Q&A with psychiatrist and holistic healer Henry Emmons

Talk, Banter and Buzz

IF YOUR NEW Year’s resolutions include losing weight, exercising more, and living without antidepressants, Minnesota psychiatrist and author Henry Emmons may have just the prescription for you.

Emmons, a Northfield resident and adjunct faculty member at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing, wrote The Chemistry of Joy, slated to be published by Fireside in January. The book outlines a three-step program for overcoming depression with a blend of Western-style medicine and Eastern wisdom.

“Psychiatry has changed over the past 20 years,” Emmons says. “I got to the point where simply prescribing drugs and monitoring their effects became a very unsatisfying role. I was seeing too many depressed patients who were relapsing and going on a medication roller coaster: increasing their dosage, using many different kinds of drugs, yet never really feeling good.”

In 1998, Emmons was awarded a Bush fellowship and took a year’s sabbatical to study, among other things, natural and alternative therapies for depression. That year of research changed his approach to treatment. Now, instead of pulling out the prescription pad when faced with a chronically depressed patient, Emmons recommends a combination of dietary changes, physical activity, meditation, conscious breathing, and nutritional supplements. And for many of his patients, that remedy helps.

Do you still use antidepressants, such as Prozac and Zoloft, in your medical practice?
I do. But I try to prescribe them cautiously and judiciously. And even for patients who are taking medication, I recommend natural alternatives: they do so much to prevent the problem of the drugs’ effects wearing off. By adding alternatives, many of my patients have been able to reduce their dosages or shorten the amount of time they spend on medications. I see antidepressant therapy as a short-term approach to depression; lifestyle changes and preventive strategies are the long-term approach. The triad of health—diet, exercise, and sleep—will go a long way to help prevent mood problems.

Can dietary changes really have an effect on depression?
Absolutely. Diet has a direct bearing on brain chemistry, because the brain can only produce the proteins and enzymes it needs based on what it gets from food. Generally, most people will do better eating fewer calories, the notable exception being people with eating disorders. Some individuals with depression have intense sugar cravings and sensitivity. They should limit how much they eat in one sitting and should choose complex carbohydrates that are high in fiber. In severe cases, they might even need a support group that treats sugar addiction with something akin to a 12-step model. Regarding fats, the really important thing is to get omega-3 fatty acids—from foods such as fish, flax, nuts, and seeds—which serve an anti-inflammatory function.

How important is exercise?
I think exercise is the most underappreciated form of treatment for depression. A great deal of research supports the notion that exercise is just as effective as medication at treating clinical depression—raising mood level and energy, improving sleep quality and self-esteem. As with diet, you should make exercise choices based on your body type, but the bottom line is to move: get warmed up, break a sweat, get your heart rate up.

You include a section on Buddhist philosophy and meditation in your book. Why?
Western and Eastern approaches to treating health overlap. To my knowledge, no one else has brought these traditions together before to treat depression. I think this approach is necessary when you’re dealing with a holistic disease. And depression is about the most holistic illness you can find. It affects every aspect of who a person is: body, mind, heart, and soul. What I try to do, in my practice and in my book, is provide a holistic approach to dealing with it.

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