Mental health is an area of healing that begs for more innovative solutions. A growing body of evidence is making a strong case for the claim that integrative approaches to mental wellness are creating better results for people than reliance on traditional medication and psychotherapy. The Director of the Pacific Psychological Care Group, Dr. Jeffrey Bruno is passionate about finding alternative natural therapies that support mental wellness. This passion has led him to pioneer the use of nutritional psychology and light-assisted neuromodulation psychotherapies, as well as other therapies that help get people out of the trap of medication dependency. He joins Dr. Timothy J. Hayes in this conversation to explain how these therapies work in relation with each other and why a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work in mental health.
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Nutritional Psychology, Light Therapy And Other Integrative Approaches To Mental Health With Jeffrey Bruno, PhD
Jeffrey Bruno, PhD, is Director of the Pacific Psychological Care group. Their website is ChildWisdom.org, and they’re located in Pacifica, California. He has a Master’s degree in General Experimental Psychology from the University of Wisconsin and Madison, and a Doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies.
Thank you for being here. It’s a delight to have you.
You’re welcome. I appreciate the invitation.
Can you start us off by telling us how you got started in the work you do and what drives your passion for it?An integrative mental health approach is superior to standalone cognitive behavioral therapy, which is typically combined with medications. Click To Tweet
I’m a psychologist by training. My early introduction to psychology was through my father, who was an amateur hypnotist. In high school, he mentioned that he used to do hypnosis and even did some stage hypnosis. As a young teenager, I was intrigued and I want to learn more. He said, “If you have any friends who want to be hypnotized, I can demonstrate it for you.” There was no lack of people who wanted to try that experience. My brother and I got to see a wide range of hypnotic induced phenomena from sensory alterations, making a pit and the sound like a cannon to having somebody be as stiff as a board and suspended between chairs with the back of their head and their ankle. My brother and I would be sitting on them. Things that defied reason. That got my curiosity about what this thing called consciousness is, and it led me to look more formally into the study of consciousness.
What drives the passion for the work you’re doing? ChildWisdom.org is your website. One of the things that I was interested in knowing about is the integrative approach. What drives your passion for this work?
Several things. One, I’m always curious about ways to support the healing process and how to discover the principles underlining healing because I see healing as this great overlap between spirituality, consciousness, and the relief of human suffering. For me, mental health is an area of healing that begs for more innovative solutions. It’s somewhat of mental health as a whole. It’s a little bit of a backwater of attention in terms of the healing professions.
I’m particularly passionate about finding alternative therapies, natural therapies, and helpful therapies that support mental wellness. That’s been driving me for many decades now, continually to try to figure out what’s the best way to heal the mind, as well as feeling that the mind is instrumental to all forms of healing that unless we understand how our thoughts, words and actions affect the healing process, we’re not paying enough attention.
I’m drawn to one of the quotes you have on your website from Dr. Andrew Weil, where he talks about the sorry state of the psychiatric profession where they’re relegated to using a biochemical approach to squash symptoms. When you’re talking about all of these other areas of the human experience and bringing them into focus for healing, what are some of the approaches you use, whether it’s tools or a format for therapy, to make sure you’re in an integrative approach?
I do like an integrative approach, meaning I will embrace what works, whether it’s traditional forms of psychotherapy or it’s the use of alternative therapies like light, color, nutrition, oxygen therapies, auricular ear acupuncture or energetic forms of therapy. Being able to draw from a wide range of tools and try to align those tools to the interest and what’s needed by my clients. I try to make it more personalized to have a wide range of tools to draw from.
Are you trained to do auricular acupuncture?
I am. I was introduced to auricular therapy, which is a form of ear acupuncture when I was doing my pre-doctoral training in the Tenderloin Mental Health Clinic by a psychiatrist who is using auricular therapy with getting heroin addicts to get off methadone. There are protocols for drug detoxification and pain management that she introduced me to.
Do you actively use auricular therapy when clients come to you, and you’re applying it rather than referring it out to a practitioner?
I will use it. It’s not the mainstay of what I do. It’s another tool particularly if there are pain issues. Sometimes, anxiety issues. Sometimes, it can be helpful for managing insomnia and helping support depression mood. Those are areas where I’ll think about auricular therapy. It’s a quick, easy therapy to add to a whole mental health approach.
You mentioned nutrition and you’ve written this book, Eat Light and Feel Bright. It talks a lot about microalgae solutions. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started in that and how much of that you’re recommending for people in your work?
I have almost a dual track in terms of my training and interest. When I was back in my mid-twenties, I was introduced to a naturopathic physician, Dr. John Ray, who was so far ahead of the time at that period. This is in the early ‘80s or mid-‘80s. He was already doing what now is referred to as energy psychology using acupoints, nutrition and psychological processing. When I was learning nutrition from him, I asked him, “What do you think is the best brain food that’s around?” He said, “Microalgae and particularly the species of microalgae known as Aphanizomenon Flos-Aquae or AFA that is native to Southern Oregon.”
I started using it and noticed an enhancement to my memory and my overall energy level. I was quite impressed. There are not a lot of things in nutrition where you notice a more immediate effect, but with a few grams of microalgae, I started to notice some benefits. That led to almost a 30-year period of time where I’ve been not only daily using microalgae as part of my nutritional approach. I’m studying to understand how it could have such profound effects not only on the brain but other health conditions. In the book you’re referring to, Eat Light & Feel Bright: Microalgae Solutions for Individual and Planetary Health, almost 800 studies were looked at and incorporated into that book to try to document the extensive health benefits of this unknown food. For most people, microalgae isn’t that well-known, and the benefits that it can have not only for mental health but for planetary health as well.
I was impressed with the fact that there are 40 pages of references for your book. You’re backing up with all these studies, what you lay out in the book. Do you find yourself prescribing or strongly recommending strong diet changes for people that come to you for mental health issues?
As a psychologist says, we don’t prescribe anything that’s legally locked up in the realm of MDs and other licensed physicians who are prescribing practices. We can recommend, and I do recommend lifestyle strategies, which include microalgae as well as exercise and other supportive therapies. With some of my patients and some of my clients, I definitely will.
One of the things that I tend to look at is when there’s a disruption in what was normal, and I got this from my parents, look on the bright side, look for the opportunity, etc. One of the things that happened right after I got my Doctorate was HMOs and PPOs came in. They wanted you to fix a person in five sessions, and then another PPO will come in and say, “We can find therapists that will fix that person in three sessions.”
It drove this work toward Solution-Focused Brief Therapy. One of the things that have happened with the Coronavirus is that people have been forced to help people that they can’t see face-to-face. They’re doing Telehealth and for some, it’s come up with some rather creative solutions to helping people through a Zoom call or a phone call. I wondered if you had been able to do some of that and adapt some of the things you would do in-person to the online or telehealth realm.
Yes. I’m doing my best with that. I prefer person-to-person, in-office visits over telehealth. However, there are some therapies that do translate well over telehealth. One of the therapies I use is called Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, which is teaching parents a form of play therapy working with young children. Surprisingly, we’re able to set up the Zoom videos so I can watch the parents play with the young child. They wear a little earbud with their smartphone and I’m able to coach some live. The child isn’t distracted by being in the psychologist’s office, so it’s a more natural environment. I found that particularly therapy quite effective over video services.
I’ve tried to adapt some of the color and eye movement work that I do with video. It’s not as effective but it is possible to project some colors and to watch people’s eyes positions and do some eye movement. Sometimes, I’ll use some of the energy psychology methods and tapping techniques like the Emotional Freedom Technique or different holding techniques that might be used, and demonstrate that and work with the person as they’re applying the techniques on themselves. There are some things that can certainly be done over the internet, but I strongly prefer sitting with the person. I feel like I get so much more out of that and they get more too.
One of the hand positions you used reminds me of the BodyTalk Cortices tapping. Are you familiar with that work?
I’ve heard of it but I’ve never studied it.
It’s a body of work that, like all of these other energy psychology works, tapping uses breath and visualization of the energy flow. Some people find it powerful. As a supplement, when some people and I teach the EFT tapping to people, if they’re not liking it or they’re getting a little stuck, I’ll introduce the Cortices tapping, which is simple and easier to do. They’re empowered to be using this between sessions. That’s one of the things I like to do and it sounds like the same thing you like to do. Teach people to be empowered for managing their own mental, emotional, psychological and spiritual health. What’s the way you get referrals most? Where do your referrals come from? What are you most known for helping people with?
I have a reputation that I’ve been doing this work for over 30 years for integrative mental health. Oftentimes, people are looking for either non-drug approaches for mental health or integrative approaches where the therapist can be kind with medications that they’re already on. I work with a wide range of folks from children through adults. I see a lot of the things that are typical for psychologists like anxiety and depression. Sometimes, more severe mental health issues like bipolar disorder or psychosis. Also, because I work with children, I’ll work with learning issues, behavioral issues, OCD, and a range of different, typically mental-emotional issues that people come in with.The gastrointestinal tract is our first nervous system. Click To Tweet
The OCD sparks my interest. When you talked about obsessive-compulsive disorder, what are some of the approaches you find most useful for a particular area like that, which many people find intractable?
Let me step back a little bit. The challenge in mental health is as you well know that there can be a label thrown out there like OCD or bipolar illness or autism or depression or anxiety. It’s like a snowflake that each person comes in with their individual life experience and their individual expression. Psychiatry is trying to categorize and psychology as well. The insurance asks us to do it and put people into these categories. The challenge with that is that when you do a particular type of treatment, it doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone who’s been labeled in that category.
Sometimes, we find a certain treatment works great with one person with OCD, but another person comes in and it might not be as effective. With that said, I will draw from cognitive behavioral therapy that’s been well-established for OCD in terms of exposure therapy or letting people know how to do different techniques to stop the compulsive or obsessive thinking pattern. There are some well-defined Cognitive Behavioral Therapies for that, and then I will combine that with a form of therapy called Emotional Transformation Therapy developed by Dr. Steven Vazquez. It uses colored light and we can adjust the flicker rate with the light as well.
What that does is you can attune the particular emotion the person is going to, and there are many varieties of OCD symptomology. They can have different emotional underpinnings that the colored light in the flicker rate combined with the cognitive behavioral therapy approach, can disrupt the obsessive pattern. There’s something called biological entrainment with light, particularly that’s when you have the flicker rate going on and you’re varying it, you’re almost like presenting a random presentation of different flicker rates that is hard for the person to stick with the obsessing.
You ask them to stay with the obsessive thought as you’re changing the flicker rate and it disrupts the pattern. You can then help train the person to start to do that more on their own using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy strategies as well. This is an example where an integrative mental health approach is more superior than just a standalone cognitive behavioral therapy, which is typically combined with medications. SSRIs within standard psychology and psychiatry are considered the most standard care, but we can bring in light and oscillating brainwave patterns with entrainment that also can disrupt obsessive patterns, and then we support that with good psychological care.
The name of that therapy again that uses the light frequencies is what?
Emotional Transformation Therapy, ETT by Dr. Steven Vazquez.
The way you’re presenting it and the disrupting of the pattern reminds me of the Bio Acoustical Utilization Device. Are you familiar with that?
It’s a little set of headphones, and they’ve done some experimenting with the frequency of sound that’ll stimulate the amygdala and produce that fight or flight or that startle response. When the person is tuned into what their own thought process was or their memory is, that creates discomfort or anxiety or physical disruption. When the headphone is on, it’s tuned to that frequency with the amygdala, and then they disrupt it. You’re doing the same kind of thing you’re talking about with the light frequency. You’re disrupting the entrainment in the person that goes along with the thought that stimulates the amygdala, etc.
There’s a whole new generation of psychotherapies that are starting to use neuromodulation techniques, whether it’s tapping or bilateral stimulation or eye movements or auditory or light. Adding this neuromodulation component to good psychotherapy skills and personal attunement relationship skills can help clients move through things that just standard talk therapy by themselves or just medication by themselves leave untouched.
I see that a lot of people, when they’re stuck with the traditional talk therapy or the meds, they’re greatly relieved when somebody introduces something, “Here, try this new thing.” You’re engaging them in a process or sending them home with a tapping technique or some worksheets that they can be doing that empower them to make a shift in what’s going on inside of them. What’s another tool you have found useful?
I’d have to talk about nutrition and oxygen therapies. We could talk even a lot further about light therapies. Nutrition is so important. It’s becoming increasingly recognized. Did you have one nutrition course when you’re being trained as a psychologist?
Not a single one.
Same with me. I went to what was considered an integrative graduate program, California Institute of Integral Studies, but there wasn’t a single nutritional course in the whole doctoral program. Most mental health practitioners, psychiatrists, and counselors lack any kind of understanding of how nutrition can be used to target mental health symptoms and the importance of applying nutrition. There is a field in orthomolecular psychiatry, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, called Functional Medicine. Functional medicine is an older tradition of orthomolecular medicine.
The remarkable thing is the brain is the hungriest organ in the body. Nutritionally, the brain consumes the largest proportion of calories, has the most oxidative risk, and most sensitive to glucose changes. It can be affected by mineral imbalances and incredibly affected by toxic metals and exposure to environmental toxins. The brain is super sensitive to nutritional excesses or imbalances or deficiencies as well as toxin exposure.
We could quadruple that with younger brains. Children have even proportionately larger brains than adults. They are more metabolically sensitive and they also have less developed blood-brain barrier, less developed gut function, and more leaky gut potential risk. They tend to be even more like the canaries in the coal mine for our modern diet. Oftentimes, nutrition is a good place to start with addressing mental health issues.
You talk about in your book the studies that indicate that the soil that we grow so many of our foods in doesn’t have the nutrients in it. How are you recommending people supplement that?
It’s a challenging one because even in organic farming, organic food is oftentimes shown to be deficient in trace minerals because if it’s not in the soil, it’s not going to be in the food. Ideally, people would eat the best whole food diets they could because we know that particularly fast foods tend to be even more nutritionally deficient in a lot of the essential factors. Oftentimes, people do need to supplement, particularly their mental health conditions. The brain is going to be one of the first areas to show when there are nutritional imbalances. Not surprising because it’s such a metabolic organ.
Before somebody would develop a heart condition or a liver problem or diabetes, they’re going to start to have mental health issues, problems of mood, performance and memory, due to nutritional imbalances that will show up first. Getting back to your question, of course, I have a bias. I like microalgae. Microalgae is the premier trace mineral food. It has one of the widest ranges of trace minerals. It’s also an incredibly good source for protein, antioxidants, and a range of other cofactors. For me, that’s the whole food multivitamin, good forms of microbiology. There can be other ways to get good trace minerals as well.
I have the good fortune of having connected with somebody who’s a naturopathic physician years ago, and he talks a lot about that body is an energy system and how important it is to eat whole, live, as much as possible raw food to increase the body’s vitality. As well as the nutrient part you’re talking about, but to increase the body’s vitality so that I’ve got the energy it takes to process out some of these traumatic energies and emotions.
What most of us are raised to do in this culture is to live at a low vitality level where we don’t have the energy reserves to process through the negative emotions. To process through emotions, I need to be able to keep my breath moving and allow myself to feel whatever is coming up. Most of us are trained to lock it down by holding the breath and most of us are trying to run away from that feeling with one form of drug or another, whether it’s caffeine or sugar or salty, fatty, sugary foods.We can incorporate technology into healing, but you can’t replace nature with technology. Click To Tweet
That’s such a good point to raise. To be able to move through stuck emotions and past traumas, there is an energetic component that’s needed. Oftentimes, the health part of mental health is not being adequately addressed. If you want to heal emotions and past trauma, raising one’s health, which is oftentimes raising one’s vitality, makes it more accessible to retrieve traumatic memories, process stuck emotions, and move through it when you have that additional support. Start at that foundational level.
I like to think that when you look at a systemic way of looking at the nervous system, the digestive system is our first nervous system. If we look at a worm, a worm doesn’t have a brain but it does have a GI tract and it has all this nerve plexus that are surrounding the GI tract. The GI tract is the foundational nervous system. From an evolutionary standpoint, if we want to start at the bottom, we have to address the GI tract. I have this theory that I have been working on for a long time and it’s called the GENIE Model, addressing these different systems for mental health.
GENIE stands for Gastrointestinal. The E stands for the Endocrine system. The N stands for the Nervous system. The I stands for the Immune system. The E stands for either Environmental or Energetic aspects. We need to address the whole GENIE as mental health practitioners because the immune system does affect mental health conditions. The endocrine system does affect mental health conditions. The GI system does affect mental health systems. It does take a holistic approach if we want to definitely support people with the most severe mental health conditions.
I think of your website, ChildWisdom.org, and I think about how many people I’ve had, preteen and teens, in the past where they’re coming for therapy and they’re living on snacks they can get in a bag or a can and what they call energy drinks, which are just all the sugar and caffeine. You would never imagine how much caffeine. The struggle that I’ve had with these people to try and get the preteen and the teen and the parent to understand this is not a tenable situation. You can’t keep doing this to your system and expect good results mentally, physically, or emotionally.
One of the reasons there’s been such a rise in mental health issues, and I know you’ve seen this because I certainly have, not only over the last few decades has there been an increased demand for mental health services, but the severity of issues is going to younger and younger ages. The mental health system is being overwhelmed by a tidal wave of people who are having emotional difficulties, learning difficulties, and mood difficulties. It’s largely in part because the environmental system isn’t being adequately addressed. People are getting crappy food. People are not getting enough exercise. The lighting systems people are exposed to are creating problems. The amount of stress going on is escalated, and technology is not a substitute for natural systems that we grew up in and we need to be connected to.
In my mind, following along with you, I’m going on to purpose in life and connectedness to community and a sense of that blank staring time that’s so essential for a healthy adult to have lots of blank staring time as a child. The fact that we have created systems to prevent our children from getting bored or being in that space usually gives rise to the creative impulse. The list goes on.
There’s a need to do some corrective adjustments in terms of the way society contributes to mental illness and drugging people. In America, we have the most medicated population on the planet with psychiatric medications. As with Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s book, we can’t drag ourselves out of this problem as profitable as that may be to certain pharmaceutical industries in terms of the toll on human life. There needs to be a return to more natural, wholesome modes of living that can incorporate technology, but you can’t replace nature with technology.
I interviewed a woman who’s got a residential treatment center in Fremont. She was an art therapist in Europe. When she came back over here, she was floored by how many people are on these heavy drugs. Over in Europe, when she was working in institutions and hospitals, ten people are with the same kind of issues but they weren’t on all these drugs. She and her husband created this residential treatment facility to give people the alternative.
Here’s this live close to nature and find things that can support you on your mental health journey without drugging you incessantly. There’s a need for it. One of the biggest challenges I face in my practice is to help the preteen and teen individuals understand that they have to take the bull by the horns, so to speak. They have to make changes in their life because if they just go along with what everybody else is doing, the problem is going to get worse, not better.
At some point, each individual has to step back from the popular culture and find that inner voice within themselves and find that sense of meaning, purpose, and that guidance system that starts to direct them on a path of wholeness. Also, a path that allows them to create healing for themselves, their families, culture and community because the older popular culture does not provide that. All the systems, the insurance systems, medical systems, and so forth are more designed to profit from human illness than to find the solutions that help set people free. The most profitable drug for a pharmaceutical company is going to be one that subdues symptoms but keeps a person a long-time consumer of that medication rather than looking for a cure. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t looking for cures of that type. They’re looking for drugs that will keep a person a long-term consumer because of the clear profit benefits for them.
Some of those drugs, as we’ve seen, can be useful in the short-term to help stabilize somebody or pull them back from the ledge. Whitaker’s book highlights how we’ve got an epidemic. If these medications were curing depression and anxiety, we wouldn’t have an epidemic of mental health problems.
I do want to say that in the integrative approach, it’s not that word that I’m against in the use of medication. There’s a time and a place where medications can make all the difference. It can save lives. It can be instrumental in helping people stabilize themselves and get to a place where then they can start to do other things to build upon their life. It’s not that drugs are bad, but if the only goal is to get people medicated, and then step back from that, and not find other solutions and other ways to restore the healing process, that’s a short-sighted vision.
I want to ask if you just get centered and think about what is something about this work on mental health, in general, or your practice that you’d like to get out here that I haven’t asked you about yet.
I would like to talk about the use of light as a mode of healing. If we step back and think about the role that sunlight has in sustaining life on the planet, there are few life forms. Maybe in the bottom of the deep sea by some sulfur vents, there may be some organisms that can survive off that. By and large, life, as we know, has been shaped, defined and sustained by light. Light can be a powerful therapy. We know for seasonal affective depression that people are more at risk in places like Seattle or places where there are less sunny winters. There’s a higher risk of depression.
These lightboxes, which can be used for maybe twenty minutes, once or twice a day, can often be an effective treatment for reducing seasonal affective depression. It’s standard care. However, most people don’t realize you can use these lightboxes for any form of depression. Depression, in general, will respond because there’s a mechanism where serotonin increases when melatonin is shut down. These lightboxes can oftentimes give people, particularly people with depression in the mornings, that extra boost.
Light can do so much more than just treating depression. We’re finding those different frequencies of light, which can show up in the visible spectrum like red to violet, but even some of the farther less visible forms of light, can have profound effects. I’ve been using light and color in my practice for over fifteen years. It’s largely inspired by the work of Dr. Steven Vazquez, who is a mentor for me. What’s beautiful about light, in particular colors and eye positions, is you can help a person get into that therapeutic window.
The challenge is that oftentimes, people either don’t have access to feelings or memories or on the opposite end, they might be flooded by too much feelings or too much memories. One can use and rapidly adjust the different frequencies of color and eye positions in a whole range of psychological methods, where you can get a person into a place where the emotions come up. They can process that and do the type of work. If a person’s feeling too flooded, you can adjust the color or the eye positions.
You can help them get into a more grounded place within their body. I feel that the use of colored light, light modulation and eye positions is one of the most effective neuromodulation approaches for mental health. It needs to be a place where there’s more research. There needs to be more clinicians trained in this approach. It is highly effective and powerful, but gentle with very little side effects. The proper use of color, light, eye positions with psychological methods is the most promising area in mental health.
I look forward to looking into that some more and I look forward to following your work. It’s been an honor for you to share with us. You’ve got ChildWisdom.org as your primary website. Thank you for joining us here. Let me know if you write another book and you want some help promoting it.
Thank you, Tim. I appreciate being invited to the show and having this conversation with you.
Jeffrey Bruno, PhD, is Director of the Pacific Psychological Care group. Their website is ChildWisdom.org and they’re located in Pacifica, California. He has a Master’s degree in General Experimental Psychology from the University of Wisconsin and Madison, and a Doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies. Dr. Bruno specializes in child, adolescent, and family therapies. He offers integrative holistic mental health approaches to support his client’s recovery of health. Dr. Bruno is a pioneer in the use of nutritional psychology and in the use of light-assisted neuromodulation psychotherapies to enhance mood, behavior and performance.
About Jeffrey Bruno, Ph.D.
Dr. Jeffrey Bruno has decades of experience as a California licensed Psychologist. He is uniquely trained in the practice of integrative mental healthcare. He has decades of experience in traditional psychotherapies and in alternative healing therapies. Dr. Bruno works with a wide age range of clients, from young children to adults and families.
An education in General Experimental Psychology (Master of Science, U.W. – Madison) and a doctorate in Clinical Psychology (C.I.I.S. – San Francisco) connect his love of science with his practice of psychological healing. Over four decades, he has studied western, eastern and alternative forms of mind-body-spirit medicine.
He first coined the term, “Nutritional Psychology,” to describe an emerging, interdisciplinary field, that has since become more widely recognized.
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