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The Brain Energy Theory of Mental Illness

Many factors can play a role in mental illness. Genetics, stress, trauma, and substance abuse are often identified as the source or contributing factors to mental health conditions. But some researchers are looking deeper and searching for a root cause of mental illness. Researchers are discovering it may be all about mitochondria and their effect on metabolism.


The Powerhouse of Energy


Mitochondria are often referred to as the powerhouse of the cell. Mitochondria are crucial for energy production in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

The mitochondria in our cells regulate or influence:


  • Neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA

  • Hormones, such as cortisol, estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone

  • Gene expression

  • Inflammation


Enhancing mitochondrial functioning may be an effective way of treating mental illness, solely or in conjunction with other therapies. Several studies have found a relationship between mitochondrial dysfunction and mental health disorders, such as bipolar disorder and depression. Impairments in energy production are found in these disorders. A better knowledge of mitochondrial physiology and pathophysiology might allow for developing new effective therapies to treat these specific mitochondrial impairments. This could be especially beneficial for treatment-resistant patients.


In line with this theory, Christopher M. Palmer, M.D., in his recent book, Brain Energy, maintains that all mental health disorders are metabolic disorders of the brain.


Metabolic Treatments


According to this brain energy theory, metabolic treatments may lead to better outcomes than traditional treatment plans and pharmaceuticals. Understanding the intricacies of metabolic science as it relates to brain energy can lead to new mainstream treatments, such as strict dietary protocols to treat disorders like schizophrenia and alcoholism.


In studying this correlation, research shows that some patients with schizophrenia have actually experienced remission of symptoms by restoring their brain energy metabolism and no longer need antipsychotic medications. This successful treatment is credited in part to adhering to a strict Ketogenic diet. When following a ketogenic diet, the brain switches from glucose to ketones for energy as fats are substituted for carbs. Energy production is kept stable with higher mitochondria efficiency.


Getting to the root cause of illness and not just treating symptoms can be a life-changing treatment plan for those suffering from mental health conditions. If the cause of a mental health issue is found to be related to brain energy, lifestyle changes may be the place to start.


Changes in lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, stress reduction, sleep management, and reducing exposure to environmental toxins may effectively treat mental health disorders better than traditional approaches for many people. Taking this approach empowers patients and gives them more control over their healing journey.