Stanford Lifestyle Psychiatry Clinic

By Sharon Brock, MEd, MS

Stanford Lifestyle Psychiatry Clinic

Top Recommendations for Brain Health as we age:

  1. Physical exercise – both aerobic and resistance training
  2. Healthful nutrition – fresh, fibrous whole foods
  3. Cognitive engagement – educational achievement and continued engagement in cognitively challenging and meaningful activities

The Stanford Lifestyle Psychiatry Clinic offers holistic psychiatric care, psychotherapy, nutritional counseling, medication management, mind-body practices, and health-and-wellness coaching. The clinic is different from other psychiatric facilities in that it offers lifestyle interventions (including exercise, nutrition, yoga, mindfulness, and sleep optimization) as primary modalities for mental health management, in addition to medication and psychotherapy.

“The clinic is for patients who prefer to take an active role in their healing by adding lifestyle practices to their treatment plan, rather than take the passive route of just taking medication,” says Douglas Noordsy, Founder and Director of the Stanford Lifestyle Psychiatry Clinic. “Patients should be interested and motivated to implement lifestyle practices in their daily life to acquire skills they can continue to use to take responsibility for their mental health.”

The clinic also offers rising mental health care professionals opportunities to train in lifestyle psychiatry and incorporate lifestyle interventions into medicine at Stanford and worldwide.

Focusing on Collaboration

Care in the Lifestyle Psychiatry clinic begins with a comprehensive assessment of past and current behaviors related to the patient’s health and well-being. The health provider identifies which behaviors may have contributed to the patient’s mental health symptoms and offers treatment options that may include medications, psychotherapy, and lifestyle interventions.

The provider then collaborates with the patient to review the potential advantages and disadvantages of a menu of lifestyle interventions. Together, the provider and patient create a treatment plan that sets manageable goals and promotes healthy behaviors. With ongoing sessions, the provider and patient continually revise the plan until the patient achieves the desired results.

“When working with patients, we offer a menu of lifestyle interventions, and they choose which option they would like to use,” says Dr. Noordsy. “With this shared decision-making approach, patients are more engaged and have a greater sense of ownership regarding their health. I’ve found that when lifestyle interventions are part of the treatment plan, patients feel more confident about managing their mental health and are likely to achieve better outcomes.”

Faculty at the clinic investigate various lifestyle practices to discern which are most effective for specific psychiatric conditions. For example, research shows that physical exercise results in increased brain activity by signaling neurons to form synapses (connections among brain cells). Also, brain imaging reveals that regular exercise causes critical areas of the brain to grow larger in volume. Increasing brain activity and volume is particularly supportive for those with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

“Neurotrophic factors released during exercise tell your brain, ‘It’s time to wake up; we are out of hibernation and into activity mode.’ This increased activity in the brain is especially beneficial for people with bipolar and schizophrenia who have impairment in the activity of certain parts of the brain as well as loss of brain volume,” says Dr. Noordsy. “Also, brain regions grow larger due to physical exercise, and a larger brain is healthier whether or not you have a brain disorder.”

Lifestyle Psychiatry and Depression

To treat depression, Dr. Noordsy explains that taking a standard antidepressant medicine could help decrease depression faster than a lifestyle intervention such as exercise but may not be effective over time. Also, patients often experience a flatness of emotion and sexual side effects from antidepressants.

Physical exercise is typically on the treatment plan for patients with depression because it releases neurotransmitters involved with mood and well-being, such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Although physical exercise may take longer to decrease symptoms of depression, this intervention has a more lasting effect. Additionally, exercise positively affects fatigue, cognitive function, heart health, and overall health.

“When lifestyle interventions are effective, patients often reduce the dose of their medication and sometimes come off of it entirely. This can be an ideal way to minimize medication side effects,” says Dr. Noordsy. “Ultimately, if a patient’s desired outcomes are a greater sense of well-being and greater ability to function in the world, then lifestyle interventions are the best way to get there.”

For some patients, their symptoms are so severe that they struggle to adopt lifestyle interventions such as regular exercise or optimal sleep without using medication.  In these cases, Dr. Noordsy prescribes an antidepressant to get them moving. Over time, as the amount of exercise, healthy nutrition, and mindfulness practice increase the patient may get to a point where symptoms are manageable and they can decrease medication dosage to minimize side effects.

Yoga and Mind-Body Practices in Psychiatric Care

Along with psychiatrists, the clinic’s team of providers includes a health-and-wellness coach and two psychologists trained in Stanford’s therapeutic yoga program, YogaX, which aims to bring yoga and mind-body practices into healthcare. With a full range of expertise, the clinic provides multidisciplinary care across the pillars of Lifestyle Medicine.

YogaX instructors are trained psychologists who promote the science and application of therapeutic yoga. YogaX offers yoga teacher training tailored to healthcare providers who want to bring yoga practices and philosophy to their patients. YogaX also provides free yoga and wellness classes for the public on its YouTube channel.

In the future, Dr. Noordsy will continue to train mental healthcare professionals in the value and application of lifestyle medicine in psychiatry. In this training, he emphasizes the importance of educating patients about the research behind the recommendations. For example, he believes that if patients know about the evidence-based mental health benefits behind the yoga intervention, they are more likely to engage in a regular yoga practice.

“I’d love to see the day where every psychiatrist offers lifestyle interventions as part of their treatment plan,” says Dr. Noordsy. “Whether it’s a weekly yoga group, eating salads for lunch, or taking daily walks in nature, seeing their psychiatrist for regular care is just one of many things the patient is doing for their well-being.”

***For more information or to schedule an appointment at the Stanford Lifestyle Psychiatry Clinic, please call (650) 498-9111.