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Review of "The Mood Cure"

By Julia Ross
Penguin Books, 2002
Review by Martin Brodeur on Jul 30th 2004
The Mood Cure

The book has a good name given its content: The Mood Cure is intended for those who are in search of a cure for their mood.  According to Julia Ross, much of the psychological suffering we endure in North America is due to our bad nutrition.  She suggests us an interesting way of alleviating this pain and maybe do the first steps towards a renewed and freshened life so as to get our mood cured.  The book is talking about how our mood relates to the food we eat.  It aims at relieving sadness and heavy feelings by ensuring she gets the key nutrients missing in our brain.  The solution lies in a knowledge of which chemicals are necessary in our brain to create "good moods".  Conversely, knowledge of how "bad moods" are caused up with the depletion or proliferation of different chemicals in our brain is necessary.  Knowing how moods are made present by these chemicals is then put in relation with the food we eat.

The book starts with four questionnaires aimed at determining what kind of problems you may have with your brain.  The first is called "Are You Under a Dark Cloud?", the second "Are You Suffering from the Blahs?", the third "Is Stress Your Problem?" and the fourth "Are You Too Sensitive to Life's Pain?".  These four charts list the symptoms of what her team in San Francisco have determined to be general categories of uneasiness that are linked to particular causes.  Each chart identifies specific substances that, when insufficient, can lead to the symptoms the chart indicates.  In the case of the first chart, low-levels of serotonin are the cause.  In the case of the second chart, depletion of catecholamines' and thyroid functions under normal are the cause.  In the case of the third chart, adrenal overload is the cause.  And in the case of the fourth chart, it is low levels of endorphins that are at fault.  In all cases, it is depletion of a substance that drives the bad mood.  And it is essentially because our bad eating habits have destroyed our reserves of these basic good mood nutrients that we need to be hoisted up.

Her experience as a nutritional psychologist has shown her that even if people started to eat well (lots of proteins and vegetables) and stopped eating junk food, the relapse was too hard to be shunned for most of them, as the call for coffee or tempting foods, such as sweets and refined starches, took them over.  People with depleted stocks of essential nutrients are low to build them up again, and before the stocks rebuild, many of her clients did fall.

Around 1980, Blum's results concerning amino acids on alcohol as well as drug addicted individuals came to Ross' attention: Blum found that "the addicts who took the amino acids were able to stay away from drugs and alcohol.  Those who took no aminos had four times higher relapse rates" (p. 7).  This is the heart of the book: Ross suggests using amino acids as a spring-board to avoid relapses when we make our first steps towards a good mood nutrition.  In fact, the four charts are based on relapses and on our addictions.  All these are normal for Ross: our addictions rest on the fact that we are using this very addiction to boost, artificially though, the now depleted but usually present substance.  For example, in the case of the second chart, it is normal that one of the symptoms is "Do you feel the need to get more alert and motivated by consuming a lot of coffee or other "uppers" like sugar, diet soda, ephedra, or cocaine?" (p. 17) since these substances increase catecholamines levels temporarily, but leaving your body totally depleted afterwards in catecholamines, which means that you'll further seek these substances, which gets you in a circle that doesn't break.  Her solution is that our addictions should to be replaced by nutritional supplements that will naturally fulfill the needs of our body.  This is the very reason why we get to know the aminos that are missing in our brain so that we start right now building up our stocks.

Our knowledge in the field of neurotransmitters has shown links between the mood of people and their inner balance of elements in their brain.  Neurotransmitters are chemical elements that are necessary to the neurons to "communicate" with their neighbours: these substances are the messengers.  These are in fact interacting in the neighbouring of the contact of two neurons: this is the interface where all of human cognition is centred.  Imagine: millions of neurons interconnected in this way constitute our intelligence, solely. 

But when we get to feel bad and low, researchers have identified that we are then low on certain of these neurotransmitters.  A chief one is serotonin, a natural element present in all of our brains.  This lays the bases for pharmaceutical companies who produce antidepressants like Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, etc.: knowing what deficiency a brain has (serotonin here), we will try to tweak in some artificial reaction that can help to sustain the element that interests us.  These antidepressants have, to a variable extent, an effect on the subject that is usually beneficial but often unstable in many cases, coming with numbers of side effects.  In fact, it is a very known fact that almost all of antidepressants have a long list of side effects.  We are tempted to think that maybe an artificial solution isn't the right one after all?  That is what Ross believes.  And this explains her enthusiasm.

She gives us the example of the SSRI's.  They are technically called "selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors" (SSRI's).  Here's basically how it works.  When the day finishes off, serotonin, from the catecholamine family, breaks into melatonin and 5-HIAA.  So, said the biochemical scientists of these companies, since serotonin is the element we are interested in, let's stop the normal reaction that converts serotonin into less complex forms.  "The individual will be better " they thought.  The idea, essentially, is fine.  But they didn't foresee that melatonin and 5-HIAA were also essential to a good mood!  In fact, melatonin is a very good molecule, by getting us to sleep, and 5-HIAA, by being an efficient protector against "negative moods like violent crimes, suicide, severe insomnia and addiction" (p. 224).  Our body was designed so that serotonin decomposes itself into the forms of melatonin and 5-HIAA: that's the way our body was built, naturally.  It is then more than normal that major side effects to SSRI's (except Prozac) are bad sleep and violence (either internally or externally directed)!  The thing is: natural substances like serotonin and melatonin and 5-HIAA can't be patented.  They are, let's say, public.  So why then do you think the child in our schools are getting Prozac and other drugs?  Ross shows evidence that these natural ways of balancing our moods are often more effective than the artificial ones… and without the well-known side effects.

In the case of SSRI's, she proposes an interesting alternative: the amino acids.  These are "concentrates of common proteins found in food" (p. 7).  Instead of going for artificially acting antidepressants and the like, she urges us to go for what our brain naturally asks for, simply, certain proteins in a sufficient amount.  In the case of serotonin, she asks us to get serotonin boosters, simply, like 5-HTP and Tryptophan.  And these boosters are naturally present in our brain, so they won't alter our natural balance if taken with care.  So her book is telling us two things : 1) North Americans have poor diets, and what a good diet should look like and 2) the solution proposed by the pharmaceutical industry to bypass bad moods are far from excellent, and a good diet should do the trick along with the necessary "recovery" regimen of amino acids.

For each of the four charts of symptoms, Ross indicates a somewhat complex program.  The book in general is written in a quite technical language, making it a complete but a little abstruse text.  It will be hard for the first-comer in neurotransmitters' talk to get to understand fully what is the thing going on.  Nonetheless, the steps she proposes us are quite easy to go through.  The problem though with this text is that recommendations are entwined in the text, making it somewhat delicate, I felt, for someone with absolute no scientific knowledge to use this book.  I felt this book was designed for educated people and couldn't really be called a "self-help" book in the broadest sense of the term since it demands of the reader a certain responsibility over his own self that some may lack.  On the other hand, this book is so complete that I am assured someone could start his own clinic using this book as it is full of instructive insights into such a practice. 

I personally attest that the programs do yield interesting results!  I personally tried Saint-John's Wort and Tyrosine – both natural – and had quite good results with both to resolve some chart's 1 and 2 symptoms.  I was quite curious to see what would be the effects and I was quite amazed to see how clean and effective their effects were, but somewhat surprisingly unnatural to me at first.  Tyrosine was especially strong in "brightening" up my mood and giving me alertness: I was suspicious about such a strong effect on only one pill.  But soon the effect felt natural for me, something you get used to and appreciate.  In a word, I felt her understanding of the brain's chemicals functions targeted accurately the deficiencies and that the solution to them were precise.

Enough now of the hoisting of our moods using amino acids.  Another important aspect of the book concentrates on starting a new regime, one that will contribute to our mental health.  There, the most unforeseen surprises were to come: not only can you eat butter, milk, eggs and olive oil for example, but they are top foods for a good mood!  Cholesterol, for one thing, was quite misinterpreted in the past, as it is necessary in a certain level in our body (she, in fact, tells us that too low levels of cholesterol seem to be more hurtful than too much cholesterol!).  Essentially, these food categories are paramount for a good mental health (and general health):

1-     Proteins (fish, meat, eggs, milk, etc.);

2-     fats (good fats : olive oil (extra-virgin), butter, fish (Omega-3 fat is very good), milk, eggs, etc.);

3-     vegetables and fruits.

But these bad foods are to banish :

1-     sweets and starches;

2-     wheat and its cousins Rye, Oats and Barley (surprise!: because of their gluten that is bad for digestion);

3-     bad fat such as hydrogenated vegetable oil and margarine;

4-     soy (big surprise!). 

All diet food are not to be taken since they are NOT food (simply); coffee as well.  This regime is in getting constant fueling for your brain.  It is to be started right away.  She even provides recipes and talks about the kitchen implements necessary!  This book is very complete indeed: there are 25 pages on "Good-food menus" (pp. 165-191).  She then goes on with supplements to take along.

The last part of the book is about "Special Mood Repair Projects".  There are projects for people on antidepressants, for people with sleep disorder (are you a night worker for example?), one for addictions, one for thyroid dysfunction and one for adrenals'.  Interesting enough, the book does not have a conclusion!  It's clearly built as a book to use, not to let on the shelf.  It is recommended for people who wonder why they have been in such a bad mood for so long or for people looking to get off their antidepressants regimen.  I was indeed really happy to read that people could effectively get off antidepressants using her method!

But although Ross is explicit about all this biochemistry, she doesn't say a word about what is it to be happy or in a good mood, and from a philosophical point of view, I felt this to be quite disappointing.  Her goal, we understand, is to repair our brain, to rebalance our brain's depleted stock of nourishing and normally present neurotransmitters and other stuff.  But she does not take an extensive look at what is it to be in a good mood, or a bad mood, philosophically or psychologically speaking.  To have a criterion as "if you feel good, then it's ok" is insufficient for such an important subject.  This is the pitfall of such an enterprise: can we consider this criterion to be sufficient in itself?

It raises problems since if your criterion is only "if it makes you feel good", anything can get into this category: beer, drug, sex, etc.  It is also hard to see how an individual could be made happy only by using good mood food…  Isn't a sense of accomplishment (or lack of) the key to a good mood?  She would reply that "no, we are only here giving the basics your body need, that's all.  Without this, you could hardly have a good mood."  She's probably right on this.  But I fear that some readers, including myself, might get entangled with that "you want it, get it" attitude so cherished by Americans that makes you forget that it is not really the pill that you swallowed that made you more happier.  It is hoped that she will give more attention to this topic because her results could be misinterpreted as being a "miracle" cure that suffices itself and by itself.  With this, I do not agree.  I am not sure that without speaking of it you could bring anything worth to that hard question : "what should I do?"

And it is hard to distinguish, in the book, between a real criteria as "it made me feel really better" and simple medical interpretation of what ought to be taken so as to feel good because of results.  Said in another way, it is untrue that if it is medically ok, it MUST then be goof for my mood.  Cholesterol was the chief enemy for so many years because of results scientists had in the middle of the century: are we sure now that these results here are valid?  It is again impossible to determine this: we can only hope it will be the better given what we actually know as science.

So, from an epistemological point of view, the book is far from purity: the results shown are split between two domains : a first one based on the pharmaceutical language; a second one based on common-sensical language about different mood attitudes.  It would be beneficial for Ross to invest the coupling of both since it is the most feeble point in her work : someone could convincingly argue that spiritual work is to be preferred to it, or that psychological treatment would do the job, or that general accomplishment is the missing ingredients into depressive individuals, etc.  Her definition of "true emotion" is laconic and just deficient.  I ask myself : How could 365 pages talk about what is a "good mood" when the concept "true emotion" – the goal of her work – is described in one page at the beginning of the book?  What if God didn't want us to intervene in such a complex thing as our mood?  What if it didn't really render the individual truly more happy, in a different sense of "true emotion"?  It is more than ok to educate people on what is good and bad food, etc., but let us not fall into the opposite: if happiness is neurotransmitters'-based, then happiness becomes a pill.  My fear is that we could use this text to assess some sort of materialistic "programme" or "ideology", things all too common, sadly, in our culture nowadays.  And this kind of idea is clearly near from one as in Brave New World… where we all die happily but in a crappy way

So I was split in two reading this book: on the first side, it is more than welcome to learn all this, but on the second, I am not convinced we will, as humans, use this popular-becoming-stuff very intelligently.  I fear that with all the irresponsibility in our society this knowledge will be used for giving us an artificial sense of happiness and completeness.  I would ask Ross to press further on the concept of happiness as it is of the highest importance in the context.  But overall, I liked the book and I did learn a lot.  An important book in my life.


© 2004 Martin Brodeur



Martin Brodeur is a student in Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM).  He finishing soon his Masters' memoir in philosophy.  He has done 1½ year of electrical engineering in Sherbrooke before switching to humanities. 

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