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May 2011
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Gersten Alt. Med.

Depression and
the Mind–Brain Connection

During a social psychology course in college, I learned something that still affects me. In the mid-1960s, a sociologist (I’ll call him James) wanted to experience a mental hospital as an insider, and he pondered what he could do to create a legitimate, severe depression. He studied depression and depressed people and then embarked on his plan. In order to become depressed, he began “acting depressed.” He would get out of bed hours late, showered erratically, didn’t wear clean clothes, stopped exercising, stopped doing things that interested him, and consciously engaged in a lot of negative self-talk.

The plan worked, and when James finally made his visit to a mental hospital, he was admitted right away. James had done a great job of making himself clinically depressed. The problem was that, once he changed his life so that he could become depressed enough to be hospitalized, he couldn’t stop the process, and he attempted suicide. His clinical experiment had put him into a serious predicament. He was no longer concerned with writing a paper. He wanted to find a way out of his misery. Finally, it occurred to him that he had followed a series of conscious steps in order to become depressed and that, if he reversed those steps, he should be able to work his way out of depression. And that is exactly what happened. He started getting out of bed early, exercising, showering, eating regularly, and he began to reverse his negative self-talk to positive self-talk. His strategy succeeded, his depression totally cleared up, and he returned home. Many people can alleviate their depression using the same strategy.

Part I in this series on depression dealt with Major Depressive Disorder, and how a psychiatrist can systematically make that diagnosis. Part II dealt with psychiatric emergencies. This series moves from the conventional and the least subtle treatments for depression - to more subtle levels of understanding. In telling James’ story I’m moving us away from thinking of depression the same way we think of diabetes or arthritis, namely as a disease. Most of the time depression is not a disease. James was able to produce a painful depressive mind-body state through conscious changes in daily habits.

Clearly, James was able to change his brain chemistry, and if there was a way at the time to test neurotransmitters, the odds are high that he would have become deficient in norepinephrine and serotonin, the two most important neurotransmitters related to mood.

The Brain-Mind Connection

By beginning to dive into alternative medicine, as it relates to depression, it is important to understand that we’re not just making a shift from medications to natural approaches. The very notion of a mind-body approach means that depression is not simply a brain problem. In fact, it’s not possible to figure out where the brain ends and the mind starts. Psychiatry has relegated the mind to an unimportant status, as if everything can be understood and treated as long as we know the biology.

I think it is shortsighted to think of psychiatry as a new “brain field,” and depression as a brain disorder. It’s much more complex than that. Sociologist James showed that through conscious “depressive practices” a person can become extremely depressed. His process started as an inquiry, then a thought (“how do I get into a psych hospital?”), then a plan of mental and physical actions, and finally depressive biochemistry. In his case, depression began entirely from the mental side and eventually led to full-blown clinical depression (which involves mind, body, and spirit).

If you’re depressed, I do not want you to think I’m telling you that all you have to do is switch from negative to positive thoughts and you’ll be cured. It is true that anyone can consciously identify negative thought patterns and then begin systematically moving away from those patterns. Almost everyone will feel more hopeful, less depressed, and more motivated by changing self-talk, but this change is only one part of a total recovery plan. Thoughts are powerful, and so is self-acceptance.

What I am trying to do in this series on depression is provide a lot of background, a lot of practical information that you can implement, and assist a quantum shift in how we think about depression, the mind and the brain. In the first article, I emphasized the importance of telling yourself and others, “I feel depressed” rather than, “I have depression.” Please remember that. What I emphasize is balance. If you’re depressed and think it’s all in your mind, remember that your brain almost certainly has fixable neurotransmitter deficiencies. And if you think that your depression is entirely a brain issue, open up to the possibility that you’re looking at only half of the equation.

A Floating Nervous System

Many cutting edge scientists are helping to correct a reductionistic view of the brain and mind. Dr. Candace Pert, author of “Molecules of Emotion: Why We Feel the Way We Feel” is one of the pioneers in psychoneuroimmunology (PNI). She’s also the scientist who discovered the endorphin receptor site. From that research emerged a new era in pharmacology, with many drugs targeted to work at various receptor sites.

Dr. Pert explains that every part of the immune system, every kind of white blood cell, has receptor sites for every kind of neurotransmitter. This piece of information led Dr. Pert to describe the immune system as a “floating nervous system.” Similarly, neurons (brain cells) have receptor sites for the main chemicals made by the immune system. Histamine is an example of an immune system compound that is also a neurotransmitter. One easy way to see the implications of Pert’s concepts has to do with a common cause of depression, namely viruses. There are many normal, healthy people who get depressed whenever they get a viral infection. In this case, the immune system gets fired up, creating compounds that counteract viruses, but adversely affect the brain. If this applies to you, antiviral therapies such as l-lysine, vitamin C, transfer factor and polycil, may alleviate your depression.

Psychoneuroimmunology helped show that the mind and body are inseparable. The next step was in realizing that the mind is not confined to the space between our ears. Dr. Larry Dossey’s book “Healing Words: the Power of Prayer” carefully reviewed decades of scientific research that shows that the mind is non-local, capable of acting over great distances.

Let me share my theory about the relationship between the mind and the brain. The brain can be thought of as a sophisticated receiver, like a TV. If you open up a TV, you won’t find a picture or sound. Likewise, when the brain is opened up during brain surgery, you won’t see anything other than the brain. I think of the brain, at least in part, as a receiver for “mind.” You can’t find the mind in the brain anymore than you can find a movie in a TV’s computer chips and electronics.

Ancient Vedic Wisdom

We’ve looked at the importance of the mind-body connection as it relates to depression. Now it’s time to dive deeper. The ancient Vedas elaborate on the “antahkarana,” or the inner instrument of the soul/spirit. The antahkarana consists of the mind, intelligence, ego, and the will. While the term “brain-mind” is correct, there are several other components to what we call the mind.

These concepts are intended to broaden your view of the mind, the brain, and the overly simplistic view of depression as entirely a brain disorder. Sometimes depression starts in the mind, then moves to the brain and depletes key neurotransmitters. Sometimes depression starts at a brain level, and those changes give rise to mental changes, such as negative thought patterns and sadness.

While research continues about compounds that act on the brain to relieve depression, we also need to study the unique role of the mind, ego, intelligence, and will. A mind and ego that have been tamed through meditation protects against depression. Intelligence (not IQ) is strengthened by practicing “doing the right thing no matter what.” Likewise, the will is strengthened through practice. Each of these non-material parts of us plays a role in how we feel, and whether or not we feel depressed.

The term “brain-mind” is well established. The treatment of depression needs to address the mind through various forms of psychotherapy, and the brain through medications and a host of nutritional approaches.

David Gersten, M.D. practices Nutritional Medicine and Integrative Psychiatry out of his Encinitas office and can be reached at 760-633-3063. Please feel free to access 1,000 online pages about holistic health, amino acids, and nutritional therapy at and