We live in an overmedicated society. According to data reported by Scientific American, one in six Americans takes a psychiatric drug. Antidepressants are the most common type of psychiatric medication, followed by antipsychotics and anxiety relievers.
While there is some evidence for the efficacy of some psychiatric medications, patients and providers should have no illusions that they are risk-free. Many antipsychotic medications, such as Seroquel (quetiapine), can cause serious side effects and may result in physical dependency with prolonged use. Withdrawal from Seroquel and similar drugs is best attempted under proper medical supervision; it’s fair for patients to ask whether the risks justify the benefits.
To be sure, looking after our mental health requires more than just a balanced diet and regular exercise. But we shouldn’t immediately jump to the conclusion that the only solution is a risky, regimented cocktail of psychiatric pharmaceuticals. Evidence-based alternatives exist.
What do those alternatives look like? Let’s examine a few, beginning with a popular brain-boosting supplement that many of us have in our medicine cabinets right now.
Brain-Boosting Omega-3 Fatty Acids May Improve Mental Health Too
Studies reviewed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness suggest that omega-3 fatty acids, which are commonly found in fish and in over-the-counter health supplements, may have mental health benefits. Specifically, “for young people experiencing an episode of psychosis for the first time, treatment with omega-3 fatty acids may help decrease their risk of developing a more chronic and serious form of schizophrenia.”
Many adults already take omega-3 to improve memory and protect against age-related cognitive decline. News that omega-3 can improve the productivity and well-being of younger people too is a true game-changer.
Another Essential Nutrient Is Closely Correlated With Better Mental Health Outcomes
Folate is a naturally occurring essential nutrient that the body can’t manufacture on its own. You might know it as a key component of prenatal vitamins and supplements, as it’s an important vector for neurological development in the unborn.
Accumulating scientific evidence suggests that folate has mental health benefits for adults as well. The FDA has approved one folate-based treatment, L-methylfolate (Deplin), to manage mental health conditions in conjunction with other approved treatments. But simply taking folate as part of a balanced course of pro-health supplementation could have general benefits for mental health.
Mind the Brain-Gut Connection
The so-called “brain-gut connection” isn’t merely a vestige of folk medicine. Known as the enteric nervous system, it’s very real, involving some 100 million nerve cells arrayed around the stomach and innumerable connections to the central nervous system. It’s the reason we feel “butterflies” in our stomach when we’re nervous and why some people experience gastric upset when they’re stressed.
Like any other body system, the brain-gut connection needs attention to thrive. That’s why medical science recognizes an ever-expanding portfolio of “medical” or pro-health foods and diets that indirectly enhance mental health by ensuring our gastrointestinal tracts remain in peak shape. The gluten-free diet is increasingly regarded as good for mental and physical health, but less formal diets can be helpful too, including diets that simply eschew heavily processed foods and focus on whole or minimally processed fruits, nuts, vegetables, and grains.
Ancient Therapeutic Traditions Show Promise in Treating Contemporary Mental Health Conditions
Against the broad sweep of human history, the era of pharmaceutical intervention is but a brief flicker. Far more enduring are ancient traditions like acupuncture, meditation, aromatherapy, and energy healing — traditions that show true promise in alleviating the symptoms of mental illness and improving overall well-being.
Rethink Mental Illness describes these techniques and their benefits in more detail. The common theme that unites them all is low risk of serious side effects.
What’s Good for the Body Is Good for the Mind
Yes, it’s true that exercise is not always enough to improve and maintain mental well-being. But focused practices like yoga are important complements to broader efforts to treat mental illness and restore mental health. Yogic breathing modulation does more to reduce stress in the moment than just about any other intervention.
Doing (Almost) Nothing Can Be Restorative
Mindfulness is a close cousin of yoga. Whether accompanied by guided meditation or self-directed, mindful practice helps restore mental balance and, in the quiet it produces, can forge new mental pathways that help us break out of unhelpful or destructive modes of thinking. Like other nonmedical interventions, mindfulness is best used as a complement to other mental health treatments, but no one should discount its effectiveness.
Evidence-Based Herbal Remedies May Deliver Similar Outcomes With Fewer Side Effects
Because FDA only lightly regulates the market for herbal and medicinal supplements, these remedies’ collective reputation is mixed. Patients need to consult with trusted medical advisors to understand which actually have evidence for their manufacturers’ claims and which have limited efficacy (or whose risks may outweigh any benefits). For example, roseroot and CBD extract are both seen as relatively safe and have few known interactions, while St. John’s wort — though still effective in treating certain mental health issues — has far more known interactions and side effects.
Seeking Alternatives to Psychiatric Drugs? The Answers Are Out There
Patients and providers have pursued evidence-based alternatives to pharmaceutical medicines for decades. Their time is finally dawning.
This list is only a sampling of the opportunities available to people wary of over-medicating themselves and their loved ones. For example, it leaves out equine therapy, an increasingly popular method that improves mental health by connecting patients with one of humanity’s closest animal friends: horses.
Other alternatives to medicine for psychiatric disorders have mixed reputations. Brain stimulation therapies, such as ECT and TMS, have negative connotations carried over from primitive, even dangerous practices during the dawn of modern psychiatry. Today, ECT is a much gentler process with a growing body of evidence to support claims of efficacy, although it should never be attempted without the close supervision of credentialed medical personnel.
Are you seeking alternatives to pharmaceutical medication for your or your loved ones’ mental health struggles? As with any serious condition, your first step is to consult with a trusted medical advisor to understand your options and develop a possible course of treatment. The solutions are out there, waiting to be uncovered.