Dr. Stephanie Strozuk's Story: Healing Depression Naturally

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Physician, heal thyself.

More and more of us are bumping up against the glass ceiling of what conventional medicine has to offer when we, as doctors, get sick.

Dr. Stephanie Strozuk and I have a lot in common, not the least of which is using the principles of lifestyle medicine to not only heal, but vitalize and kindle our mission as holistic practitioners.

Listen to how efforts toward eliminating psychiatric medication and healing depression naturally lit the path for her clinical practice.

Dr. Kelly Brogan: Hi, everyone. I am here with Dr. Stephanie Strozuk who I had the great fortunate privilege of crossing paths with. And I want to spend a little bit of time talking about her transformation journey which I feel so incredibly inspired me, and so I’m certain it’s going to reverberate powerfully in the lives of many patients that she is currently working with and has yet to heal. I’m really blessed to have played any part in this.

I want to start, Stephanie, by sort of giving people a window into your journey which is so much like mine in that you’ve really come from a place of hardwork and dedication to a certain model of medicine that now you’ve begun to see the holes in.

So, tell us a bit about where you’re coming from and maybe how our paths crossed.

Dr. Stephanie Strozuk: Sure, absolutely! I have to say that as an adolescent medicine doctor, if you go all the way back, and I think about how I was during my teen and young adult years, I actually got through those years relatively well.

I didn’t really have many issues like anxiety, depression, or medical issues. I think I was kind of lucky in comparison to a lot of patients that I see currently.

I went through college, went through medical school, and did relatively well medically, psychologically.

But I found it really wasn’t until I began my internship, my residency, my fellowship, that things started to fall apart a bit for me.

I was extremely fatigued. I was getting very anxious. I was gaining weight. I was just really not feeling well at all.

I kind of felt, “Well, I’m at the hospital at six in the morning. And I am going to sleep really late at night and doing 30 hours shifts a couple of times a week. I didn’t really have much control over this. And that, I knew. I was really eating horribly because, especially you’re doing your training, I’m sure you remember, there’s no time to go and sit and have a nice lunch or have a nice meal. It’s kind of running to the gift shop and trying to grab something over there or running to the hospital cafeteria which doesn’t really have health food either.”

So, I was kind of in the cycle. I knew I wasn’t eating well. I’m telling my patients to do one thing and I was doing the complete opposite. And I was just really feeling miserable on multiple levels.

So, really, what did I do? I went to my primary care doctor and said, “Listen, I’m not feeling well. I’m feeling really tired, really anxious. I’m gaining weight. What do I do? What am I missing here?” I wanted to be the patient instead of being the doctor for once and have somebody try to take care of me.

And so, basically, my primary care doctor ran some labs. He said, “Well, your thyroids are okay. You’re a doctor and you’re busy. This is why you’re feeling the way you do.”

And it’s okay. I guess there’s not really much I can do about that at this point.

And then, as time went on, the answers started to become, “Well, now you’re a doctor and you’re a mother. And so you have that as well. That’s why you’re tired. That’s why you’re feeling anxious. And maybe going to see a psychiatrist might be something that can help you with your anxiety, at least with that piece.”

So me, being the good patient that I was, decided, “Okay. Well, this is what’s working. Maybe that’s what I need to do to feel better because I was just feeling so miserable.”

So I can say that for the better part of 15 years, I had gone down that path. I was basically told by multiple doctors, whether it be my primary care doctor or my Ob-Gyn or my psychiatrist that my answer is lying at the bottom of a prescription pill bottle.

That’s basically what I was told. I really wasn’t told anything about nutrition although in my mind, I knew I wasn’t doing the right thing. I wasn’t, as I was told, eating all my whole grains and eating a low fat diet and taking the meat out and doing all the things that I was telling my patients to do. And this is what I had learned.

So intuitively, I knew that diet was a piece, so I embarked on that. Every morning, I made sure I had my whole grain cereals and I was bringing my sandwich to work with me, my whole wheat bread, making sure everything was low fat. And I was gaining more and more weight. I was feeling more and more anxious. I was feeling more and more fatigued. I just wasn’t getting the answers that I wanted for myself.

So, it was actually 2013 when I came to find you, Dr. Brogan. And I found you through a friend. I just kind of looked you up and looked at your website. And I found it very interesting that you were a women’s health holistic psychiatrist. I thought to myself, “Well, this is something I never tried before, somebody who does women’s health and psychiatry. I think this would be a good match.”

So, I went into my consultation back in 2013. And I have to say, from that point on, my life changed in the best way possible.

When I came to see you, Dr. Brogan, we sat and we spoke for an hour and a half which I’ve never done with a doctor before. We went all the way back to when I was born. I went through all my medical history up until the point that I was sitting there. I really picked out and saw the things that have been happening over the years that I didn’t think were such a big deal, but wound up being an issue.

For example, dealing with acne from when I was a teenager up until I was 40 years old and being on multiple rounds of oral antibiotics and topical antibiotics and Acutane and all of these things and never truly getting better. That’s just one example of the things that were uncovering.

So, when I left the visit, I left with different kinds of prescriptions than I had gotten in the past. One of the prescriptions was a complete dietary change. Everything that I have been doing, off the table. We were really going towards more ancestral diets.

And I was completely onboard. Again, I’m just going to be that good patient. I was going to do what I was told to do. So, I went ahead and I did that. I was given a prescription for some blood work that looked a lot deeper than anybody had ever looked before. My salivary cortisol testing was done. I was given a prescription for yoga movement and a prescription for meditation. These are things that I never embarked on before. I have to say, I dove in head first.

And within days, changing the diet, doing the meditation and then eventually coming to yoga, something shifted right away. There was a fog that was lifted from me. It was really astounding. I never experienced anything like that before.

We eventually got my lab reports. We saw some issues there. I was depleted of micronutrients. I had adrenal fatigue. I was estrogen dominant. I was actually iron deficient even though my hemoglobin looked normal on other labs.

So there were so many pieces that were coming together. And it was becoming very, very clear that my gut health was a mess as well—probably from all the other stress from my training and what I was eating, what I was putting in my body, what I was putting on my body, the antibiotic use.

So, like I said, I dove in head first and did all the things that were asked of me at the time. I came back to see you, Dr. Brogan, in four to six weeks. And I felt like a different person. I really did. I mean, I felt vibrant. My skin was clear. I had lost 15 lbs. without counting a calorie (we’re always told it’s calories in, calories out. It’s got nothing to do with that).

It was a huge, huge shift. And I have been basically living my life this way ever since. It’s just been amazing.

Dr. Kelly: You’re such a good example of how little support people actually need when they’re ready. It’s like I just sort of gave you a little whisper or something and you ran with it and had this transformation that endures to this day.

Not everyone is like that. You described yourself as being constructive, as somebody who likes to adhere to rules and expectations. And in so many ways, we’re a great fit.

Dr. Stephanie: Right!

Dr. Kelly: I often tend to rule with an iron fist I guess in the beginning in service of initiating people to their own self-authority.

But what if someone is not constructive the way you are and they find the number of commitments, the number of changes you made, really overwhelming? How do you hold out a hand to that person? How do you let them know that there might be an early win, an early sign that they’re on the right path and that all of these efforts and commitment is worth it?

I mean, in my description, you’ve certainly done more than just go from symptoms to no symptoms or meds to no meds. There’s something else at play here. So how can you light the path a bit?

Dr. Stephanie: Right! Like you said, it is difficult for many people. And you could imagine working with teenagers how difficult it is. When I tell them, “Listen, I want you to do this type of diet and it’s really eliminating this, this and this,” their faces just completely drop. “What am I going to eat? How am I going to live? How am I going to go out with my friends? What am I going to do? What am I going to have for my breakfast? This is what I have every day?” And panic starts to set in.

And it’s funny. Many times, I actually use my daughter as an example because my daughter is 11 years old. And when she was nine, she was having migraines. And it’s funny because I used to run a headache clinic at one of the hospitals I was working at. So I kind of knew what to do.

But when it really came down to it, I was practicing looking through a different lens. And with my daughter, I found out that two major issues that were driving her migraines were eating gluten and dairy. We removed those things and she doesn’t have migraines anymore.

And for my 17-year old that comes in and says, “No, there’s no way that I can do this,” I will use my daughter as an example. I’ll say, “Listen, when she was nine, we did this. And now, she’s 11. She’ll tell me, ‘You know what, mom? It’s not worth it for me to eat that because I feel sick after.’”

So, I put a challenge on them and say, “If an 11-year old can do this, I think it’s something that you can do.”

I try to meet there where they are and tell them, “I’m going to give you this information. I don’t expect that tomorrow, you’re going to implement it. But I really truly feel that the things that I’m recommending to you can make a huge shift in how you’re feeling. And when you’re ready to start doing it, you’re ready and I’m going to be here to support you with any questions that you have and to support you along the way to get you where you need to be.”

That’s really the approach that I try to use with my patients.

Dr. Kelly: Absolutely! So now, you have really internalized the fact that you can’t change someone with information. You can provide information, but the change actually happens from an experiential shift. And so now, you’re paying that forward in your own practice. You even had the experience of healing your own daughter. It’s incredible!

So, the experiential shift that you had (like the one that I had in the experience of my own Hashimoto’s), is a bodily knowing that there was something we didn’t learn with our training. And what comes with that bodily knowing is that there’s a greater truth out there that we weren’t exposed to, and then you begin to question a lot of other things.

You begin to say, “Well, I also relied on this source for this, this and this piece of information. Perhaps I need to look elsewhere or look within myself for a different concept of how to proceed.”

So, tell us a bit about how you had this experience of dramatic healing within basically a month. How did that unfold or does there remain any difficulty integrating old life/new life? As a professional, do you feel you know exactly what to do or what you’re trying to synthesize?

That kind of a transformation, especially when it’s this rapid, can come with unexpected challenges.

Dr. Stephanie: It’s always a learning curve. There are always things that you can learn and incorporate. And of course , there are going to be hiccups along the way.

But in general, I feel, for me, trying to adhere to a whole foods diet is what keeps me feeling well. I mean, absolutely, it’s going to be gluten-free, I need to be. I know my body. When I get a little bit of gluten, I just do not feel well.

So that is something that’s just been off the table. And like you’ve always said, being an Italian girl, that might be a little bit difficult. But we’ve managed and I don’t really miss it at all.

With some other foods like grains, I do have some grains here and there. But for the most part, I see how my body feels. And if I’m starting to feel like, “Well, I think I might be having a little bit too much of that white rice,” I back off.

So, for different people, it’s going to be a bit different. But for me, I definitely find that the dietary piece was the major shift for me. Not only was it healing my gut, it was stabilizing my blood sugar. It wasn’t putting me on the rollercoaster during the entire day. That’s the piece that I think was the most important for me.

And again, with teens, that can be difficult. I try to work with them and hold their hands along the way and try to come out with concrete options of what they can do to incorporate this new way of living. It’s not a diet.

I try to explain, “Just like you got used to drinking that diet soda and eating the way you’re eating now, you’ll become accustomed to this being your new normal.”

It takes time. Just like I said, they don’t go out the next day and incorporate it, but it can be done. And the way you will feel will be unlike anything you’re feeling now.

And not just from a psychiatric standpoint—I mean, for me, it’s patients that are coming in with polycystic ovarian syndrome, who are coming in with migraine or chronic abdominal pain or acne. It’s all the same thing at the end of the day, really getting to the bottom, the root of what is going on rather than, unfortunately, how I was practicing in the past with very short visits and putting the band-aid on things and trying to treat symptoms instead of getting to the bottom of what’s going on.

And it’s funny. Sometimes, when patients come in with irregular menstrual periods, they look at me quizzically and say, “Why are you asking me about what I’m eating? Why are you asking me about how my stomach is feeling? Why are you asking me…?” and I said, “It’ll make sense at the end of the visit why we’re looking at everything.

Dr. Kelly: I love that. I love that.

Yeah! So you’ve alluded to your practice. I should mention that Stephanie has one of the very unique qualifications of being specialized in the treatment of not only pediatric patients, but specifically, adolescent patients. I mean, what more important time is there to help facilitate a healthy initiation to adulthood?

We certainly don’t have elders anymore. We don’t have tribes anymore. We’re barely a community. And so working with a healer such as yourself is potentially a life-altering experience for these patients.

We were talking earlier about the fact that you may be one of the only people in the country who is now taking a holistic approach largely thanks to your own experience of what’s possible.

So, you know my perspective on medications, obviously specifically pediatric medications. But my concern is that when we use medications the way we do reflexively from a peer-based place, we are interfering with the potential for a deeper investigation into imbalance, whether it’s physical, dietary, environmental, psychospiritual.

We certainly both were trained in a modality that really only offered us medication as an intervention, as a legitimate intervention for our patients. So, I wonder how that is evolving for you, what your perspective has come to on that.

Dr. Stephanie: I mean, I can tell you actually that my prescription pad is collecting a lot of dust. I’m not really prescribing anything at this point besides, really, changing your diet, moving, meditation. That’s most of what I’m prescribing.

And then I’m prescribing nutraceuticals as needed to correct whatever imbalances that we are uncovering.

But I have to say that most of the patients that are coming to see me (at least at this point) are patients that have been down the conventional path and they’re finding that it’s not working.

So, whether it be the 25- or 26-year old that’s coming and they’re realizing that it’s not working or it’s the parent of the 12-year old that’s saying, “This is not working for my child. What else can I do?” I’m kind of like one of the last steps.

I’m hoping at some point to actually be the first step for my patients so that they don’t have to go down this rabbit hole of one drug, begetting another drug, begetting another drug, and really, from the get-go healing instead of suppressing the symptoms.

That’s my ultimate goal.

Dr. Kelly: I love it! My smile can’t be bigger. It’s taking over my face!

I’m so inspired. I’m so thrilled! It’s auspicious, how important it feels to me to have played this small part in your process, to take you off in the direction that you obviously needed to go to impact the lives of so many other people at this very vulnerable window.

I’m going to be cheerleading from the sidelines for you from here until forever because I just think what you’re doing is so critical, it’s so important and it’s so needed.

You’re a perfect example of how essential mistakes are, sometimes going off the path or going down one route to get to another, a totally unanticipated one. And really, you’re the archetype of the wounded healer, how you needed to have your own healing journey in order to bring this wisdom to the patients that you are destined to heal.

Thank you so much for sharing this, first of all, for having the courage to come out of the closet on your own experience, which as doctors, we’re taught never to do. I know all about it. But it’s an essential part of the message that you are here to share.

I’m so honored. Thank you so much for your time.

Dr. Stephanie: Absolutely!

Dr. Kelly: I’ll spread the good word!

Dr. Stephanie: I’m so pleased that we have crossed paths. You lit the way for me. I mean, that’s exactly what happened. You lit the way. I’m just hoping to be able to pay that forward and do that for patients that I come across.

Dr. Kelly: Thank you.

Dr. Stephanie: It’s a great feeling when you truly are helping to heal somebody.

Dr. Kelly: That’s beautiful. Thank you so much.

Dr. Stephanie: Thank you.

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About Dr. Kelly Brogan

KELLY BROGAN, MD, is a holistic psychiatrist, author of the New York Times Bestselling book, A Mind of Your OwnOwn Your Self, the children’s book, A Time For Rain, and co-editor of the landmark textbook Integrative Therapies for Depression. She is the founder of the online healing program Vital Mind Reset, and the membership community, Vital Life Project. She completed her psychiatric training and fellowship at NYU Medical Center after graduating from Cornell University Medical College, and has a B.S. from M.I.T. in Systems Neuroscience. She is specialized in a root-cause resolution approach to psychiatric syndromes and symptoms. Learn More