Dr. Kelly Brogan was a conventional psychiatrist for many years, and spent much of her career prescribing medications to help treat her patients’ conditions. Today, she’s a pioneer in the field of holistic psychiatry, and is one of the few known psychiatrists who takes a non-pharmaceutical approach to mental illness. How she made that transition is a fascinating story, as is her totally unique process for working with patients. In her interview with Adrienne, Dr. Kelly Brogan shared her personal wellness journey, as well as the eye-opening research that landed her at the forefront of the holistic psychiatry movement.
*This is a short clip from our interview with Dr. Kelly Brogan. Click here to watch the whole thing!*
You can also listen to an audio version of our interview with Dr. Kelly Brogan on The WellBe Podcast.
The Personal Health Struggle That Sparked Change
As is the case with many “renegade doctors,” as she calls them, Dr. Brogan was an entirely conventional physician until a personal health issue led her to experience firsthand the limitations of what conventional medicine has to offer.
Up until that point, she was what’s called a reproductive psychiatrist, and specialized in prescribing psychiatric medications to pregnant and breastfeeding women. “That’s how much I believed in the pharmaceutical model,” she reflects.
But when she got pregnant herself, Dr. Brogan’s mindset shifted. During her pregnancy, childbirth experience, and postpartum window, she was seeing women just like her, and was still prescribing them psychiatric meds. “I began to sort of have this funny feeling that I don’t think I would want to take an antidepressant as a pregnant woman,” she remembers thinking. “That’s an inconvenient feeling.”
At that point, she wasn’t ready to come face-to-face with that feeling; she’d put so much time, money, and energy into the pharmaceutical model and the conventional approach to medicine. So she swept her discomfort under the rug.
But then another health experience shifted her outlook even further. After her child was born, she began to experience a panoply of symptoms: brain fog, memory issues, a flat mood, feelings of overwhelm, hair and skin issues. Initially, she chalked it all up to new motherhood. “We love to make excuses so we don’t actually have to address what our body is trying to tell us,” she says now, looking back.
Eventually, when she was nine months postpartum, Dr. Brogan was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. It’s an exceedingly common autoimmune condition, especially in women and in particular postpartum women. After her diagnosis, she was prescribed various medications, and that inconvenient feeling — the discomfort over prescribing to pregnant and postpartum women — crept in again. She knew she didn’t want to take a prescription for the rest of her life, and could no longer stomach the hypocrisy of that.
“You live what your patients are going through,” Dr. Brogan says. “Until you experience that yourself, you don’t really have the motivation to question what you learned.”
But at that point, she had all the motivation she needed. That’s when her journey toward holistic psychiatry began.
HEALING NATURALLY FROM HASHIMOTO’S THYROIDITIS
After realizing that she didn’t want to take a prescription for her Hashimoto’s, Dr. Brogan found a naturopath in New York, Nicole Egenberger, who helped her change her diet and incorporate supplements. Dr. Brogan, as a science-minded, quantifiable-data person, tracked and monitored her progress by looking at the numbers. She began with antibodies in the high 2000s, and a TSH of 20, and watched as that resolved in the matter of one year. “I said, ‘well, wow,’” Dr. Brogan remembers.
The resounding success of this natural treatment made Dr. Brogan reflect on her medical training. Throughout her entire Ivy League education, she’d never been taught that diet matters. “The average medical student doesn’t have more than one hour of nutrition education,” she says. “It’s like, ‘By the way, if your patient’s drinking like a 32-ounce Pepsi every day, probably just tell them they shouldn’t do that.’ That’s literally the extent of it.”
Nor did she ever learn that autoimmune conditions like her own, and other chronic conditions, could be put into remission through lifestyle change. It was always all about the medications.
At this point, she became furious. She felt absolutely enraged at how much she’d invested and sacrificed to learn only part of the story of human health.
FINDING A NEW PATH WITH HOLISTIC PSYCHIATRY
In the years that followed, Dr. Brogan made it her mission to learn the rest of that story. She spent countless hours reading studies and primary papers on PubMed, unpacking everything that she’d assumed to be true.
She looked into all of the pharmaceuticals she’d thought were innocuous, that she’d assumed didn’t have a dark side, that she’d prescribed to patients for years: birth control, statins, antidepressants, antibiotics, acid blockers. “I went in and investigated it and what I found was really shocking at worst, and interesting at best,” she says.
But she didn’t just take this new information and get angry. What she learned through her extensive research became the foundation of a new way to practice medicine. It became the backbone of her holistic psychiatry practice.
CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE PUSHBACK AGAINST HOLISTIC PSYCHIATRY
It didn’t surprise Dr. Brogan that she’s received a lot of pushback from the medical community for her non-pharmaceutical approach to psychiatry. In the world of conventional psychiatric medicine, there’s a clear line in the sand that all practitioners are meant to respect, a line that divides conditions that can be treated through holistic methods and lifestyle change from conditions that must be treated by pharmaceuticals. According to this belief, there are certain severe psychiatric conditions for which there’s nothing you can do, lifestyle-wise, to alleviate symptoms. They believe drugs are the only answer.
Many times throughout her career, Dr. Brogan witnessed the strength of this belief. She saw patients coming to doctors with suggestions or ideas of things they might do, lifestyle changes they might make, to help them get better. Again and again, the response she saw was along the lines of: “These are the hallowed walls of legitimate medicine, please take your concerns elsewhere.” Her mentor described this mentality as similar to a religion, and she agrees. There was no room for conversation or discussion, only accepted dogma.
Dr. Brogan approach of holistic psychiatry without pharmaceuticals for any psychiatric condition —no matter how severe — challenges this dogma. Still, the medical community remains firm that for some mental illness, only medication will work.