Depression is not a chemical imbalance

I may risk starting another war of words that started when I last posted on this topic. That post was titled Depression is not a Disease which deeply disturbed some people and started a heated discussion.

Within the comments was a discussion of the “chemical imbalance” theory which in my opinion is a load of crap. At the time I was busy, or not feeling well, or something and I did not spend much time refuting or proving my stance.

Today I came across a blog that takes on the subject very well. The author of The Healthy Skeptic is a far better academic than I and so I will simply send you over there to read his post on the subject.

The blog looks like it most likely deserves a good dig into the archives as well.

28 thoughts on “Depression is not a chemical imbalance

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  1. well, susan, that there is biochemistry in moods I don’t argue…but that holds true for all people diagnosis or not….

    that food and good nutrition heal is enough to demonstrate that as well…

    as far as familial connections…my ideas are controversial but if you read all my blog you’ll see that I think family dysfunction, not just outright abuse can play a role in mental illness…which translate into much of our issues being of the psyche and spirit…

    but again…I believe it’s body/mind/spirit and our chemistry plays a part in that, just not the way big pharma would like us to believe.

    thanks for hanging out and sharing and being willing to take a look at stuff that might make you uncomfortable…

    I certainly don’t have all the answers either so we’re in the same boat there.

  2. Hi Gianna,

    I’ve been thinking about this since you posted this piece, read all the hyperlinks, and pondered. And pondered….

    I don’t know what the answer is. Both sides must have a bit of validity or they wouldn’t be out there. I know that personally in my case my biological mother came from a family of alcoholics and I was told that the majority of her family were labeled as schizophrenic, and there were several lobotomies and way too many suicides to talk about.

    So did I not only get her genes for blonde hair and blue eyes, did I get her genes for alcoholism and a predisposition for schizophrenia and bipolar?

    Or could it be that, like a false positive pregnancy test, too many people today are given false positives as bipolar and never were in the first place?

    Somehow I think the truth must lie between the two. Bur then, I am just learning and honestly don’t know. But I am grateful for your blog and the comments for making me think about something I never pondered before.

  3. Well, I just wrestled with my files and have some information that may add to what is here. My information is basically from and for doctors and researchers. Although hard to undrstand, it is written by the experts of today–the scientists who do the reseach and make the discoveries. If we can’t believe them who can we believe?

    My information comes from the National Library of Medicine. You can do a search to find it. The location is set up with a search function. So, you type in a few words and you will get maybe hundreds of references in the form of abstracts. I will give a few quotes:

    PL Delgtado in the Journal of Cinical Psychiatry in 2000 states, “…intensive investigation has failed to find convincing evidence of primary dysfunction of a specific monoamine system in patients with major depressive disorders.” Monoames include dopamine and serotonin. “Monoamine depletion does not worsen symptoms in depressed patients not taking medications, nor does it cause depression in healthy volunteers with no depressive illness.” In other words, if you lower someone’s serotonin levels depression does not result.

    P Delgado and F Moreno of the University of Arizona College of Medicine in 1999 in Int Clin Psychopharmacol begin their abstract with “The pathophysiology and effects of antidepressants in the brain are still poorly understood”

    R M Hirschfeld in an article written in 2000 in the Journal of Psychiatry discusses the monoamine hypothesis of depression (chemical imbalance) with “…in its original form it is clearly inadequate, as it does not provide a complete explanation for the actions of antidepressants, and the pathophysiology of depression itself remains unknown.”

    E Richelson of the Department of Psychiatry of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville wrote in the Journal of Psychiatry in June of 1991: “although most antidepressant drugs in use today have been available for decades their mechanism of action in treating depression has not been established. In addition, theories about the biological causes of depression have not been proven.”

    I’m grateful, we all have a place to post this information.

    Jim S

  4. Hi and welcome David,
    Yes accupuncture and chinese medicine can help people a lot. there is a recovery story in my “Recovery Story” tab in which the woman gets off drugs with Chinese Medicine…thanks…

    welcome back, we’ve missed you! I hope your trip went well.

  5. Thanks again for the link to an excellent article. You are doing a great service by finding all these excellent articles. This information needs to be put out where people can see it over and over. The big lie that pills will cure all of your problems is certainly in front of the public over and over and over…

    You really are organized. I have detailed biochemistry articles about the myth of a chemical imbalance, but they are buried in my files along with thousands of other things. I hope to give you a few more references. I have not been able to check your blog for a while, I was in Boulder to present a paper.

    Jim S

  6. “The psychiatrists I’m talking about are people who buy into pharma while knowing, at the same time, that pharma is completely clueless…”

    In other words: they buy into it bc of mere profit?!

    “A scary bunch.”

    You can say that again!!

  7. I could go on for a very long time about this subject, but I won’t. I will, however say the following things:

    1) If you have a good acupuncturist in your area, consider seeing him or her for detox in conjuction with getting off the meds. I have recommended this to several people who found it hugely helpful. Even if you cut down little by little, the jump-off point when you’re completely “off” can be very difficult if your system is sensitive.

    1a) The acupuncturist I saw to do this detox, which I did every other day for six months because I was so debilitated by withdrawal effects, told me that it is easier to detox a heroin addict than to detox someone who has been on high doses of SSRI antidepressants.

    2) While I was on SSRI antidepressants, I began to have symptoms indistinguishable from early-onset multiple sclerosis. My doctor and psychiatrist denied that the drugs could possibly cause this. Remarkably, the symptoms vanished once I was clean. Subsequent research has proven to me that many people suffer paresthesia with these drugs, particularly as a withdrawal side effect, which is one reason why people so seldom get off them … the withdrawal effects, both physically and emotionally, can be horrifying.

  8. Grace Jackson is an awesome dissident psychiatrist…she’s written a wonderful book that I highlight on this blog called “Rethinking Psychiatric Drugs: A Guide to Informed Consent.”

    The psychiatrists I’m talking about are people who buy into pharma while knowing, at the same time, that pharma is completely clueless…

    A scary bunch.

  9. No arguing with you Matt, we’re all different and different things work for different people, but I know of two people, friends, who have pulled themselves “back from the edge” as you say, with meditation.

    I’ve also met others who have done it other ways, as you indicate.

    For me meditation works better than any therapy I’ve tried.

    I’m not personally familiar with NLP though I’ve heard of it…

    I have used neurofeedback successfully though, and that certainly rewires the brain as well.

  10. giannakali wrote:
    “…Meditation has been proven to rewire the brain and that is why along with diet and nutrition I talk about meditation and mindfulness being so important to our recovery…”

    Yes, although for those who are already “close to the edge,” and aren’t really able to place themselves in a state of mind where they can think through whatever issues are affecting them, something a bit more proactive is required, I think. It’s a funny thing, but people are never taught how to think efficiently.

    I went on a NLP course, once, and it was really interesting seeing how people took to thinking about their “stuff” in different ways – ie, a whole bunch of different techniques were taught, the basic purpose of which was to have the “client” see their stuff in a different, more positive light. And the thing is, when one has been considering a particular event or series of events in one’s life for many years in the same, negative way, the ability to address it from a positive perspective becomes next to impossible without some assistance – one needs somebody to step in and interrupt the pattern, or fire off a different set of neuroconnections, perhaps!

    Anyway, it was interesting. Practitoners know that NLP works, but they don’t know why, and regrettably, they don’t appear to have a marketing department capable of dreaming up something along the lines of the chemical imbalance theory!


  11. giannakali wrote:
    “…I’ve read a few articles where some big names in psychiatry will admit to it not being legitimate…and still the myth rages on…”

    Yes, I forget who it was that I was reading, but he did an absolute hatchet job on the theory. I can’t remember everything he said, but some prize comments were:

    a) for every part of the brain the size of a pinhead, there are billions of neuroconnections. Is it really very likely that blunt administrations of 10+ mg of SSRIs are going to be able to accurately deal with any imbalance, on that scale, even supposing the notion of serotonin deficit is correct?
    b) There’s no way of checking brain chemistry, other than post mortem, and even that would only tell one what brain chemistry was at the point of death. As such, there’s no way of knowing that a depressed mind is consequent to serotonin deficiency (and how does one know what a “normal” level of serotonin in the brain is, anyway?).

    In other words, the CI theory doesn’t even deserve the title of “theory”. It’s conjecture on a massive level, with absolutely nothing to support it.


  12. Matt,
    You are right on with the concept of neuroplasticity and I have a number of posts on it…

    One can do a search at the top of the page or go to “categories” and click on the word. It is key to our healing process indeed.

    Meditation has been proven to rewire the brain and that is why along with diet and nutrition I talk about meditation and mindfulness being so important to our recovery…

    Our bodies, minds and spirits are all wondrously made to heal. We only need know how to care for them all.

  13. Off_meds wrote:
    “…Now, if we could just extend the skepticism to all the other mental illnesses that have been blamed on “chemical imbalances”… I think maybe we will all start to get a better understanding of what’s going on with people during periods of severe distress…”

    Well, I love the theory that “it’s all in the mind”! Where the fuck else is it going to be!!!!!!!!!!!!?

    The mind, if we assume that it’s seated in/is synonymous with the brain, runs on electricity – it’s a bunch of electrochemical signals. That’s all: every thought, dream, idea, impulse, everything, is just a series of electrical signals, which we present to ourselves, usually in the form of pictures, if we choose to become “conscious” of them.

    How on earth do we change that, if things appear to be going wrong, as manifested by our own discomfort? I don’t know, but I do know that the brain is capable of rewiring itself, as I think I’ve mentioned before (although perhaps not on here), via a process known as neuroplasticity. The concept that our brains, at the age of 18, are more or less the ones we’ll die with, 50 odd years hence, is falling out of favour.

    Indeed, this phenomenon is presumably what underpins NLP, CBT and other talk therapies. That is, if one chooses to adopt ideas other than one’s own, uncomfortable ones, things start to change, it seems. Like when you’ve been struggling with something practical, and suddenly somebody shows you the correct methodology, which is at once obvious, and a million times easier than what one has been doing. The same thing applies to behaviour.


  14. K,
    most of us can certainly find better balance with a good diet!! and diet and nutrition profoundly effect our health, both mental and physical…

    You know I felt like I was on heavy duty drugs while withdrawing from Lamictal too…horrible horrible fatigue…

    Keep eating real well. Do you supplement?

    From what I understand sugar is like alcohol for some people….they literally can’t have any at all because it will trigger a binge.

    I wish you the best. You’ve taken on a very important project with your quest to eat well…you’ll find once it becomes habit you won’t have an appetite for crap anymore.

  15. I feel that I am chemically imbalanced, but I am learning that it is probably an imbalance of sugar. I am starting to realize that my diet from the start of my life is probably to blame. I am one of four children and my parents barely got by most of my life. We had a lot of white bread, cookies, and pasta. I am trying very hard to change my diet, but since I never really learned how to eat it’s been difficult. Now I know what to eat, but I have compulsions towards sugars that I feel aren’t always in my control even though ultimately they are. As I have been weaning off the Lamictal (Totally off for I think 5 days now) my sugar and caffeine cravings have skyrocketed and are difficult to control. I think sugar just might be the devil not really in disguise. But I think a sugar overload is a chemical imbalance in itself. My head is in the clouds today, so I apologize if this doesn’t make sense. I am reallllllly feeling the withdrawal today. I feel like I am on drugs. But I am not. Hopefully it won’t last long.

  16. I fear, it will continue to rage on for quite a while yet. If the CI theory were definitively abandoned by the whole mental health system, and what many studies and “anecdotes” have shown, that therapy, meditation, healthy life style, etc. are just as effective (if not more) as SSRIs, without having the SSRIs horrid side-effects, were acknowledged and acted accordingly to, this might very well ruin some of the drug companies’ economy completely.

    Same as with Bruce Lipton’s findings about genes. If it aren’t CIs and genes, but the environment, then pills definitely are nothing but a short-term, emergency solution. Not much profit in that.

  17. Hey there Off_meds…

    Yes, I’d say most if not all emotional distress is a call to our spirit to heal and accept…

    As far as the Klonopin withdrawal I’m not doing a crossover…I figured a long time ago I’d stick with the poison my body was already familiar with…

    I’ve already cut down by .7 mg of the 3 mg I’m doing.

    I’m actually sleeping, but I’m grumpy as hell and not very good company…

    just want to be alone….

  18. I think its good that the whole “chemical imbalance” theory of depression is being called into question more openly. Now, if we could just extend the skepticism to all the other mental illnesses that have been blamed on “chemical imbalances”–bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc.–I think maybe we will all start to get a better understanding of what’s going on with people during periods of severe distress.
    Lately, I’ve personally found that my “depression,” although painful, is pushing me to change my life. In the past I played the “victim of faulty brain chemistry” game and got a whole lot of pills but accomplished very little. These days I’m finding that depression can serve as a catalyst for positive change in my life, even when it sucks hardcore.

    Anyway…how’s the clonazepam taper going? Are you going to do it straight off of Klonopin, or switch to Valium and do it that way? I’ve also heard of people switching to phenobarbital and tapering that way…but I think that’s an old-school in-patient method.

    As always…thanks for the great site! Good luck with everything!

  19. Yes, Matt in plenty of places it’s still presented as fact…

    I was part of a discussion in an email group recently and it was pointed out that the very popular site

    speaks of the chemical imbalance as fact too….and a lot of people get their info their…

    mainstream sources still cite it as fact as a matter of course, though even psychiatrists who still play the big pharma game when push comes to shove will admit that it’s crap too…

    I’ve read a few articles where some big names in psychiatry will admit to it not being legitimate…and still the myth rages on….

  20. I exchanged emails with Karen Barth Menzies, at Baum Hedlund, about a year ago. Aside from her comments, to the effect that the Chemical Imbalance theory was, in fact, just marketing guff, and had been acknowledged to be such, you’ll note that the wording on the PILs for SSRIs, at least, have now moved to declaring words to the effect that

    “we don’t really know how these drugs work, but we think it’s got something to do with serotonin imbalance,”

    having formerly claimed that the CI theory is fact. Indeed, it is STILL presented as fact in some quarters. For example, the BBC, which ought to know better, has a resource under its online health news, where it briefly discusses common complaints, and sure enough, depression is caused by an imbalance of serotonin. Not theory – it’s stated as fact…


  21. Gianna- I spent considerable time reviewing the article. The operative word in this kind of discussion is theory. There is no proven evidence regarding the theory of chemical imbalance. In part this is because any notion about brain activity is limited due to the lack of understanding about how the brain works.

    In other areas of medicine physicians can compare tests to treat and have more certainty about outcome. In the treatment of depression it is based on theory and anecdotal findings to bring about change.

    The other factor for me is that the brain or more specifically the mind of a person is in part the spirit. Again science has not been able to measure spirit. I agree there are so many factors that make up the whole person experience that we are all taking a leap of faith to move toward wellness.

    We are all so unique. We ( the whole person) can not be reduced down to scientific measurement. For me the truth is a process that is guided by my spirit. I am leary of efforts to question and answer about my soul based on science.

    I trust my gut feelings as well as what others say about the illness and the treatment. I hope each person will consider their own intelligence and instinct as we are reading about depression. Thanks so much for such a thought provoking article. Sorry if this comment is so long. Annie

  22. yes…it really does look like a great site…

    I hope everyone goes over there…

    Unfortunately, though I have a lot of readers most people don’t “click through” to articles and sites I recommend. I always find that frustrating…

    Other people sometimes have much more interesting things to say than I do!!

  23. This looks like a great site. I skimmed the article on biochemistry and it looks great. I’ll read it in its entirety tomorrow but it confirms a lot of what I thought. Thanks for letting us know about it! It’s definitely worth reading their archives!

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