A Root Cause of Mental Illness: Harvard Professor

Michelle Standlee

What Causes Mental Illness?

For years, this pressing question has remained unanswered.

Often, patients seeking clarity encounter explanations such as “it’s genetic” or “depression is a lack of serotonin.”

Mental illness has been an enigma and point of confusion for many researchers and scientists. Despite medical advances, the root cause of mental illness has remained unknown.

However, a recent breakthrough in psychiatry may be the missing piece to this mysterious puzzle.

Dr. Christopher Palmer, a Harvard professor of psychiatry, has been connecting the dots of thousands of research articles regarding the relationship between mental illness and mitochondrial dysfunction.

Your Health Matters

According to Palmer, this collective research raises concerns about the current treatments used for mental disorders.

A pivotal moment in 2016 started the psychiatrist on a new path when he helped a patient with schizoaffective disorder lose weight. The patient not only suffered from severe mental illness but also low self-esteem due to the weight gain he experienced while on psychotropic medication.

Palmer relayed that he initially couldn’t believe switching to a low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet could stop chronic auditory hallucinations and paranoid delusions. He quickly started using this intervention in other patients and saw similar—sometimes even more dramatic—results.

This experience encouraged him to begin a scientific journey to understand how a change in diet could help severe mental illness.

Putting the Pieces Together

Palmer discovered decades of scientific research revealing the connection between metabolic and brain health.

Palmer told The Epoch Times, “The more I uncovered in terms of those concrete mechanisms of action, I realized there’s something much bigger here. I’m beginning to connect a lot of dots that our field hasn’t been able to connect before.”

In November 2022, he released a cutting-edge book entitled “Brain Energy,” highlighting his discoveries and theorizing that mitochondrial disorders are the root cause of all mental illnesses.

Drawing from decades of research on metabolism and mitochondria, Palmer believes that mental disorders are metabolic disorders of the brain. This means that these conditions are not permanent defects and can be corrected by identifying and addressing their root cause. This insight challenges the notion that conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are lifelong disorders.

“People with labels such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder can put their illnesses into remission, they can heal, and they can recover,” Palmer asserted.

“That goes against much of what we tell people today,” he added.

What Is Mitochondrial Dysfunction?

A deep dive into cellular biology reveals tiny organelles within cells responsible for producing energy. Structures called mitochondria are vital for all cells to function normally, including brain cells. When mitochondria are not operating correctly, various health problems can arise, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes.

Palmer pointed out that when mitochondria fail to work correctly, this can also lead to mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. The brain needs a considerable amount of energy to work efficiently. When mitochondria are not churning out enough energy, this can lead to abnormalities in the brain’s structure and function, leading to mental illness.

Palmer asserts that mitochondrial dysfunction can produce several changes in the brain that can cause mental illness to develop. These changes include fluctuations in neurotransmitter levels, oxidative stress, and inflammation.

Groundbreaking Theory

If the origin of mental disorders is mitochondrial dysfunction, treatment modalities that address the underlying issue could be more successful than traditional tools.

Medication and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the standard treatment for most mental disorders, can sometimes manage symptoms but fail to cure the disease.

Palmer, whose clinical work spans over two decades and focuses on the most treatment-resistant cases of mental illness, discovered that many patients struggling with mental illness also demonstrate signs of mitochondrial dysfunction.

He said addressing the fundamental mitochondrial disorder can often improve their mental health condition. Some of his patients have experienced remission of mild to severe symptoms, including depression, psychosis, and hallucinations, and reduced or discontinued their medications.

Though helpful for some patients in the short term, psychiatric medications can often produce side effects such as reduced libido, increased risk of suicide, and weight gain.

“We seriously need to look at the risks and benefits of those treatments over the long term,” Palmer said.

He cautioned that readers and patients should never discontinue medications without advice from their medical providers.

Low-Carb, Ketogenic Diet Shows Promise

According to his research and clinical experience, Palmer suggested numerous strategies to mitigate the effects of mitochondrial dysfunction, including common-sense lifestyle changes such as diet, exercise, stress reduction, and adequate sleep.

One dietary intervention has proven to be the most successful with Palmer’s patients. The ketogenic diet, which dates back to 1920, was first used to treat epilepsy. The diet—high in fat, moderate in protein, and low in carbohydrates—has been shown to increase the number of mitochondria in cells and enhance their function.

One of the ways the ketogenic diet benefits mitochondrial health is through the production of ketones. When the body is in ketosis, it produces ketones from stored fat as an alternative, more efficient fuel source. These ketones can provide energy to cells, including brain cells, which rely heavily on mitochondria for their energy needs.

Mitochondria assist in the production of neurotransmitters, chemicals that influence mood and behavior, such as serotonin and dopamine.

The ketogenic diet also improves insulin resistance because it is low in sugar and carbohydrates. Insulin resistance can also impair the creation of new mitochondria. Insulin resistance results in dysfunction of the mitochondria, reduced energy production, and cellular damage, including in brain cells.

Hope on the Horizon

“We have hundreds of cases of people with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia putting their illnesses into remission. Scientists are pursuing this. We have at least 10 controlled trials of the ketogenic diet for serious mental illness underway now. One is getting ready to publish their pilot trial results soon,” Palmer said.

“There is a lot of momentum behind this,” he said. “This groundbreaking theory opens up entirely new ways for us to conceptualize and treat mental illness going forward. Studies are already underway and rapidly advancing, yet this can have real results in real people today.”

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