New Age peddler of anti-depression cure can't prove it works
While there are those who run straight to the nearest shrink for pharmaceutical elixirs like Prozac and Zoloft when depression hits, I’ve always shied away from drugstore concoctions.
When a case of the blues struck me recently, I tried the old standbys — exercise, good sleep and hanging out with friends.
When that wasn’t quite enough to goose my mood, I attended a lecture by Gabriel Cousens, an Arizona doctor and the author of Depression-Free For Life: An All-Natural Five-Step Plan To Reclaim Your Zest For Living.
Cousens didn’t exactly lift me from my funk, but he did remind me how irritated I get when holistic practitioners try to make their fortune in the bountiful alternative medicine market without bothering to back up their claims with hard data.
I meet Cousens in a large room in Jorgensen Hall at Ryerson where about 50 people — a cross-section of hip-looking 20-somethings and feisty seniors, not one appearing particularly depressed — gather to hear his formula for mental health, sponsored by Super Sprouts health food store.
Indeed, sprouts are in abundance here, with several tables full of leafy green food scattered throughout the room, while soothing classical music plays in the background.
When the star of the show arrives, I’m struck by his energy and vitality. He’s casually clad in a colourful Mexican vest and hemp shirt.
Cousens first has the audience take a deep breath and chant “Ommm,” which everyone seems to respond to immediately, as if on cue. After this preparatory calming technique, he offers a prescription for healthy living that wanders from unchallengeable good sense to the territory of unproven therapies — unfortunately, a common excursion these days among holistic healers eager to sell their wares.
“We are degenerating our diet through the generations,” he tells the group, explaining the sins of the western obsession with white flour and sugar and the evils of pesticides, herbicides and bioengineered foods.
In all, not really startling stuff in an era when mainstream medicine counsels six fruits and vegetables a day, whole grains and hours of weekly exercise.
Then he moves on to the dreaded Prozac. This drug, he says, can biologically alter the brain in a fundamental way, causing changes that persist long after people stop taking it (though he says gingko might repair it). He shows cross-sectional slides of the human brain altered by Prozac, but I have no way of interpreting them (nor do most of the people in the audience, I suspect).
Whether his unique protocol actually helps people suffering from clinically defined major depressive episodes is not clear, however, and Cousens admits to me during a break that he’s largely addressing mild to moderate cases.
His special remedy for easing the pain of mental anguish consists of an individualized regimen of mood-boosting amino acids like tryptophan and others, vitamin and mineral supplements, fatty acids like fish oils and an “uplifting lifestyle.”
He aims, he says, to mix these components in particular ways so as to balance the chemistry of the brain and boost serotonin levels — the substance researchers believe creates feelings of well-being.
But when Cousens claims a 90-per-cent success rate in the treatment of depression — far outstripping any conventional antidepressant medication — I have to raise my hand to ask an obvious question. Where is the data backing up this incredible claim, and what are the sources confirming his complex and specific formula?
Well, actually there are none.
It’s certainly reasonable to expect that such a regimen could work. Some vitamins, like the Bs, have been tested as mood enhancers, as has tryptophan, which works to boost serotonin levels and promote sleep.
And hey, nutrition and exercise are always a plus for any medical problem.
But here we are again — a roomful of people interested in non-pharmaceutical solutions are being asked to undertake an expensive, time-consuming strategy based on what can only be seen as a good guess.
There have been, after all, no peer-reviewed studies of his protocol and no comparison studies putting his formula head-to-head with conventional therapies in order to properly validate its use.
“We’re not at this stage yet,” he concedes, basing his success rates on treating depression in his own practice at the Tree of Life Rejuvenation Centre in Arizona.
“I have no money to conduct such trials,” Cousens notes, a common complaint among those touting unconventional remedies of all kinds. Still, it’s not as if this international speaker and author is exactly flat broke — his three-day seminar is priced at a cool $300 a head.
After the meeting, I check with Helen Mayberg, a professor of psychiatry and neurology at U of T.
“It’s very easy to make sweeping generalizations that everything is reducible to some unknown complex combination of brain biochemistry,’ she says. “The hard part is which chemicals, in which balance, in which brain locations.
“If this were all about just serotonin, everybody would be on Prozac. Some drugs don’t even affect serotonin, so obviously this is way more complicated than everyone bargained for.”
As Mayberg notes, “You have to do rigorous double-blind studies to know which element in a multi-factorial approach might be causing the biggest change.”
Isn’t it high time alternative health consumers start making these kinds of demands on the peddlers of high-priced natural solutions?