© Wall Street Journal

An elderly woman's sudden depression turns out to be a side effect of her high blood-pressure medication.

A new mother's exhaustion and disinterest in her baby seem like postpartum depression - but actually signal a postpartum thyroid imbalance that medication can correct.

A middle-aged manager has angry outbursts at work and frequently feels "ready to explode." A brain scan reveals temporal-lobe seizures, a type of epilepsy that can be treated with surgery or medication.

More than 100 medical disorders can masquerade as psychological conditions, according to Harvard psychiatrist Barbara Schildkrout, who cited these examples among others in Unmasking Psychological Symptoms, a book aimed at helping therapists broaden their diagnostic skills.

Studies have suggested that medical conditions may cause mental-health issues in as many as 25% of psychiatric patients and contribute to them in more than 75%.

Untangling cause and effect can challenge even seasoned clinicians, and the potential for missed diagnoses is growing these days, said Dr. Schildkrout, who has more than 25 years of clinical practice in the Boston area. Most mental-health counselors rely on primary-care doctors to spot medical issues, but those physicians are increasingly time-pressed and may not know their patients well. Neither do the psychiatrists who mainly write prescriptions and see patients only briefly, she said in an interview.

Common culprits include under- or over-active thyroid glands, which can cause depression and anxiety, respectively. Deficiencies of vitamins D, B-12 and folate, as well as hormonal changes and sleep disorders have also been linked to depression.

Diabetes, lupus and Lyme disease can have a variety of psychiatric symptoms, as can mercury and lead poisoning and sexually transmitted diseases. Many medications also list mood changes among their side effects, and substance abuse is notorious for causing psychiatric problems.

Some underlying conditions are readily treatable. Others, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease and some brain tumors, are not. But a correct diagnosis can save months or years of frustration and ineffective treatment.

In some cases, a psychological problem is just the first sign of a serious medical issue. "Depression predicts heart disease and heart disease predicts depression," said Gary Kennedy, director of the geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, N.Y.

About one-third of people who have their first episode of depression after age 55 have changes in brain circuits that are associated with hypertension, diabetes and heart attacks. Such patients are usually apathetic, have difficulty with executive planning and don't respond well to antidepressants. Making sure their blood pressure and blood-sugar levels are on target is crucial, though medical and psychotherapy may be needed as well, Dr. Kennedy said.

Recognizing an underlying medical condition can be particularly difficult when there is also a psychological explanation for a patient's dark moods. For example, victims of domestic violence are often anxious, depressed and withdrawn - but mild brain injury could be causing such symptoms, too.

Warning Signs

When to suspect a mental problem may be medical:
  • Sudden change in mood or personality
  • History of head trauma
  • Depression that occurs for the first time after age 55
  • Recent travel or exposure to infections
  • Any rash, swelling, drooping eyelid; facial tic
  • Standard medication or therapy isn't effective
Similarly, a former college athlete who becomes angry and irritable in his 40s could be suffering a midlife crisis - or delayed reaction to head injuries sustained decades earlier. "We now know that multiple concussions can have a sleeper effect for years. Then one day, out of the blue, you start acting explosive and depressed," due to a brain swelling known as chronic trauma encephalopathy, said Jerrold Pollak, a neuropsychologist at Seacoast Mental Health Center in Portsmouth, N.H., and lead author of an article on distinguishing mental from medical disorders in the Journal of Clinical Psychology Practice this spring.

If the head-injury diagnosis is missed, Dr. Pollak added, the patient could be in psychotherapy for months, "thinking that he has trouble with his father or feels like a failure for not becoming a pro athlete."

Giving every patient who seeks psychological help a brain scan first would be prohibitively expensive and likely yield many confusing results. But experts say mental-health counselors should ask patients about their medical histories as well as emotional issues, and make sure they've had a recent physical exam.

Tell-tale signs of underlying medical problems include significant changes in energy, weight, appetite or sleep, which could be due to an endocrine disorder. Sudden changes in mood or personality, visual hallucinations and alternations in smell, taste or tactile senses could signal a brain tumor or other abnormality.

Sometimes a single physical sign can broaden a clinician's diagnostic thinking. Manhattan psychiatrist Drew Ramsey recalled that early in his career, he examined a patient with daily panic attacks and noticed a swelling on her shins, a classic sign of Graves' disease, a form of overactive thyroid that can cause severe anxiety.

Like other psychiatrists, Dr. Ramsey said he always takes a medical history and orders blood tests for patients. He found that one was anemic and improved markedly when meat was added to her diet. Another who was depressed and drinking heavily was low on vitamins D and B-12.

Similarly, Dr. Schildkrout once treated a 50-year-old woman for mood swings and noticed a slight slurring to her speech. While it could have been dismissed as ill-fitting dentures, it turned out to be the first sign of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which also causes severe fatigue and odd jags of laughing and crying in its early stages.

Some patients may benefit from both psychological counseling and medical help. Therapists need not turn patients away while medical issues are being explored, experts say. "Clinicians can say, 'While we work on these issues, let's also discuss any possible medical conditions that could be contributing, so we can at least rule them out,"' Dr. Pollak said.

Finally clarifying a diagnosis can be a relief to clinicians and patients - particularly when therapy hasn't been working or patients have spent years blaming themselves. "When you find the right diagnosis, not only is there appropriate treatment, but it can make a dramatic improvement in terms of healing their self esteem," Dr. Schildkrout said.

Different Diagnoses

More than 100 medical disorders can masquerade as psychological conditions or contribute to them, complicating treatment decisions.
  • WHAT SEEMS LIKE...Depression MAY ACTUALLY BE...Underactive thyroid; low vitamin D or B-12 or folate; diabetes; hormonal changes; heart disease; Lyme disease; lupus; head trauma, sleep disorders; some cancers and cancer drugs
  • WHAT SEEMS LIKE...Anxiety MAY ACTUALLY BE ... Overactive thyroid; respiratory problems; very low blood pressure; concussion; anaphylactic shock
  • WHAT SEEMS LIKE...Irritability MAY ACTUALLY BE...Brain injury; temporal lobe epilepsy; Alzheimer's disease and early stage dementia; parasitic infection; hormonal changes
  • WHAT SEEMS LIKE...Hallucinations MAY ACTUALLY BE ...Epilepsy; brain tumor; fever; narcolepsy; substance abuse
  • WHAT SEEMS LIKE ...Cognitive changes MAY ACTUALLY BE...Brain injury or infection; Alzheimer's; Parkinson's; liver failure; mercury or lead poisoning
  • WHAT SEEMS LIKE...Psychosis MAY ACTUALLY BE...Venereal disease; brain tumors and cysts; stroke; epilepsy; steroids; substance abuse

Comment: For more information about how medical ailments can be confused with mental illness read the following:

Mental illness is not 'all in the mind':
Over the years, though, I've seen quite a lot of people in practice who seem to have or have been formally diagnosed with some form of mental illness, who actually turn out to have their problem rooted in issues that fall, strictly speaking, outside the brain. Here are a few examples:
  1. people with mood swings caused by fluctuation in blood sugar levels
  2. people with depression who have low thyroid function
  3. people with low mood who have iron deficiency and/or anaemia
  4. people with low mood/depression who have weakened adrenal gland function
  5. people who have low mood/depression as a result of food sensitivity issues (often wheat, by the way)
  6. people who have the symptoms of bulimia nervosa (binging and purging) as a result of blood sugar fluctuation
  7. people who have anxiety/depression as a result of a deficiency in omega-3 fats
  8. people who have anxiety/insomnia as a result of low levels of magnesium
The important thing is that when the underlying nature of these issues are rectified, the mental state of individuals usually takes on a completely different complexion.
Depression - Caused by Inflammation, Thus Like Other Diseases of Civilization:
Part of the possible connection between diet and mental illness is how a bad diet can lead to a generalized inflammatory state. The theory goes like so: first you eat a ton of vegetable oil in processed food that fills the body with inflammatory molecules derived from the omega-6 fatty acids, then you add a lot of grains or legumes with lectins and immunoreactive proteins, and top it off lots of modern chronic stress. Do this for a long period of time, and your body gets irritated - obesity, cardiovascular disease, and autoimmune diseases are all related to inflammation. Turns out your brain can get pretty irritated too.
Primal mind: A talk on nutrition and mental health by Nora Gedgaudas
Abstract: Learn about the myth of "the mind-body connection" and how diet can powerfully impact mental health and cognitive performance, including a discussion of strategies for improving memory and cognitive function at any age using "Primal principles" and how to slow (maybe even reverse) the process of brain aging.

Mental health issues and cognitive challenges are nearly ubiquitous today. According to the work of respected nutritional pioneers such as Weston Price these same mental and brain health issues were nearly unheard of in many primitive and traditional societies consuming a diet consistent with that of our more distant evolutionary ancestors.

Modern research findings offer added understanding and a new layer to ancestral dietary principles that can lead us toward the promise of optimal brain functioning, emotional liberation and the cultivation of a potentially ageless mind. By applying many of these "Paleo" principles today and modifying them to our more modern circumstances we can re-cultivate and improve upon the healthy Primal Mind that is our birthright and the key to our future as a species.