© John McManamy, 2003
"We are learning one nutrient at a time."
A chess club of PhDs faced a team of uneducated inner city prisoners and got handed their hats. Within 20 minutes, the prisoners were winning every game. As a result of that encounter, one of the members of that PhD team, William Walsh, became involved in working with inmates and ex-offenders over the next two decades. A chemical engineer then working for the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, Dr Walsh grew increasingly interested in whether there could be a biochemical cause to the behavior of the people he was working with. "The best way to do a study," he told a session at the Non-Pharmaceutical Approaches to Mental Disorders conference in Pasadena at the end of May by the nonprofit organization, Safe Harbor, "is to have no funding. That way there is no one to tell you how to do it." What Dr Walsh found was the prisoners and ex-offenders he investigated had an abnormal concentration of metals. In 2000, Dr Walsh made headlines worldwide when he led a team who examined a strand of Beethoven's hair and found high concentrations of lead, 100 times normal.
In 1982, Dr Walsh founded the Health Research Institute and in 1989 co-founded the Pfeiffer Treatment Center, in Warrenville, Illinois. Its database includes some 90 to 150 chemical assays performed on 18,000 patients. If it's in your blood, urine, or hair, Dr Walsh and his colleagues will test for it.
Neurotransmitters, he explained, are synthesized in the brain from vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids, and other nutrients. GABA, for instance, requires zinc, while vitamin B6 is involved in the last stage of the synthesis of serotonin. Norepinephrine is copper-dependent. Because of biochemical individuality, people tend to be deficient in some nutrients while overloaded in others. A multi-vitamin, which can compound the overload problem, is not recommended. Instead, the Pfeiffer Center works with its patients to identify and restore nutrient imbalances.
But that's only part of the picture. According to Dr Walsh, depression and bipolar "are a diverse collection of disorders, each with a different biochemistry." Methylation is a process where one molecule passes a methyl group (one carbon and three hydrogen atoms) to another molecule. It's a transaction essential to more than a hundred processes in the body, from the brain to the bones. Under-methylation is characterized, among other things, by low levels of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Under-methylated bipolar patients exhibit a range of characteristics from seasonal allergies, high libido, and sparse body hair to anxiety. Under-methylated depression patients share many of the same tendencies.
Over-methylation is the biochemical opposite (eg high serotonin), with bipolar patients tending to experience a host of chemical or food sensitivities, high anxiety, low libido, tendency for paranoia, heavy body hair, hyperactivity, and grandiosity. Over-methylated depressed patients are prone to paranoia and despair.
Then there is genetic pyrrole disorder, or pyroluria. Pyrroles bind with vitamin B6 and then with zinc, thus depleting these nutrients. According to Dr Walsh, pyroluric individuals cannot efficiently create serotonin since B6 is an important factor in the last step of its synthesis.
An outcome study of 200 depressed patients treated at the Pfeiffer Center found 60 percent reported major improvement and 25 percent minor improvement. Treatment complements medications, but as the patient begins improving meds may be lowered or gradually dropped. Stopping treatment will result in relapses.
Dr Walsh concluded his talk with Pfeiffer's Law, namely: For every psychiatric medication that helps a patient, there is a natural substance that can produce the same result.
That may be true, but the same cannot be said for knowledge and practice. If only we had a natural treatment study for every hundred drug trials and a natural treatment psychiatrist for every ten meds psychiatrists (or, ideally, psychiatrists who combined both approaches). In the meantime, we are learning one nutrient at a time, and that's a start.