I first met Dr. Walsh in the fall of 2014, at his second physician training course here in the US. At the time, I was uncertain how useful nutrients would be in my psychiatric practice. What I learned seemed too good to be true. Upon returning home, I gradually began evaluating and treating specific nutrient imbalances in adults and children with depression, ADHD, anxiety, bipolar disorder, autism and other conditions. To my repeated surprise, most patients - children and adults alike improved… significantly - some dramatically, including those whose symptoms had failed to respond to other treatments.
If we are given three acts to live out our lives, Dr. Walsh has and continues to use each to its fullest potential. His story is one of relentless curiosity, hard work, and fruitful collaborations. As I spoke to him in this less formal setting, I came to appreciate his deep sense of purpose and compassion - a compassion born out of his own painful experiences involving family members who significantly benefitted from nutrient therapies.
Dr. Walsh started on his professional path at the Institute of Atomic Research at Los Alamos Scientific Lab before obtaining his PhD in chemical engineering….not medicine…. not neuroscience...and not nutrition. Like many pioneers, his “outsider” background provided him a fresh perspective - one unencumbered by conventional thinking.
He went on to Argonne National Laboratory and with an interest in crime and violence, began volunteering at the Stateville Penitentiary in Illinois. There he eventually led 125 volunteers and launched an ex-offender program. It was through this program, he met prisoner’s parents who would plant the seeds of his earliest discoveries.
Many of the prisoners, he noticed, came from well functioning families, not families struggling with trauma, poverty or other adversity. Some parents recalled knowing there was something wrong with their child as early as the age of two. They had other children who were thriving. Why are some more vulnerable to criminal behavior from their very beginnings?
With this curiosity, Dr. Walsh met Carl Pfeiffer, MD - at the time, the world’s leading expert in nutritional science. On they day they met, Dr. Pfeiffer was nominated for the Nobel Prize. They would collaborate for the next 12 years. Dr. Walsh brought ex-convicts just out of prison, Dr. Pfeiffer analyzed their biochemistry and together they developed individualized treatment programs.
By 1989, Dr. Walsh, along with physician colleagues, opened the Pfeiffer Treatment Center, where they began using Dr. Pfeiffer’s nutrient therapies to treat violent behavior in children. When coexisting ADHD symptoms and learning problems started to disappear as well, they expanded their work, eventually to include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism (and in more recent years Alzheimer's and Parkinson's). In 18 years, they evaluated and treated 30,000 patients. This resulted in 3 million chemistries - the world's largest database on nutrient levels in individuals with mental disorders. Within this were nutrient levels on more specific populations, ie. 3600 individuals with depression. Dr. Walsh has seen 6500 autistic children, more than anyone in the world. His database even includes 25 serial killers and mass murders. He’s assisted the FBI and Scotland Yard and has designed nutritional programs for Olympic and professional athletes.
Though there are more than one thousand nutrients important in the body, Dr. Walsh found, as he says, "..only about six or seven ...seem to have a dramatic impact on mental health. I used to be bothered by the fact that the same chemical imbalances kept turning up in different conditions.... It turns out that each of these nutrient factors is directly involved in either the synthesis or the epigenetic regulation of a neurotransmitter in the brain. That was really good news. If we had to study over 200 possible chemical imbalances and correct whatever we found, designing treatments would be very difficult. Fortunately, we can focus on six or seven nutrients, and by balancing them, we can help most people with mental disorders."
But, there was more, Dr. Walsh discovered that most types of psychiatric conditions are epigenetic, meaning they involve a sudden change not in the gene itself, but in the functioning of a gene(s). Epigenetic conditions typically don’t go away. This change in functioning occurs as the result of an environmental insult either in utero or later in life.
Dr. Walsh's work has yielded more discoveries than can fit in this article. Here are a few:
- 70% of people with serious psychiatric conditions have a methylation imbalance - relative to 30% of the general population. Such an imbalance can occur if there is too little (undermethylation) or too much methyl (overmethylation) - a molecule that comes from methionine which is present in protein. Methyl dominates gene expression. More specifically, 95% of individuals with autism, OCD and antisocial personality are undermethylated.
- 90% of people diagnosed with a mental disorder have either low-normal levels or are deficient in zinc. This nutrient is not difficult to measure, nor to normalize.
- There are 5 biochemical phenotypes of depression - undermethylation, overmethylation, copper overload, pyroluria and toxic metals. This explains the different responses to antidepressants such as SSRI’s (serotonin reuptake inhibitors). Some people get worse. Some don’t respond at all. Getting worse can mean suicide or even homicide. A young man carrying out a school shooting not long after being put on an antidepressant is likely overmethylated (folate deficient). They can be identified by an inexpensive blood test, and be treated with a different family of medication, or more ideally, treated with folate, cyanocobalamin and niacin-amide.
- Similarly there are biotypes for schizophrenia and ADHD, each requiring different treatments.
- Overwhelmingly, women with postpartum depression have elevated copper levels. This relates to the close relationship between estrogen and copper. In Dr. Walsh’s outcome study of hundreds of women with postpartum depression, 85% improved after copper levels were normalized using nutrient protocols.
In his years of experience, he says that more than 80% of people with ADHD and depression report significant improvement within three months and that more than 70% can eventually wean off psychiatric medication without a return of symptoms.
For more information, “Nutrient Power: Heal Your Biochemistry and Heal Your Brain.” by William Walsh, PhD
So what do you do when you have answers that could impact one of the biggest health crises in the modern world? Well, if you’re Dr. Walsh, you consider the words of Gandhi: “When the people lead, the leaders will follow.” He started the Walsh Research Institute with one goal being to train 1,000 physicians around the world in his advanced nutrient protocols. He explained to me his thinking. If he trains 1,000 doctors and they each treat 2,000 people, then 2 million people could potentially benefit and go on to share their experience. Eventually the leaders will follow.
If Dr. Walsh’s nutrient protocols are so effective, why hasn’t conventional medicine gotten on board? Though Dr. Walsh has spoken at the American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting and his physician training is certified by the American Medical Association for Continuing Medical Education, there are still obstacles. Unlike research into psychiatric medications, which is well funded through the pharmaceutical industry, research into nutrient therapies doesn’t have a strong profit motive. Equally problematic is the standards of current research which address one variable at a time. Our bodies and biochemistry are more complicated than this model allows. Rarely does someone have just one nutrient imbalance. Nutrient protocols/treatments are individualized and involve multiple nutrients/multiple variables which is quite different from one medication to treat one disorder. This later type of research makes even less sense when you understand that one disorder, for example, depression, is actually at least 5 different disorders.
Such obstacles don’t seem to deter Dr. Walsh. Nor does his age. “You know, ...I’m old,” he says. I hear this as a humorous comment on the number of years he’s been here and not a comment on his level of engagement in his work and life.
How could we have an impact sooner - before an environmental insult starts an epigenetic disorder? How could we identify those at risk? Some forms of autism start in utero, however, there are a large number of infants who start out with normal development and then regress into autism. An environmental insult such as an infection or toxic exposure may result in an alteration in gene expression. Dr. Walsh hopes to look at where on the DNA these epigenetic changes are occurring. Knowing this could help identify future infants at risk, so that interventions could be made to prevent an epigenetic event and thus autism.
Not unrelated, Dr. Walsh describes a time when there will be a simple test done during routine physicals to identify those on the verge of an epigenetic disorder. Proactive treatments, ie. nutrient therapies, could then be given to prevent many disorders from ever beginning. Dr. Walsh’s upcoming ebook will discuss cancer, heart disease, autism, PTSD and other epigenetic conditions.
Treatment and prevention of epigenetic disorders, however, isn’t a cure. While many of us are catching up to the reality that nutrients can impact genetic expression, Dr. Walsh is attending conferences on the latest cancer research. He’s listening closely to researchers who in their labs are resetting those epigenetic bookmarks that have been altered. This essentially is what is required to cure cancer and other epigenetic disorders. It is unknown how long it will take before this science makes its way into clinical practice. Here again, the bulk of research dollars goes toward developing more pharmacotherapies, in this case chemotherapies.
Before our chat ends with Dr. Walsh returning to his own research, I wonder out loud, “With less than 500 doctors in the world using his nutrient protocols, who will carry on this type of research?” Of those trained by the Walsh Research Institute, most of us are practitioners, not researchers. He notes there are a few trained MD’s who also have their PhD’s (and thus have trained in research) and a few physicians who are already taking a leadership role in the Walsh Research Institute online group discussions. Mostly, however, he doesn’t know, nor does he seem particularly concerned. I think instead he’s wisely focused on the more impactful questions of the day - the questions he’d like to get answered - questions that could make all the difference in the life of a child or an adult and their families.