Kerry Thomas, M.Ed., LPC

Compassionate partnership for a better life.


The Fallacy of the Chemical Imbalance

Posted on October 22, 2018 at 2:40 PM

“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.” -Brandon Sanderson

Odds are if you have any issues with anxiety or depression, you are no doubt under the impression that you are suffering from a chemical imbalance; specifically, an imbalance of typically one or more of 3 neurotransmitters in your brain. Maybe your general physician told you this, perhaps it was a psychiatrist or maybe you got this from some advertisement on TV. In fact, there was a survey that came out awhile back that said something like 80% of Americans “know” that depression is a chemical imbalance.

For example, Nancy Andreasen, former Editor-in-Chief of the American Journal of Psychiatry shared in her book The Broken Brain that each “different (mental) illness has a different specific cause . . . There are many hints that mental illness is due to chemical imbalances in the brain and that treatment involves correcting these chemical imbalances.”

Now what if I told you that in the 50 years since the introduction of the first anti-depressants, that there has not been one study that has demonstrated this to be a verifiable, scientific fact?

It's okay, you don’t have to believe me, but maybe you will believe Dr. Joseph Glenmullen, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. “While there has been no shortage of alleged biochemical explanations for the psychiatric conditions…not one has been proven. Quite the contrary. In every instance where such an imbalance was thought to have been found, it was later proven false.”

Or another psychiatrist, Dr. David Kaiser who said, ““modern psychiatry has yet to convincingly prove the genetic/biologic cause of any single mental illness. Patients have been diagnosed with “chemical imbalances” despite the fact that no test exists to support such a claim, and there is no real conception of what a correct chemical balance would look like”

Or psychiatrist Dr. Kenneth Kendler who shared, ““We have hunted for big, simple neurochemical explanations for psychiatric disorders and have not found them.”

For those of you who may not know, the “chemical imbalance” theory posits that depression and other mental “disorders” are caused by a not having enough of certain neurotransmitters. For example depression is most often attributed to lower levels of serotonin as most antidepressants are SSRI, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Their effect is to prevent the break down or reuptake of this neurotransmitter in your brain, thus keeping more of it between those synapsis.

However, dozens of studies have been conducted to observe what happens when Serotonin levels are intentionally reduced. Again, IF the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Depression is correct, then decreasing Serotonin levels in healthy adults should cause Depression. But in a meta-analysis of at least 90 Depression Studies, researchers at the University of Amsterdam (H.G. Ruhe, N.S. Mason, and Aart H. Schene, 2007) found no evidence that lowering serotonin levels induces depression.

What if I told you that this has always been just a theory that then became a marketing message of the most profitable industry in the world, and this theory supports the basis for psychiatric drugs that now total in sales of upwards of 9.6 billion dollars for antidepressants, 4.8 billion for ADHD medications, and in 2013 America’s most often prescribed drug, for which 7.5 billion dollars was spent, was a powerful atypical antipsychotic drug called Abilify, whose mechanism of action, the drug’s own manufacturer can’t explain.

What if I told you that this theory that has never been proven has set you and millions of others just like you up to believe that you do not have the ability to control how you feel and thus have turned you into lifetime consumers of medications that have ultimately been demonstrated to do more harm than good?

Where did this story come from?

Perhaps the most frequently cited evidence in support of the chemical imbalance hypothesis is the effectiveness of antidepressants, many of which increase the amounts of serotonin and other neurotransmitters at synapses. Zoloft, Prozac and similar selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) result in such an increase and can often relieve depression, at least when it is severe. As a result, many believe that a deficiency in serotonin causes the disorder. But are they effective?

Not according to a meta-analysis which looked at the effectiveness of antidepressants by Dr. Irving Kirsch. In fact, he found that the antidepressants are not any more effective than active placebo. These findings have been corroborated by other studies, one  in 2017 which looked at data from over 27,000 patients which demonstrated no remarkable improvement whatsoever. None. 

The field of psychiatry has never established the cause of any “mental disorder”. Leading psychiatric agencies such as the World Psychiatric Association and the United States National Institute of mental health have acknowledged that they do not know the causes or cures for any mental disorder nor do they know what the psychiatric medications are doing to the patient’s brains. There are only conflicting opinions and theories which lack any scientific basis. As Dr. Rex Cowdry, psychiatrist and director of the National Institute of Mental Health in 1995 said, “We do not know the causes of any mental illness. We don’t have the methods of ‘curing’ these illnesses yet.”

When I first came out of grad school and began to work with patients, my initial concern arose when I noticed that my patients with the most intractable cases of depression and anxiety, some lasting several decades, had been on multiple medications.

It just didn’t make sense to me that if these “medications” were so effective, why weren’t these clients feeling any better?

Why am I concerned?

I will let Dr. Peter Breggin, a psychiatrist with over 60 years of experience in the field of mental health explain: “There is strong evidence from brain scans, neuropsychological testing, and clinical evaluations that every class of psychiatric drug causes irreversible damage to the brain, especially with exposures lasting months and years. Many studies of SSRIs show severe brain abnormalities, such as shrinkage (atrophy) with brain cell death in humans and the growth of new abnormal brain cells in animal and laboratory studies. They frequently produce an apathy syndrome — a generalized loss of motivation or interest in many or all aspects of life. The SSRIs frequently cause irreversible dysfunction and loss of interest in sexuality, relationship and love. Withdrawal from all antidepressants can cause a wide variety of distressing and dangerous emotional reactions from depression to mania and from suicide to violence.”

I think it is about time that we all re-evaluated our approach to how we are feeling and helping people overcome overwhelming feelings. The truth is in the 15 years I have been working in mental health, I have not met one person who I would say had a “mental illness”. Who I have met are thousands of people who have been deeply hurt, who grew up in chaotic homes, who have been abandoned or abused, who feel alone, who have never been taught to believe in themselves, who have not been taught of how to manage this dynamic process we call “life” and all the feelings that come along with this roller coaster ride.

The good news is that we don’t need these potentially harmful medications. What I have seen in the last decade and a half of professional practice is that when we use the myriad of tools at our disposal that support both the brain and the mind, large leaps forward can be made with no detrimental side effects whatsoever. You had the power inside you all along, you just didn’t know it.

Other links on the topic of antidepressants worth your time and consideration:

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