For years, this pressing question has remained unanswered. Often, patients seeking clarity encounter explanations such as “it’s genetic” or “depression is a lack of serotonin.” Mental illness has been an enigma and point of confusion for many researchers and scientists. Despite medical advances, the root cause of mental illness has remained unknown.
However, a recent breakthrough in psychiatry may be the missing piece to this mysterious puzzle. Dr Christopher Palmer, a Harvard professor of psychiatry, has been connecting the dots of thousands of research articles regarding the relationship between mental illness and mitochondrial dysfunction. According to Palmer, this collective research raises concerns about the current treatments used for mental disorders.
A pivotal moment in 2016 started the psychiatrist on a new path when he helped a patient with schizoaffective disorder lose weight. The patient not only suffered from severe mental illness but also low self-esteem due to the weight gain he experienced while on psychotropic medication.
Palmer relayed that he initially couldn’t believe switching to a low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet could stop chronic auditory hallucinations and paranoid delusions. He quickly started using this intervention in other patients and saw similar—sometimes even more dramatic—results. This experience encouraged him to begin a scientific journey to understand how a change in diet could help severe mental illness.
Palmer discovered decades of scientific research revealing the connection between metabolic and brain health. Palmer told sources, “The more I uncovered in terms of those concrete mechanisms of action, I realized there’s something much bigger here. I’m beginning to connect a lot of dots that our field hasn’t been able to connect before.”
In November 2022, he released a cutting-edge book entitled “Brain Energy,” highlighting his discoveries and theorizing that mitochondrial disorders are the root cause of all mental illnesses.
Drawing from decades of research on metabolism and mitochondria, Palmer believes that mental disorders are metabolic disorders of the brain. This means that these conditions are not permanent defects and can be corrected by identifying and addressing their root cause. This insight challenges the notion that conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are lifelong disorders.
“People with labels such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder can put their illnesses into remission, they can heal, and they can recover,” Palmer asserted. “That goes against much of what we tell people today,” he added.
A deep dive into cellular biology reveals tiny organelles within cells responsible for producing energy. Structures called mitochondria are vital for all cells to function normally, including brain cells. When mitochondria are not operating correctly, various health problems can arise, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes.
Palmer pointed out that when mitochondria fail to work correctly, this can also lead to mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. The brain needs a considerable amount of energy to work efficiently. When mitochondria are not churning out enough energy, this can lead to abnormalities in the brain’s structure and function, leading to mental illness.
Palmer asserts that mitochondrial dysfunction can produce several changes in the brain that can cause mental illness to develop. These changes include fluctuations in neurotransmitter levels, oxidative stress, and inflammation.
If the origin of mental disorders is mitochondrial dysfunction, treatment modalities that address the underlying issue could be more successful than traditional tools. Medication and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), the standard treatment for most mental disorders, can sometimes manage symptoms but fail to cure the disease.