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Clearing the Air About the FDA's Legalization of Prozac for Children

Commentary by Greg Lewis /
January 23, 2003

A great deal has been written in the week or so since the Food and Drug Administration made it legal for physicians to prescribe the drug Prozac for children as young as seven years old. Much of it misses the critical implications of the ruling, and much of it is downright obfuscatory. The point that is consistently ignored or obscured concerns the effects that psychotropic drugs can have on human brains, particularly on the developing brains of children and adolescents.

It's important to note that people's brains are generally not fully developed until about the age of 20. Frontal lobe functions, which are particularly affected by psychotropic drugs, are the last to develop. The frontal lobes of our brains are where the activities that define us as human beings -- including decision-making, the ability to empathize, and the ability to understand the consequences of our actions -- take place. Disturbance by drugs of the development of these functions in children and adolescents can have profound and lasting negative effects.

The issue, then, is brain chemistry, particularly the consequences of disrupting (or further disrupting) the functioning of kids' brains by means of psychotropic substances. That, unfortunately, is precisely what American physicians, in collusion with educators and school administrators, are doing: They're dispensing potentially addictive and damaging drugs to our children in the name of correcting behavioral and emotional problems that could, in almost every case, be dealt with using natural means which support, rather than short-circuit, normal biochemical functions. This is because, in a great majority of cases, psychological and behavioral problems resolve to biochemistry, and, again in most cases, correction of biochemical imbalances at the root of those problems leads to the restoration of emotional and behavioral normalcy.

The symptoms of imbalances in brain chemistry are varied. They include listlessness, irritability, moodswings, sleep problems, outbursts of uncontrolled anger, the inability to concentrate, and the inability to experience pleasure, among many others. A number of these symptoms have been grouped together and given "disease" status under names such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Bipolar Illness, and Depression, to mention a few. The knee-jerk "cure" for such groups of symptoms is the prescription of powerful, potentially addictive psychotropic drugs. And while such drugs can effectively mask symptoms in the short term, their long-term effects, in both children and adults, can be devastating.

The reason is that psychotropic drugs -- including stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall, and antidepressants such as Prozac and Paxil -- interact directly with brain cells, in effect highjacking normal brain function. For instance, by mimicking the effects of excitatory neurotransmitters called catecholamines, stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall short-circuit the normal production, release, and reuptake cycles of these brain chemicals, often causing dependency in the wake of resultant decreased production by the brain. And while the drugs can temporarily increase alertness, the ability to focus and concentrate, and the ability to experience pleasure, over time they reduce the brain's capacity to perform these functions on its own.

Prozac and Paxil, which are called Serotonin Selective Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), work to prevent the normal recycling and reuse by brain cells of the neurotransmitter serotonin, an emotional relaxant. Short-term results of Paxil or Prozac use can include an elevation of mood and relief from symptoms of depression. But because the drugs reduce the brain's normal production of serotonin, greater and greater doses, often triggering dependency, are generally needed over time to achieve the desired results.

The tragedy of prescribing psychotropic drugs for children and adolescents is that in virtually all cases the drugs are unnecessary. But it takes a knowledgeable and committed physician to disregard the "easy" solution of prescribing drugs and instead do the tough work of identifying the underlying disorders that cause disruptions in brain chemistry. Among many other things, such committed physicians chase down and eliminate intestinal parasites that prevent food from being completely digested and therefore reduce nutrient availability to the brain. And they track down and counteract heavy metal toxicity that can directly disrupt the ability of certain chemical molecules to fold up correctly, thus making them unusable for normal biochemical functions. And they find and fix obscure allergies that cause chronic heightened immune system responses which result in a constant state of immune stress that rapidly uses up the brain's supplies of stress-fighting neurotransmitters.

The key to dealing with most behavioral and emotional problems, especially in children (but in adults as well), is not the administration of powerful psychotropic substances but the identification of underlying causes and the careful restoration of normal brain chemistry through natural means, particularly nutritional supplementation. Indeed, except in extreme cases, no person under the age of 18 should ever be prescribed Ritalin or Prozac. It's nothing less than an admission of failure, and it has a very high likelihood of doing long-term damage.

And while social and cultural factors certainly play important roles in contributing to the biochemical imbalances at the root of virtually all emotional and behavioral problems, the first step in treatment should be to restore our children's natural ability to function normally. Then -- after we've done right by each and every one of our troubled kids -- we can begin to tackle the social and cultural issues which pose such impediments to raising healthy children.

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