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by Gabriel Cousens
Quill, 2001
Review by Anika Scott on May 3rd 2002

Depression-Free for Life

There’s something amiss in drug-centered treatments for depression, and holistic psychiatrist Gabriel Cousens claims he has the solution in his Depression-Free for Life. In short, his plan calls for patients to replace antidepressants with amino acid and other supplements, increase fatty acids, eat better, exercise and live a fuller, more creative life with family and friends.

The key theme in the book is “natural.” Cousens sculpted his system according to a belief that the body can heal itself of mild- to moderate depression without taking antidepressant drugs. Eating and lifestyle changes with supplements, he says, can “adjust and correct your personal biochemistry” (xii). A portion of the first section of Cousens’ book replays the now familiar arguments against antidepressants, especially the possible side effects: loss of sex drive, weight gain or loss, fatigue and fuzzy thinking and so on. The patients at Cousens’ Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center in Arizona, by contrast, apparently experienced a different set of side effects when they followed his plan: increased libido, better sleep, boosts of energy and clearer thinking. 

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of Cousens’ book is rejection of the quick-fix mentality of doctors and patients who are only interested in “finding the right drug, or combination of drugs, to fine-tune the brain.” (p.21) Treatments that focus only on the neurotransmitter serotonin, an active player in the brain’s pleasure centers and the target of drugs like Prozac, neglect to look at the diverse possible origins of a patient’s depression. Cousens’ book, like many other recent “post-Prozac” books, argues that the origins of depression are more complex than drug treatments lead us to believe.

If depression isn’t just a matter of one brain chemical gone awry, than treatment for depression, in Cousens’ view, shouldn’t be either. Cousens doesn’t mention therapy as an aid to treatment along side of his system. Instead, he goes straight to body chemistry, beginning with step one of his plan: Increase amino acids such as tryptophan (banned as an over-the-counter supplement in a contamination episode in 1989), which eventually break down into the mood-altering neurotransmitters. In step two, Cousens walks through the main vitamins, minerals and herbs readers may use to combat mild depression. 

In step three, Cousens tells readers to trade low-fat foods for foods or supplements that contain essential fatty acids such as omega-3, which may affect mood. Step four has advice on depression-fighting diets. Cousens is a well-known advocate for vegetarianism, and the recipes in his book are meatless dishes such as almond hummus and yam burgers. The last step in Cousens’ five-step plan is the common sense element -- spend more time with friends and family, keep a sense of humor, exercise and express your creativity to help fight depression. 

The book is clear, well-written and informative, but does this All-Natural, 5-Step Plan work?

Cousens makes the extraordinary claim that his 5-step system has a 90 percent success rate. The assumption is that Cousens’ plan has been tested in clinical trials and repeated at several treatment centers until enough independent data has been gathered to draw such a conclusion. In reality, Cousens shores up his claims that his system works by using only anecdotal evidence based on the experiences of his patients at the Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center. Until Cousens’ plan – in its entirety -- is tested as rigorously as other medical treatments, the 90 percent success claim is merely a marketing red herring.

Cousens also paints with a broad brush the target audience for his program. The 50 million Americans with mild or moderate depression and anxiety are joined by alcoholics, bulimics, chronic pain sufferers, insomniacs, hypoglycemics and drug addicts. Again, no real data exist to prove that Cousens’ plan would help such a range of patients.

The All-Natural, 5-Step Plan in Cousens’ book is not necessarily cheaper for the average person than an antidepressant, and it’s certainly not easier than taking a pill. It is no replacement for therapy and possible medication for people with severe depression and other illnesses. People with mild depression may have the energy and determination to pursue an ambitious plan like Cousens’. But life changes such as eating better and exercising may beat a mild or seasonal depression without the use of amino and fatty acids or vitamin and mineral supplements. In the end, until Cousens’ plan is thoroughly tested, the only proof that it works (or not) lies with each person who tries it.

 

© 2002 Anika Scott

 

Anika Scott is a U.S. journalist and author living in Germany. A former Chicago Tribune staff writer, she now freelances travel and lifestyle articles for publications and web sites in the U.S. and Europe. She is also working on a nonfiction book about a famous music manuscript that disappeared during World War II.