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Is wellness ever really achievable without a mental health check?

Written by Dr. Derek Larsen DC

September 28, 2021

Lately I have been thinking often about mental health. I believe it is finally time to get some of my thoughts onto paper concerning this topic. Mental health is a very important topic that seems to be far too taboo to speak about. In this article I plan on being very open concerning my own mental health with the hopes of connecting more deeply with some of you. I want to shatter the taboo around mental struggle. I will share my own struggle, how I was successful in overcoming and how I have failed. I will also share some resources that I have benefited from. In no way do I consider myself an expert in mental health, in my office when someone’s condition falls outside my scope of practice I refer them out to specialists. I am simply sharing part of my story which is of course intimately intertwined with chiropractic. I now know after much study that chiropractic is about wellness, and wellness is defined as the state of being in good health; especially as a pursued goal. If wellness is the goal of chiropractic then mental health has to be part of the discussion. You cannot be fully well if you dont address all aspects of physical, mental and spiritual health.

For the purpose of this article when I refer to mental health, stress, depression, anxiety, ADD and ADHD are the diagnoses that I am referring to. Mental health covers a much larger spectrum than these labels. These few are some of the most common mental health diagnoses in the United States and can easily go undiagnosed because of the stigma around mental health issues.  

Who is struggling with mental health?

In the United States, we are granted life liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In our day we have everything we could ever want or need at the click of a Buy It Now button online. Why do we suffer from so much discontentment? What made happiness so hard to pursue? To start, let’s run through some numbers surrounding mental health. In 2018 13.2% of Americans over 18 were taking antidepressants. 13.2% doesn’t sound like very much in my mind because that leaves 86.8% which is a passing grade right? To put it into perspective, here’s the number 43,758,000. Forty three million, seven hundred and fifty eight thousand people are clinically depressed and taking a prescription. In a group of 10 people, at least 1 is clinically depressed and taking medication for it.This has only increased with the mandates and lockdowns that have stemmed from the pandemic. Anxiety is even more common with 18% of the population being affected. That’s nearly 2 of your group of 10 friends. This is only reported cases as well, these numbers have nothing to do with the men, women, boys, and girls who silently battle among us.

My own experience with mental health issues

When I was young I had a tough time feeling of value. I felt I was a drain on my family and on the world and therefore I didn’t want to be around. I remember 2 occasions, The first was on my birthday, My parents gave me a bicycle. I didn’t feel like I deserved it which brought me to tears. I didn’t think I was valuable enough to be given a gift like that. My parents did a very good job consoling me, helping me understand that I deserved every bit of it. The second occasion I remember feeling that I was of little value and that I should just take my own life because then no one would have to deal with me. I confided in my mother about those thoughts and she did a phenomenal job helping me understand them. I was very young at the time and was taught simply that we just don’t do that. As time went on I guess I can say I grew out of those thoughts. I was an incredibly happy high school kid and I absolutely loved college and I never had an issue. During chiropractic college some of those thoughts came back, luckily I had people around me to talk to, and in my case, all I needed was to feel that I was heard. I needed someone else to know that I was struggling with self-worth and self-love and that it was hard for me. I was also fortunate enough to be encouraged to see a psychologist for some of my issues which helped greatly.

When I first moved to Juneau Ak I felt something new. I found myself sleeping long into the day, getting up around 11 or 12 to start the day simply because I had no desire to get up and start the day. Looking back I realize I was having a hard time feeling content with what I was doing, except when I was taking care of patients. When I was taking care of patients I felt content but that was about the only time. I felt no desire to find people to serve or to even start the day off. To pull myself out of this slump I did a few things. First I wrote in my mirror “Be patient with who you’ve never become”. This helped me remember that the goals I had set about running a marathon, starting a practice and being exceptionally healthy were goals I had never even attempted before. This helped me be more patient and gentle with myself. I worked on my diet to provide my body with the building blocks it needed to feel content, I made sure to exercise and get adjusted by my chiropractor. Finally, I worked on learning more about my relationship with deity and what I believe my spiritual mission is here on earth. In short I worked on my mental, physical and spiritual systems in a way that helped me align with a feeling of contentment. It was no short process nor is it a process that ends, but now I feel more attuned to my systems and recognize what I might be lacking when I feel the pull towards that same old slump I was in. 

The biggest thing I learned through all this is that when I was in a slump I felt helpless. I could not get out of it no matter what I tried. I turned to social media to pass the time but always felt empty after hours wasted looking at a little screen. I also must say that my experience is likely nowhere near as bad as someone else’s. I have never had a clinical diagnosis of a mental health issue and don’t claim one either. Only as of recent do I know the feeling of helplessness that can come from the mind when something is not balanced correctly. Thanks to a number of books and studies that I’ve been reading I have been able to come up with what works for me in my own pursuit of happiness.

Here’s what I have done to help get me out of those slumps and why.

The first thing I did was increase my omega 3 fatty acid intake. I get these by taking fish oil capsules and by eating more salmon. I also began taking vitamin D supplements These two micronutrients play critical roles in the serotonin pathway in the brain. Without them the brain would not be able to create serotonin. One of serotonin’s jobs in the brain is to help regulate mood, especially the ability to feel content. Without serotonin one simply cannot experience contentment in their world. 

I put myself on an intense exercise regimen with a few specific goals in mind; running a marathon and losing 40 lbs. I did not exercise every day but I tried my best to exercise 4-5 times a week. I also changed my exercise time to a weekly set rather than a daily amount which made it easier for me to reach my exercise goals. I would set a goal at the beginning of the week to run 20 miles in the week, and hit the gym 4 times. I now had 7 days to make that happen and I would increase the goal as the weeks progressed. Exercise helps boost mood in a very simple yet dramatic way. Serotonin is made out of tryptophan. Tryptophan is a fairly common amino acid found in many foods. In order for tryptophan to be converted to serotonin it has to pass through the blood brain barrier. The brain requires a lot of other amino acids to pass through the blood brain barrier. The blood brain barrier is like a fence around the brain that protects the brain from junk that sometimes accumulates in the blood. The blood brain barrier, the brain fence, has a limited amount of gates that only amino acids can pass through. All the amino acids in the blood crowd those gates and compete with one another to get into the brain. Imagine, if you will, a crowd at the mall on black friday. Everyone is trying to get in but there are only a few doors. When an individual exercises the body moves amino acids from the blood to the muscles to help rebuild tissue, the muscles however do not require tryptophan. Suddenly at the amino acid gate tryptophan becomes the most common amino acid and it is able to cross through more easily. It’s as if everyone at the mall on black friday had to go to work except for our good buddy tryptophan. The brain can then take that tryptophan convert it to serotonin and the individual feels contentment from the exercise. 

I started practicing meditation. This one was tough for me. I have a wildly active mind and have always struggled turning it off and being present in the very moment in which I am living. I started off with a minute of meditation then a few minutes and so forth, slowly increasing the time in which I sat and focused on being present in time. The easiest way I have found to do this is through guided meditation on youtube. I just google a 1 minute or 5 minute meditation and then do my best to do what the guide is telling me to do. I don’t know why this helps with mental health but first hand experience tells me that it helps me adapt better to the stresses of the world plus monks who practice daily meditation seem pretty content right?. 

Working on getting the proper amount of sleep has been tough for me as well. I have found that my perfect amount of sleep is 7-8 hours at night and then a 15-20 minute power nap in the early afternoon. I now take a nap almost every day. It’s ok to take naps, don’t let corporate america tell you that you can’t, you will not be less productive because you took a nap. You will likely be more productive after having taken a nap rather than forcing yourself to stay awake.

The last thing is something new I am implementing/experimenting with and I am calling them dopamine fasts. Dopamine is our pleasure hormone. It is responsible for the pleasurable feeling we get when someone likes our instagram post or the pleasure from taking a bite from your favorite ice cream. We can build up a tolerance to dopamine. This is why the second or third bite of ice cream doesn’t seem to satisfy quite as much as the first bite did. Therefore I have noticed that when I limit my most easily attainable dopamine rushes, social media, and baked goods in my case, I can feel that dopamine rush stronger from other more rewarding less easily attainable activities, physical touch from a loved one, or runners high. Social media fasts are kinda trendy right now too so give it a try to see how it affects your ability to feel your dopamine rushes.

I didn’t come up with all this stuff on my own. It comes from a number of books and articles that I have been studying. The most influential resources in my case have been; The Hacking of the American Mind, Change Your Brain Change Your Life, Tools of Titans, Own the Day Own Your Life, The plant paradox and then this article. I have taken things from all these books and have left other suggestions behind. Be prudent and be sure to consult with a professional before attempting any of the things mentioned above or in any of these resources. Please call

What you eat has a bigger impact than you might think…

I am a huge advocate for diet. The standard American diet (SAD) is so sad. Packaged food is designed to make a profit, it tastes great, is addictive and fills the belly. It however lacks the nutrients necessary to experience life optimally.  Food is so magical, we eat it and it becomes us. If we eat the right things the food we eat literally becomes the molecules responsible for our feeling of contentment, sadness, anger, happiness, excitement, aroused or amused. If the body does not have the building blocks to create those molecules then we simply cannot feel those feelings. Regarding mental health and serotonin, Omega 3s, Vitamin D, and tryptophan seem to be some of the most important micronutrients. 

How can getting adjusted help?

When I am out of alignment and in need of an adjustment I notice that I am quicker to anger. This is just my experience and I dont know of any research on this topic specifically. I do have a simple logical theory behind why I feel this way when I am in need of a specific chiropractic adjustment. Life is tough. There are hundreds or maybe thousands of stressors that are thrown at us daily. It takes a lot of effort to roll with the punches or as I like to say, Adapt. When the body is in need of a chiropractic adjustment it is at a point in which it is not able to adapt as well as it usually can. When this happens to me I get frustrated, and as I said before, quicker to anger. The best way to describe how I feel is when I get an itch in the center of my back that I can’t reach. I stretch and I stretch and I can’t reach it, I stand in doorways and try to use corners of the door frame to reach it but it never really feels satisfied. I get frustrated to the point of asking someone for help, usually almost begging I say, “Please scratch my back right there… A little lower!! Yes, right there, perfect thank you so much!!”  I am pretty sure most of you can relate to that unrelenting itch that you just can’t reach. It is frustrating. The same thing happens on a neurological level and it messes with my mental health causing that quick fuze. I  believe the relief of my quick fuze symptom comes from the power the adjustment has to relieve a stressor that has been put on the nervous system. There is some new research coming out now that speaks to the positive impact an adjustment to the spinal column has on the brain. You read that right. A chiropractic adjustment delivered to the spine can have a positive impact on the brain. We are facilitating healing in the entire nervous system and therefore creating an epic opportunity for positive change in the body and mind.  

Let’s drop the taboo around seeing a therapist

It takes a village to raise us, and were never really done growing. I believe, and I hope the stigma around seeing a therapist is changing. When I was growing up I thought all people who went to psychologists or psychiatrists were crazy. It never even crossed my mind to see one because I wasn’t crazy, or couldn’t be labeled as crazy. Being a farm kid we had to be tough there was no time for feelings. Not to mention my savage family. If any of us showed signs of weakness we would attack each other with relentless banter that occasionally went too far. *Disclaimer: I love my family and would not trade anything for how I grew up and was raised, I am grateful for the metaphorical and physical thick skin that I developed with them. That being said, if one of us went to a shrink that person would have never heard the end of it. At least that is what I thought growing up. Now after having been to a few therapists to help with my own mental health and having disclosed that info with my family we have destroyed that stigma. They might still call me crazy but it’s solely out of the love we share. When I am in need, my family is the first to have my back. I know everyone’s situation is different and it can be tough to get in to see a therapist for a number of reasons. If however you think it might help you improve your wellbeing even a little do it. Go see someone. Go talk to someone about your unique situation. Psychologists and Psychiatrists go to school for a long time to learn to take care of people in tough mental health situations. Utilize them. If you’re not in need, don’t judge anyone who is, just count your lucky stars and be supportive.

This article has been a tough one

This article brought me to tears 3 or 4 times, I am not often brought to tears. So many people struggle with mental health and have no idea where to turn to help them sort out their feelings. Too many people suffer because they simply do not know where to go for help. They don’t know why they feel the way they do and they can’t break free. I hope this article will shake up the taboo, break up the stigma and tear down some walls around talking about mental health.

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If you liked this post, share it with your friends! It will really help my practice grow. -Dr. Derek