In the last 10 years an emerging field has developed to look at the biological underpinnings of mental illness. Until recently, the predominant hypothesis is that depression, anxiety and psychosis were primarily due to a chemical imbalance and primarily due to a deficiency or excess of a few neurotransmitters (monoamines) such as serotonin and dopamine. That hypothesis is finally seen as far too simplistic and an emerging field of integrative mental health has been exploring the larger picture of how systemic physical issues are interrelated with poor mental health.
Some of these key issues include disruption of our digestive process, and gut lining issues leading to systemic inflammation. They also include an examination of our complex intestinal microbiome and how changes to the balance of our flora can impact not only physical but mental health. Other issues that are being addressed include nutrient deficiency, mitochondrial dysfunction, thyroid issues and poor endocrine and adrenal functioning.
Integrative practitioners seek to heal these areas by focusing on shifting one’s diet, improving nutrient intake and taking supplements that promote better internal organ and cell functioning.
This is an immense shift in how we perceive mental health. It helps us to look at poor mental health in a different light and moves our attention towards looking at mental and physical health holistically, instead of parceling out mental health as a separate practice of treating ill people with medications that simply target neuroceptors. Instead larger systemic health issues need to be addressed as part of integrative care.
Herbs play an important role here because they are excellent at targeting these multifactorial problems. Some herbs act as both relaxants as well as helping to heal the gut (mints, chamomile). Others strengthen our resiliency to improve our adaptability to stress and reduce the load on our adrenals (aswaghanda, reishi). Others function as nutrient rich tonics that can help those who are weighed down by fatigue and anxiety due to a poor diet (nettles, oat straw).
We are also moving away from the predominant idea that mental illness is a genetic issue that leads to “chemical imbalances”. This is an erroneous idea as there is no assay or test for a proper amount of any neuroreceptor. While drug medications can be enormously helpful, it is not due to them fixing underlying problems but generally acting as stimulants, sedatives and neurotransmitter modulators that can help stave off the worst of depression, anxiety and psychoses. There is an important role for them but integrative concepts are moving us to try and address the underlying health imbalances instead of treating mental health superficially.
Integrative mental health is primarily interested in how to address these physical concerns that are tied up in poor mental health, primarily using holistic (nutrition, diet, exercises, stress reduction) tools. This is wonderful, but it is still often a step away from how herbal medicine is practiced at a folk and indigenous level throughout the world. Integrative mental health practitioners primarily rely on an array of encapsulated herbs, nutrients and supplements to offer people. This differs from a folk mental health approach which primarily focuses on the use of whole herb formulas such as teas, decoctions, tinctures, syrups and extracts as well as community and spiritual based rituals to help people to heal.
There can also be an excessive dependence on medicinal agents (herbs/supplements) to intervene and improve mental health. While these can be helpful, at times it can neglect the importance of addressing underlying trauma, stressors and larger systemic oppression that can impact folks daily. That is often done best via working with counselors, elders, medicine people, in community gatherings that build community resiliency.
OK all that being said I want to link to a number of excellent articles that explore these issues.