Anxious, Fatigued or Depressed? Pills, Exercise or Diet Shouldn’t Top Your List of Treatments

Anxious, fatigued or depressed? You are not alone — one in five Americans is popping pills for these issues — but pills, exercise or diet shouldn’t top your list of treatments, says Bay Area author, founder of and integrative medicine physician Dr. Lissa Rankin.

“What if I told you the medical profession has it all backwards?” Dr Rankin asked in her recent TEDx Talk.

“We’re suffering from an epidemic that modern medicine has no idea what to do with. People suffering from this epidemic are fatigued, anxious, depressed and suffering from vague physical symptoms…”

At a time when one in five Americans is taking prescription medication for these maladies, there is no question that there is an epidemic happening, and even more so among women.

According to a report from MedCo, a pharmacy benefit manager, one out of every four women has a prescription for some form of mental health medication.

In fact, these medications are the most widely prescribed of all medications here in the U.S. according to a Wall Street Journal article:

Psychiatric medications are among the most widely prescribed and biggest-selling class of drugs in the U.S. In 2010, Americans spent $16.1 billion on antipsychotics to treat depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, $11.6 billion on antidepressants and $7.2 billion on treatment for ADHD, according to IMS Health, which tracks prescription-drug sales.

Statistics like these make me wonder whether our ideals about “mental health” might not just be skewed. They also make Dr. Rankin’s claim that she has a better solution all the more interesting. In fact, she says she has already had success in diagnosing the root cause of why her patients are depressed and anxious. She uses a wellness paradigm she calls the Whole Health Cairn, which helps patients evaluate their whole health in a paradigm-shifting way.

According to Dr. Rankin:

Cold, hard scientific evidence in reputable medical journals clearly proves that to be truly healthy both mentally and physically, it’s not enough to eat right, exercise, sleep eight hours a night, see your doctor for regular check-ups and take your medicine. This is why my Marin County integrative medicine practice was full of well-intentioned health nuts who were still depressed, anxious and sick.

When asked in an interview about her thoughts on antidepressants, she told me:

At least 75 percent and in some studies, up to 100 percent, of the effect of anti-depressants has been proven to be attributable to the placebo effect — which I believe is good news. This means that the potent cocktail of hope, positive belief, the support of a medical practitioner who cares and the physiological self-healing mechanisms that get triggered by the body when it wants to heal, are ever-powerful. Some studies even suggest that placebos work when the patient knows it’s a sugar pill.

So why do we need the pill? Sure, every doctor will report some case studies where it’s truly a biochemical process, and once the biochemical disorder is reversed pharmaceutically, everything else falls into place. But I’d argue that most of the time, even if there is a biochemical component, it’s not purely biochemical.

This is shocking to me as one of the “25 percenters.” My Zoloft saved me from a bone-crushing bout of postpartum depression and I can assure you it wasn’t a placebo effect. I was sure Zoloft would not work for me. I had read those reports, but with three children to care for I was willing to try anything. For my family’s sake and with much grumbling, I resorted to popping my blue pill.

I remember the day I noticed it was working.

Another friend of mine also says she knows exactly when her antidepressants kicked in. She was driving in a busy mall parking lot, rushing to make a return with two yipping dogs in her car, when someone rudely rushed into the parking spot she had been waiting for. She says, she thought to her self, “Oh well” and kept looking. Then she stopped her car in shock. This kind of thing would have normally led to obscenities being screamed out the window, at the least.

So, we may be the exceptions to those reports of the placebo effect, however, could we be helped more by Dr. Rankin’s approach? Would looking at the whole of my life and figuring out my root cause eliminate my need for the little blue Zoloft pill I am terrified to stop taking?

To this Dr. Rankin says, “Patients know their bodies better than any doctor. If the patient tells me taking psychiatric medications is what they need in order to heal, I’m all for it. I’m just not a fan of treating every negative emotional state or vague physical symptom with psychiatric medications to the exclusion of helping patients diagnose and treat what’s underlying the depression or anxiety.”

According to Rankin, to know for sure whether or not I indeed “need” my Zoloft, I would need to look at my whole life — love life, professional life, creativity expression, spirituality, sexuality and see if there is anything out of balance. Once diagnosed and “the root cause underlying depression or anxiety” was found, her next step is “helping patients create an intuitively-driven, patient guided step-by-step action plan aimed at healing what is out of balance.”

The number one question she asks patients is: “What do you need in order to heal?”

And the answers they give are often shocking. Such as:

• I need to leave my husband.

• I need to move to Santa Fe.

• I need to finish my novel.

• I need to hire a nanny.

• I need to eat a vegan diet.

• I need to switch careers.

• I need to quit drinking.

According to Dr. Rankin, “Once the patient makes the diagnosis and writes ‘the prescription,’ the challenge lies in implementing the changes necessary to heal from the core.”

But not all doctors agree. One psychiatrist I spoke to about this subject wasn’t sold on Dr. Rankin’s approach, saying that “she’s simply presenting a PowerPoint of the obvious.”

“Yes, doctor, we would all prefer ‘healthy relationships, healthy professional lives, creative expression,’ but what interrupts that? It’s not so easy to simply talk/wish/guilt/’whatever’ ourselves into ‘changing.'”

But Dr. Rankin says she has had success with her program, as paradoxically simplistic and difficult as it may be.

One of her patients credits Dr. Rankin with newfound energy and relief from both malaise and physical illness, saying:

“When I first came to Lissa I had a myriad of mysterious medical maladies and zero mojo. I had invested six years of my life into various medical tests, treatments and failed plans of action… I (now) have boundless energy… and never have I been so happy.”

According to Dr. Rankin, “You can medicate someone all you want, but unless you’re helping her heal what underlies her depression or anxiety, you’re just putting a sad Band-aid on her soul, and the results will be limited.”

Well, I’m not quite ready to tear off my sad little band-aid, but I am happy to know there is an alternative for the growing number of pill poppers like me.

This column first appeared in Huffington Post Healthy Living