This is a guest post by Dr. Rebecca Care, a board certified pediatric gastroenterologist with the Digestive Care Center in Evansville, Indiana.
For about the one hundredth time since this journey began, I say to my red headed freckled son, “You’re OK, you’ve always been OK, you’ll always be OK.” That has been my constant refrain to reassure and encourage him since I realized his psychiatric medications were making things worse for him, and more importantly that he can survive and even thrive in this thing called ‘life’ without medicine. You see, my family and I are survivors of psychopharmacology — just barely. My son had been taking mind altering and neurotransmitter changing drugs.
Drugs that made him irritable. Drugs that made him anxious. Drugs that left him with no appetite and therefore, very slow growth. Drugs that left him unable to fall asleep on his own.
These drugs were all prescribed to him by his pediatrician and then eventually his psychiatrist. They prescribed them with the best of intentions. They’re both good doctors: they wanted to help my son. When they prescribed these drugs, they were following guidelines by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. But before I go on, I need to take a step back and tell you the full story.
How it began
It all started when my son was little. I had been worried about him since he was 2 years old. He was smart and curious. But, at times, few other positives things could be said. He had always slept poorly and seemed to have a constant supply of energy.
Parking lots were terrifying places, as he seemed to revel in darting between cars. It was a game for him; for us, it led to visions of his little body trampled underneath a car. My husband and I had long learned that you needed to have a death grip on his little hand when trying to navigate the 50 yards from his car seat to the front door of the store. Inside the store, he had to be strapped in or he would run wild, hiding between aisles and taking boxes off the shelves. It wasn’t long before he was left at home when we needed to run errands. Friends would reassure us he was just an active boy. Family would tell us to discipline him more.
When Kindergarten rolled around and the emails from his teacher started to pop up in my inbox, we weren’t surprised. “He won’t sit in circle time.” “It’s hard to get him to stay on task.”
As the year wore on, his behavior escalated: “He has been hiding under his desk.” “He spat in another boy’s face today when he didn’t get picked to read a book.”
His self-confidence plummeted, and he would often be angry after school and refuse to go to bed at night for fear of having to wake up in the morning to return to school. Friends were nonexistent, and the school wanted him tested for ADHD. I kept thinking to myself, “Who flunks Kindergarten? Where did I fail as a parent?”
Testing for ADHD
He was referred for neuropsychological testing, but it was a 5-month wait. We couldn’t wait 5 months! I was having regular meetings with the school and trying to deal with his increasingly negative behavior at home. I had just opened a new medical practice and we had only lived in our current town for about 6 months. We had no church and few local friends. His brother’s needs were getting pushed to the side.
Out of desperation and also ignorance (as no other treatment path was discussed with my husband and me), we placed our 5-year-old son on a stimulant medication for ADHD. The first one we tried caused him to be very aggressive: he pushed his brother down the stairs within the first week.
The next brand worked better. His teacher noted he was wonderful in class: quiet and attentive. “Night and day,” she remarked. But, he was very irritable, especially as the medications wore off in the afternoon. In addition, his appetite plummeted, causing his weight to plateau. Sleeping worsened. He would look wired and strained when on his medications, but he was getting through school so we stuck with it.
I was frustrated. As a practicing gastroenterologist, I had read the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines on ADHD, and they recommended behavioral therapy and medications. Really? That’s it? In 2007, we could transplant organs with ease and perform surgery on fetuses in a woman’s womb before birth, and all we had to offer kids with neurobehavioral issues was behavior modification and medications. Really? I couldn’t accept it.
I began to read the scientific literature and whatever books on ADHD I could find. Some books were helpful, some downright depressing. Maybe I was in denial and just needed to get over it. But, I couldn’t. So we went gluten free. We started single nutrient supplements. We went to one of Dr. Daniel Amen’s clinics, he had brain scans, and we were told his problems were genetic. “Well, at least that gets me off the hook,” I thought! It’s all in the genes! Not my parenting!
His symptoms waxed and waned over the next few years. He had some good months and some bad months. My family came to accept a new norm. Well, a new level of heightened stress, I should say.
Life became unstable and unpredictable. This was the way it was going to be. We didn’t go out to eat for fear of meal-time behavior. He didn’t play sports because he couldn’t or wouldn’t follow the coach’s instructions. Playdates were infrequent. We felt our social circle getting smaller and smaller. My son continued to be impulsive and moody, and over time, his stimulant dose escalated. His sleep was terrible, and therefore, so was ours. We were barely holding on at times.
One Christmas day — when he was 8 — he had a 3-hour rage episode when his brother got a toy he wanted. It was a small Lego toy. His brother even offered to give him the toy. But that didn’t abate his rage — screaming and yelling how he hated us all and that Christmas was ruined. It took many hours for him to calm down. His eyes were wild. He was inconsolable. We were terrified for him and for our family’s future. His behavior had imprisoned us. Nobody knew what to expect from him. Was this just ADHD or was he mentally ill?
We took him to a psychiatrist a few weeks later, and anxiety and bipolar disorder were added to his “possible” diagnoses. So, that explains it: he’s mentally ill. He needs more medication. He has a chemical imbalance. Risperidone, escitalopram and clonidine were added to his regimen. My husband said we needed to file for disability for him. I could hardly disagree.
But, then something unbelievable happened. Years of prayers were answered. Hope and truth eventually arrived.
An unbelievable solution
A few months after the “Christmas meltdown”, I read a research article written by a group of scientists in New Zealand led by Dr. Julia Rucklidge1. They were studying nutrition and its impact on neurobehavior and mental health. One particular article was on a broad-spectrum multimineral and multivitamin formula called EMPowerplus, which they were using to treat children with ADHD. The results of the study were hard to believe: after taking EMPowerplus, most of the children with ADHD showed significant improvement in hyperactivity, impulsivity, attention, sleep, and mood. After taking this formula, some patients no longer met the criteria clinically for ADHD. That’s so profound, let me say it again. Children diagnosed with ADHD took a multimineral/vitamin formula and after 8 weeks, their ADHD symptoms were so improved that many of them no longer met criteria for ADHD!
My physician mind had a hard time grasping this concept. This was a joke. A multimineral/vitamin could treat my son when everything else had failed? “Doubt it” I said to myself. He has a genetic condition, so it will never work. But, what if this was true? Didn’t I owe it to my son and family to try? But even as hope surged, the thought of taking him off all of his medications was terrifying, as his new regimen actually seemed to be working well.
We knew my son was malnourished. He was skinny and small and some days ate almost nothing. He had been tested by his psychiatrist and found to be anemic, and deficient in iron, vitamin D, and vitamin C. Physiologically, it made sense: improve his nutrition and he might improve. In my gastroenterology practice, I had seen nutrition do remarkable things for overall health and well-being.
I contacted Truehope Nutritional Support, Ltd, who makes and distributes EMPowerplus and was put in touch with Teresa Kolpak, Director of Health Professional Training. I just wanted more information, but Teresa assumed I wanted to start using the nutrient formula. Before I knew it, bottles of the formula were on the way to my doorstep. We started the nutrients and began to wean his psychiatric medications the next week, all under Teresa’s guidance.
It took us about a month to get off the stimulant, anti-depressant, and sleep medication, and about 4 more months to wean the atypical anti-psychotic risperidone. It was hard. My son had a lot of withdrawal symptoms and a lot of up and down behavior. They were severe enough that he had to miss 2 weeks of school, and if it wasn’t for Teresa’s calm and constant reassurance, I’m not sure we would have gotten through.
Now my son is drug free. Julia Rucklidge’s studies are right 1,2. Broad-spectrum micronutrient formulas like EMPowerplus effectively treat hyperactivity, impulsivity, inattention, poor sleep and low mood. At age 9, my son is going to school without medicine, and he’s doing just fine. He’s getting good grades and making friends. He has a normal appetite and is gaining weight and getting taller. He’s sleeping through the night and is happy and full of wit. He’s learning how to cope with his strong emotions and is becoming more independent. Like all of us, he has good days and an occasional bad day. He’s a normal kid.
So, is there any evidence to support nutrition in treating mental health issues? Why did my son get worse over the years since he was diagnosed?
There’s a field called nutritional psychiatry (ISNPR.org) and growing evidence that nutrition helps in bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, stress after a traumatic event and traumatic brain injury1,2,3. And yes, even ADHD. Moreover, there’s evidence that psychiatric medications, though helpful in crises and the short-term, aren’t effective long-term. This includes stimulants, antidepressants and antipsychotics. In fact, as investigative journalist Robert Whitaker detailed in his book Anatomy of an Epidemic, psychiatric medications are likely one of the factors contributing to the epidemic of mental health problems in America.
So, for my family and I, we’re happy to be drug free. We’re managing the ups and downs of life and looking at the future with more hope than this time last year. And I’ll continue to tell my son that: “He’s Ok, he has always been OK, and he will always be OK.”
About Dr. Carey
Dr. Rebecca Carey is a board certified pediatric gastroenterologist with the Digestive Care Center in Evansville, Indiana. She’s located at the Center for Children at St Mary’s Medical Center. She’s also certified in nutrition support by the American Society of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition. Dr. Carey grew up in New Jersey (NJ) where she went to college at Princeton University and obtained a BA in chemistry. She was also a Division I soccer athlete while at Princeton.
Dr. Carey obtained her medical degree at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of NJ. She also obtained an MS in neuroscience at that time while a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Fellow. Dr. Carey is a member of AOA, the Medical Honors Society. After medical school, Dr. Carey completed her pediatrics residency at Primary Children’s Medical Center at the University of Utah, then completed a fellowship at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in the Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition. She was an attending physician in pediatric gastroenterology at Maine Medical Center before settling in Evansville.
In 2015, after one of Dr. Carey’s children was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), she started the Evansville ADHD Support Group to help other families experiencing similar issues.
- Gordon, H. A., Rucklidge, J. J., Blampied, N. M., & Johnstone, J. M. (2015). Clinically Significant Symptom Reduction in Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Treated with Micronutrients: An Open-Label Reversal Design Study. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology, 25(10), 783–798. doi: 10.1089/cap.2015.0105.
- Rucklidge JJ, Frampton C, Gorman B, & Boggis A (2014). Vitamin-mineral treatment of ADHD in adults: A double-blind, randomized, placebo controlled trial. British Journal of Psychiatry, 204, 306–315.
Popper CW (2014). Single-nutrient and broad-spectrum micronutrient approaches for treating mood disorders in youth and adults. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Clinics of North America, 23:591–672.
- Rucklidge JJ, Kaplan BJ (2014). Broad spectrum micronutrient treatment for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Rationale, and evidence to date. CNS Drugs 2014 Sep;28(9):775-85. doi: 10.1007/s40263-014-0190-2.