha “developmental disability—“ and in the United Kingdom, autismstatistics pushing one in fifty children, we must ask:  where are weheaded as a species?

As George Bush’s mental health screeninglooms, you can be sure that his take on “biochemical imbalance” sharesnothing with the viewpoint above. On the horizon sits more socialcontrol and suppression, and we are called to resist Pharma’s trawlingfor ever younger consumers.  But we err if we throw the baby out withthe bathwater. What if our toxic kids, our “mentally ill,” our violentoffenders are the canaries in the mines, warning us about the fate ofthe Earth? It’s equally detrimental to disguise (and profit from) theepidemic with pharmaceuticals as it is to spin rhetoric about itsnon-existence and embrace a talking cure exclusively.  Children aresuffering, designer drugs speak to the spread of “mental” disorders,and violence is on the rise.  Peer support and soulful talk therapy areoptions, but for best results should be accompanied by concrete stepswith nutrients, detox, and diet.  


   When I tried my daughter’s diet on myself (gluten and dairy free),kicked caffeine and adapted her supplement regimen to my needs,astounding things happened to my body and mind.  The migraines stopped,crushing fatigue lifted, painful joints eased and I dropped thirtypounds.  Equally profound was the end, within a space of a week or two,of negative thought patterns and paranoid ideations I’d struggled withfor decades.  I was delighted to welcome some interesting newforeigners into my mind: clarity and optimism.  I had a lot of catch-upto do with relationships, but gained ground since I no longer grappledwith brain fog, memory loss, self-hating voices and the bone-tiredobsession with getting a nap.

    The connection, then, was easyto make. If such protocols could work so well for my daughter—talkingever more, making eye contact, running down the driveway, finallyinterested in toys and other kids—and they greatly improved my mentaland physical health…perhaps because she and I are not geneticallyrelated, I wondered:  is there a wider application here than “just”autism?  Could all mental illness have a physiological root—not theonly root, but a significant and overlooked one? 

Of coursethe drug companies have their version of this. But perhaps we need tostop flinching when we hear the words, “biochemical imbalance,” soldout as we have been to the idea of a Prozac- or Zyprexa deficiency. Wemight instead look into the idea of a nutrient imbalance: underlying,environmentally-caused stresses on the bodymind, affecting organs fromthyroid to intestine.  And we might ask—just as parents and researchersare determined to defeat autism, with many recovered kids to show forthe effort—could we abolish mental illness by integrating the body’smessage?

Nourishing counsel

    But it willtake more than vitamins and detox to heal the suffering heart andsoul.  A key component of an ethic based on nourishment, rather thanbody-as-machine, is access to counsel that values our(non-hierarchical) interconnectedness.  Re-evaluation Counseling is along-standing, thriving approach to relationship as healing.  When Iparticipated in these sessions, the freedom from judgment andface-to-face sharing with another human being not presumed more“together,” was exhilarating. It was another step toward holistichealing, healing with staying power, healing at the roots.

   Grief, trauma, and abuse can hardly be prevented by taking yoursupplements.  Going gluten-free is no substitute for meaningful work.Nutrients may ease or steady one’s reactions to heartbreak, or boostconfidence for quests undertaken.  But sorrow, even depression, can bepowerful teachers.  Nutrients are not happy pills meant to take theplace of inner work. The question is: does our therapeia (Greek for“work of the gods”) really help us grow and move on, or keep us trappedin a loop with the need to keep discharging the same old distress adinfinitum? 

    Julia Ross, in The Mood Cure, talks about“false moods.” It’s the chronic, regular- basis, I don’t know what gotinto me, or I can’t get over it, quagmires that differ from what shecalls “true emotions,” which can include negative feelings. While sheallows that neuroscience and the interplay of mood transmitters haveclues to recovery, she warns that the drug companies play with theseconcepts to “create products that can give our emotional equipment aquick charge.  But that’s not the same thing as a real repair job…therepair tools we need for this crucial effort are shockingly simple.They’re specific foods and nutrient supplements that are so exactlywhat the brain needs that they can begin to correct emotionalmalfunctions in just twenty-four hours.”  I might add that elsewhereRoss is more holistic when she says the brain works “in concert withsome surprisingly brainlike areas of your heart and gut.”

Probing the sources of our distaste

   It was curious that at the Creative Revolution conference there were noworkshops on specific nutrient possibilities to propel recovery, northeir power in releasing the hold of psychiatric drugs.  There appearsto be a reticence beyond the ingesting of pills. No doubt a validresistance to authority, and it’s true that decades of scientific workon nutrients were done by mental health professionals—but at what costto these renegades’ careers?

And yes, it is important to standup to Pharma’s blather about the mechanical brain by carrying thebanner of the heart.  But if we are truly holistic—and accept that theonly route to lasting and real relationships with others isself-love–we must deepen a loving relationship with our bodies. Whythe resistance?

In my opinion, we often share with Pharma aninflated view of the mind. The high and mighty head is supposed to willour selves off drugs, without stooping to notice that beast from theneck downwards.  There are centuries of dualism and fire-and- brimstonethinking about the sins of the body behind all of this.  However, ourculture has lately shown much interest in the ideas of the New Physicswhich say that matter and energy dance, weave, meld and leave theirindelible marks on each other. Some have even suggested our bodies arethe microcosm of the world.  But if we battle with Pharma over theexalted brain, it’s much simpler:  good mind-guys vs. bad mind-guys.

Thereis another culprit: the medical model. “Imbalance” has come to mean weare “sick.”  Only as the Earth is sick, from all the poisons we’ve madeher ingest—I suggest that as part of Earth’s body we reflect dis-easethat may be expressed “mentally.”  Who would disagree that the Earth isout of balance in our time? If we see ourselves disconnected from allelse, it fosters a kind of macho, rugged-individualism about toughingit out. The root attitude: upholding the separation between body andmind, a grim, no-pain no-gain determination, and the drive to appearinvincible if not perfect.

And there are those who see madnessas a gift, a potential mystical experience. What bothers me is theromanticizing of madness as the flipside of genius, as if we’re afraidto let go of one for fear of the other’s demise. The names arelegion—poets, authors, artists, celebrities—who battled depression andmore, often creating great works in and out and around their illness.We might hesitate to give up madness because it holds the possibilityof genius. Yet there are many cultures where persons create meaningfulart without twisted despair—harder to find as Western industrialismpokes its tentacles into every corner of the globe. 

Healing spirit on the Nutrient Path

   As MindFreedom gathered in Connecticut to network about alternatives, apatchwork of spiritual preferences emerged among participants.  Thepracticing Catholic hobnobbed with the chanting Buddhist; aspeaker-in-tongues sat with an Earthspiritual priestess.  Many otherpaths were represented among a greater number who were more private, orunconcerned, about the topic.  But because in our culture we are in thethroes of a creative re-definition of spirituality, we know it as adifferent experience than organized religion. Most of us also sense,whether we have a practice or not, that the spiritual quest can be avaluable aid on the journey for “mental” wellness.

    Replacing the medical model with an ethic of nurture prods us to ask:  what are some nutrients for the spirit?

   Openness is key:  techniques that can easily combine with moretraditional religious practice, or stand on their own for thosedisenchanted with church or synagogue. Practices open to all becausesimple, positive, universal values apply. I’ll profile threeoptions—not as endorsements, just examples among many possibilities.

   Mindfulness meditation. With its origins in Buddhism, this practicehearkens from many schools of thought but now fits the needs ofWesterners.  Incidentally, Buddhism as a religion is not“theistic”—that is, it doesn’t concern itself with divinity, but seesthat as a private matter or the province of older, indigenous, nativereligion in countries of origin.  Buddha said simply he didn’t knowabout God.  The Dalia Lama, noted Tibetan leader states, “My religionis kindness.”  Meditators say their practice can de-stress the body,provide food for thought, and open a channel to the godhead of choice.Most practices are based on the values of harmlessness, lovingkindness,and release of clinging/disempowering attachments to persons and things.

   Earth-based spirituality. Shamanism, native ritual (not as exploited bywhites), neo-paganism, women’s spirituality and the Western magicaltradition all honor, teach and learn from the lessons of air, fire,water, and earth.  As with Buddhism, structured schools are out therebut the movement mostly values creative, self-made, nature spiritualityto suit.  Often a central image is the “Divine Mother,” our Earth asthe womb of all life, our sacred home. Hence women are prominent inleadership positions when such groups form.  There also is a valuing ofgay persons as those who walk between the worlds of gender, privy to aunique mystical wisdom. The only requisite tool of an Earth-basedspirituality is access to the great outdoors.

    Energy work. Ahealing modality on the surface, sessions in Reiki, aura cleaning,chakra re-balancing and the like often end up as a communion betweenindividuals via a “third force” invited and allowed. Whether usingnames for the divine or simply sharing energy that promotes The Good,energy healing is hands-on immersion in subtle fields of being thatsome say feel like touching pure spirit.  As with peer counselingmethods, in a good energy session the blurring between healer andclient makes for a shared relationship of something ineffable. Thehealing power of human relationship is amplified by a feltinterconnectedness to the all-that-is.

Gathering the Triad:  The Nutrient Path

   Mary Maddock of MindFreedom Ireland spoke of her recovery this way, ina panel entitled How We Heal: Diverse Tools for Recovery.  “Idiscovered my body,” she said. “It was the touch…and the breath…” Maryexercises in water up to two hours per day, gently to strenuously.  Shetold us of the benefits for mental wellness:  having a goal, gettingout in the world, and forming relationships with others immersed in thetouch of the water.

    Shery Mead, on the same panel, inspiredus with the implications of relationship, putting the power of what wecan do for each other into a wide perspective, “using relationships todecrease the violence in our culture.”  Shery is the founder ofIntentional Peer Support, and challenged us to think about recovery asa political movement: not just healing for individuals. Approached witha commitment to empathy and “affiliation,” we grasp “relationship associal action…a deep, holistic [emphasis mine] understanding based onmutual experience,” creating “a culture of wellness, a culture ofhealth,” by rousting out “the illness narrative, the illnessdialogue.”  We are thinking holistically when we envision our recoveryaccomplishing, as another MindFreedom leader, Janet Foner, stated, “thewithering away of the mental health system.”   

    If webroaden relationship to include body, mind, and spirit, we might findthat recovery is less about building bridges between theseperceived-as-separate countries within the self. Metaphor iseverything: to build a bridge implies disconnection, a need to reachacross the void.  Is a human being, well or otherwise, so neatlyordered into separate compartments of mind, body, and thathard-to-define force—higher values, or spirit as you define it?  Thatworldview of separation was handed down by vested interests who reapedpower or profits accordingly. It may be that the epitome of mentalwellness is to re-cover that territory, not by constructing bridges,but through the realization that already and at once, united youstand.