Chemical Imbalances: Established Science or Mythical Theory?



Societal Conditioning in the Scientific Worldview…

A number of proposed causes of mental illness have been circling in the air for some time, and one of the most repellant to me is that brains with mental illness, when compared to normal brains, show a chemical imbalance deficiency of neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine. Somehow this theory over the years has gained widespread momentum, and we accept it without any investigation because it has been purported as truth time and time again. But is this a sound scientific theory based on facts?

I had a debate with a friend who was convinced that the chemical imbalance theory had been irrefutably proven without doing the slightest bit of research on the issue. Nothing can be farther from the truth. The theory is based on no conclusively sound, biochemical evidence whatsoever. In fact, not one single peer reviewed article to date supports the claim that there is a serotonin deficiency in any mental disorder; not only that, but many show evidence to the contrary. So why does the majority of Americans believe this theory to be proven true?

Our society has told us that science delivers us the most authoritative comprehension of our world and the most valuable part of our learning experience to the exclusion of all other viewpoints. Our dependence upon scientific conclusions on delivering the ultimate truth to us has shaped our worldview and has become a form of religion, namely that of “scientism.” We look to a few select scientists in the world who we believe have the only capacity of those alive to figure out for us the most important human issues, instead of relying on our own personal experiences to determine and shape the stories of our lives.

So in a world where what we believe with certainty can only be true if it’s backed by science, where things can only be considered part of our reality if they are established through some measuring tool showing some kind of empiricism, how is it that we take all this psychiatric jargon as true when there is no conclusive evidence whatsoever? True science is predicated upon the scientific method; namely, that to be termed scientific, the theory needs to be based on empirical or measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. But what instead has occurred in psychiatric medicine is the exact opposite. It has perpetuated myth.



Missing Empirical Data

Western medicine firmly asserts that physical, biological causes of illnesses provide the most logical answer to all health problems. But considering how non-local and ethereal matters of the mind actually are for all of us, it is a conundrum how biological theories for mental illness outweigh all others. Many scientists, however, are starting to take a different approach. “We’re certainly not saying that people should ignore biological factors when studying mental disorders,” says Yale professor of psychology, Woo-kyoung Ahn, “but it’s crucial to understand biology as something that’s part of all human experience, rather than something that separates so-called mentally ill people from everyone else.”

In no instance would we accept that we have a chronic physical illness unless there was some kind of proof found through a measurable test. How often do we hear doctors say, “I know there are all these symptoms, but I don’t know what’s wrong with you.” If they don’t have any test results to prove otherwise, we belief there is no pathogen to worry about.

Imagine you suspect you have high blood sugar. You go to your doctor with your concerns. He suggests a test that will determine your levels so that he can accurately diagnose you. If the tests come back negative and show you have proper levels, you are relieved. If on the other hand, levels show otherwise, a course of treatment is suggested. This is how a physical illness is addressed.

In contrast, if you walk into a psychiatrist office stating your list of symptoms, which in my opinion are really feelings and states of mind that have been shaped and triggered by some outside source or inside conflict, no test is given and therefore no results are obtained. The first thing the psychiatrist does is refer to his Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses, which contains labels made up of nothing more than observable behaviors from people on the outside. Beyond marking behaviors, knowledge regarding lifestyle, relationships, and family history is not usually considered necessary in making the diagnosis. Frequently it is discussed later on in psychotherapy after the diagnosis has already been determined and the medical code for your insurance issued. A drug treatment plan and a course of action that usually involves trips to the therapist for weeks, months, and sometimes years at a time is then prescribed.

Unlike for physical illness, NO tests determining chemical levels are given to the people who are actually suffering with mental illness symptoms. So how can we know for sure that the mentally ill have irregular chemistry inside their brains if no tests can determine this? Can we call this biological science if it is based merely on assumption alone? This is akin to diagnosing a person with diabetes without taking any blood tests, or attributing cancer to someone without taking a biopsy. Without ever seeing any results from any medical litmus test, how can one fairly assess a morbid state like a chemical imbalance in the brain without looking at scientific evidence?

Quite simply, doctors do not test for these levels because it just isn’t possible to measure serotonin and norepinephrine in the brains of patients. Chris Kessler, author of the New York Times best seller, Your Personal Paleo Code, points out on his blog, “Estimates of brain neurotransmitters can only be inferred by measuring the biogenic amine breakdown products (metabolites) in the urine and cerebrospinal fluid. The assumption underlying this measurement is that the level of biogenic amine metabolites in the urine and cerebrospinal fluid reflects the amount of neurotransmitters in the brain. However, less than one-half of the serotonin and norepinephrine metabolites in the urine or cerebrospinal fluid come from the brain. The other half come from various organs in the body. Thus, there are serious problems with what is actually being measured.”



Beyond Chemicals

The unsubstantiated chemical imbalance theory is also debilitating within the healing process. The faulty assumption that chemical imbalances are the direct cause for abnormal behavior and emotions, does not lead to positive movement in self-growth. It implies that even after healing has begun, a person has no control over any intense emotional or mental states. The hope that things can change for the better is nullified, and trust that change is within their control is elusive.

We need to reclaim our autonomy in healing ourselves without presupposing limitations that faulty brain “chemistry” might suggest. I was told for decades that I had a chemical imbalance and that this bipolar disease and its symptoms were outside of my direct control, an explanation that offered me little hope to rise above such limitations. This notion can sensibly offer patients short term relief in attributing unpredictable and disruptive actions as involuntary expressions in times of crisis, as they sometimes are. But when things return to balance, holding to the same reasoning only teaches us that our actions are not to be trusted because we lack control over them. Excusing us from all responsibility also takes away the empowering human belief that we own our lives and can direct them through our personal actions and thoughts.

I cannot deny that some extreme emotions may trigger certain chemicals to move to and fro inside our brains. But let’s be clear about something: chemicals in the brain and how they move around do not directly cause certain emotions to appear as if we are machines lacking repair. Whether or not my emotions can be shown to have certain dopamine levels does not negate the fact that emotions themselves are real and exist in their own state of non-local space. My emotions may certainly leave a chemical trail behind them, but they are not merely chemical compounds that exist in neuropathways inside my brain. Emotions live inside the heart.



Beliefs Shape Our Reality

This imposed belief system by the “experts” reinforces the idea that biology is something that cannot be overridden or changed in any way. All one has to do is look at the yogis of the Far East to see how one has all the power in the world to do everything from dropping one’s breathing patterns into theta states, to sitting in a ridiculous pretzel pose for hours on end—feats that seem practically impossible to most people but are certainly achievable for those who use their minds to overcome natural human limitations.

The mental health and mental illness awareness community have graciously accepted biological explanations regarding mental illness for a number of reasons, and the most obvious one is that the benefits that result for the pharmaceutical and insurance companies are enormous. Entire industries thrive that are predicated on the premise that drug treatment is not only an option, but most often a necessity. A dependency is efficiently created, properly coded insurance claims are submitted, and a lifelong customer is attained.

Another more covert reason is that the theory controls a certain group of the population, namely the erratic kind. Patients who are convinced their brains are somehow chemically diseased not only believe they have no power to change within themselves, but also they lack the belief that they can have the ability to positively influence or change the state of the world in which they live.

Claiming that mental illness is not something within your control — just like getting the flu or food poisoning, or developing cancer isn’t within your control may be true on one level. Mental illness shows up when you least expect it, and you don’t invite it in. During unpredictable times that crept upon me without any warning, my bipolar disorder, (or as I like to describe it: my bipolar personality), caused much upheaval in my life destroying my most intimate relationships and cherished goals. I certainly did not have the power in directing the tornados that from to time crashed through my life. But, and this is a big but, life is meant to be messy, not perfect.

Erroneously, the mental health community believes that stigma will lessen by pointing to factors that are directly outside of our control, (namely our biology), to explain unpredictable and involuntary behaviors, thereby absolving the victims who suffer from them. While all intentions are good, the communities that should be supporting the mentally ill are, in fact, further promoting the mental illness stigma. The idea that we are somehow different than others through faulty biology is demeaning, dismissive and lacks compassion. When a person suffers emotionally and reacts to pain in their lives negatively, I see a normal individual who is dealing with problems with human living just like anyone else, regardless of her biology.

We mentally ill have far more control than we think. We are not disabled people. Convincing people who mentally suffer that they have no control over their illness, is like saying they have no control over the rest of their entire lives. A physical illness like food poisoning goes away, but we will always live with our minds. Our minds are not a chronic condition. But by convincing ourselves that we are somehow chemically different from normal people, we continue to define ourselves as a result of our uncontrollable chemistry and submit to the “mental illness” label as if that’s the only explanation that holds any weight in the equation.

The human experience contains naturally good times and bad. These bad times show up in life and for some of us can trigger some very unbecoming behaviors. In time, any “symptoms” that show themselves can be treated and often eradicated. As time heals wounds, so does applied effort and belief in oneself that one does have the power within to get better. We can use cognitive therapy, prayer, exercise, diet change, medicine, holistic therapies and a whole selection of combined treatments to redirect the course of our lives regardless of any biological framework that houses our neurotransmitters.

Mental illness is within an area that is arguably non-local, meaning it doesn’t have its main expression inside the brain physically. We are not just a skin sac of chemicals. We may have a body, but within it contains a soul and a heart. Because we are tied down to the 3-D world in these “body-suits” given to us by God, (not evolved from pond scum), emotions need to be housed in chemical compositions in a physical container. I see each of us as having unique brain chemistry with a single signature linked to each one of our DNA compositions. Yours is different from mine, and mine is no more chemically clean or dirty than yours. My brain is not a car engine. I am not a walking disease because of imbalanced chemicals in my brain. I am much more than that. I am a human being.

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