Orthomolecular Approach to Schizophrenia Treatment
Schizophrenia, one of the most disabling and persistent mental disorders, is a disease which carries a great deal of stigma. The name itself evokes images of murderous, raving psychotics and lunatic asylums, inspiring fear and prejudice among those who have little understanding of the illness. Many people mistakenly perceive schizophrenia as a "split personality," a sort of Jeckyll-and-Hyde phenomenon with both a "normal" and a "crazy" aspect.
In fact, schizophrenia is a type of psychosis, an illness which impairs an individual's ability to separate illusion from reality. People with schizophrenia often lose touch with the real world, experiencing what is referred to clinically as a psychotic episode. An individual in this state may perceive the world as a blur of confusing images and sounds; he or she may also behave in a strange and sometimes disturbing manner. However, contrary to popular belief, schizophrenics are rarely dangerous.
Schizophrenia occurs in about 1% of the population, with symptoms first appearing between the ages of 15 and 25. Younger children have been diagnosed with the disease as well, although this is extremely rare. Schizophrenics frequently have problems functioning normally in their daily lives - at work, at school, and in their interpersonal relationships. Individuals with the disorder typically exhibit certain behaviors and symptoms that are often recognized as schizophrenic; however, because many of the indicators of this illness are consistent with those of other mental disorders, only a trained mental health professional can accurately confirm a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
Symptoms of schizophrenia fall into two separate categories: positive and negative.
Positive signs of schizophrenia are obvious, outward signs that do not appear in people who do not have the disease:
- Hallucinations - sensations that are not real, such as hearing voices;
- Delusions - beliefs that have no basis in reality that the person refuses to give up, even in the face of evidence to the contrary;
- Speaking in a nonsensical manner, making communication with others difficult;
- Switching rapidly from one train of thought to another;
- Inability to make sense of ordinary sights and sounds;
- Inability to make decisions;
- Moving slowly or making repetitive movements, such as pacing.
Negative symptoms are described as normal behaviors that are absent in individuals with schizophrenia:
- Lack of emotion, or expression of emotions inappropriate for a situation;
- Difficulty interpreting social cues;
- Withdrawal from family, friends, and social interactions;
- Loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable;
- Lack of energy;
- Difficulty functioning at work, school, or in daily life;
- Poor personal hygiene;
- Catatonia - remaining in one position, with no sign of movement, for a lengthy period of time.
Conventional treatment for schizophrenia normally includes a combination of anti-psychotic drugs and psychotherapy. Medications such as Risperdal, Abilify, Clozaril and others can temporarily relieve the most disturbing symptoms, including hallucinations and delusions. However, anti-psychotics do not cure the disease, and they must be taken on a long-term basis under close medical supervision. These drugs often trigger a variety of unwanted side effects that can further reduce an individual's quality of life.
Psychiatrists who treat schizophrenics tend to look at the disease from a number of angles, working with patients to help them understand their illness and learn to identify and cope with the psychological, social, and occupational problems that are typical of the disease. While this approach is helpful to an extent, psychotherapy fails to address the root causes of schizophrenia and cannot offer patients a hope for permanent relief from their symptoms.
Causes of Schizophrenia
Schizophrenia is a complex disorder that manifests when a number of conditions exhibit simultaneously to produce the symptoms that typify the disease; there is no single root cause of this debilitating illness. However, numerous studies have demonstrated that schizophrenia is, indeed, a biological illness and not simply "all in the mind."
It is clear that there is a genetic component to the disease, as it has a tendency to run in families. Abnormalities in brain chemistry and anatomy have been identified in patients with schizophrenia, as well, although they do not occur in all schizophrenics. Perhaps most importantly, there is a great deal of evidence that suggests that schizophrenia may be linked to a variety of imbalances in the body. Poor nutrition, autoimmune disorders, hormone imbalances, and heavy metal toxicity have all been associated with the symptoms of schizophrenia.
An emerging field of medicine based on orthomolecular theory holds that many physiological and mental illnesses are caused by chemical imbalances in the body. The word "orthomolecular" literally means "the right molecules" and refers to using the right nutrients in the right amounts to correct the imbalances that lead to various health disorders. These nutrients include vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, amino acids, antioxidants and enzymes.
Orthomolecular medicine is a term coined by Linus Pauling, the 20th-century physician whose research led to the discovery of the double-helix nature of DNA. In his later years, he was intrigued by the use of high dosages of nutrients such as vitamin C in the treatment of various diseases.
The principles of orthomolecular medicine revolve around the idea that each person has a unique biochemistry, with individual bodily needs. Therefore, treating physical and mental disorders must be carefully tailored to the individual. Because mental illness has been clearly linked to chemical imbalances, using nutrition as the basis for treatment can be highly successful in restoring brain function.
For decades, it has been known that schizophrenics tend to be severely deficient in niacin (vitamin B3). Over 30 years ago, Dr. Abram Hoffer began to use this understanding as the basis for treating schizophrenics with large doses of B3. Since that time, patients with mental illnesses ranging from depression to bipolar disorder to schizophrenia have been successfully treated with megadoses of vitamins and other nutrients based on their own personal biochemistry.
The various chemical imbalances and physiological disorders that are most closely linked to schizophrenia are described here:
- Nutritional Deficiencies. Important nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, antioxidants, and amino acids are needed in our diets in order to provide the body with the tools it needs to function properly. The neurotransmitters that regulate how we think, feel, and process information require sufficient amounts of these nutrients to ensure that our brains are functioning normally. Deficiencies in these nutrients can lead to a wide array of health problems, including mental illness.
- Poor Methylation. Methylation is a process by which molecules known as methyl groups are added to proteins (needed for the production of neurotransmitters and other important body chemicals) in order to keep them working at their optimum levels. When methylation is compromised, the result is the buildup of a substance known as homocysteine, which is responsible for a variety of physical and emotional disorders.
- Hormone Imbalances. Hormones are important chemical messengers that have a tremendous impact on how we think and feel. Abnormally high or low amounts of hormones such as estrogen, thyroid hormone, and adrenal hormones greatly affect mood and cognition.
- Pyroluria. This chemical imbalance is the result of an abnormally large number of molecules known as pyrroles in the body. These molecules are known to bind themselves to zinc and vitamin B6, causing them to be excreted in the urine. Pyroluria is associated with a wide range of emotional and cognitive symptoms.
- Brain Inflammation. When the immune system attacks invaders such as environmental irritants and toxins, it triggers inflammation in the brain and body; brain inflammation has been linked to virtually every type of mental illness and mood disorder.
- Food Allergies. Allergic reactions to certain foods (most particularly milk, gluten, and eggs) trigger inflammation that frequently leads to mental instability and problems with cognition.
- Poor Gut Function. Also known as "leaky gut," this condition results in the release of malabsorbed food particles; similar to food allergies, the immune system treats these particles as invaders, resulting in inflammation.
- Histamine. Histamine is a protein that helps to regulate our immune response; it also acts as a neurotransmitter, triggering the release of other neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin (note that schizophrenia is associated with high levels of dopamine and dopamine sensitivity). High levels of histamine are frequently present in schizophrenics and are responsible for a number of psychotic symptoms.
- Heavy Metals. Heavy metals such as mercury and lead are ubiquitous in our environment. These harmful chemicals tend to build up in the body, and their presence has been associated with decreased memory and cognitive ability as well as a number of mood disorders.
Testing for Chemical Imbalances which Cause Schizophrenia Symptoms
In order to determine the appropriate functional treatment for schizophrenia, you will need to work with a naturopathic health care provider to identify the chemical imbalances which are responsible for your symptoms. Laboratory tests such as the following can pinpoint the various disorders at the root of your illness and help your health care practitioner determine the most appropriate course of treatment for you.
- Nutritional Profile: A comprehensive nutritional analysis can disclose abnormal levels of the important vitamins, minerals and other nutrients needed to maintain optimum mental health;
- Homocysteine Testing: Elevated homocysteine levels are an indication of poor methylation, which is associated with a variety of mental illnesses and mood disorders;
- Adrenal Fatigue Testing: This urine or saliva test is useful in determining abnormal levels of adrenal hormones which lead to imbalances in the hormones that help regulate brain function.
- Thyroid Testing: A blood or saliva test can reveal abnormal levels of thyroid hormone; too much or too little thyroid hormone can lead to a variety of mental health disorders. Temperature monitoring can also reveal the presence of a thyroid problem; a body temperature which is regularly recorded below 98.2 degrees Fahrenheit may indicate thyroid dysfunction.
- Kryptopyrrole Urine Test: This urinalysis test can detect elevated levels of pyroles, which have been linked to mood and behavioral disorders as well as schizophrenia.
- Food Allergy Testing: A finger stick food allergy test can reveal the presence of food allergy antibodies and help your health care provider determine whether a food allergy may be responsible for your symptoms.
- Candida Comprehensive Stool Test: A comprehensive stool analysis is useful in assessing digestive dysfunction which may lead to cognitive and emotional problems.
- Histamine Testing: Histamine, a neurotransmitter which is also associated with the body's immune response, is frequently present in elevated levels in schizophrenic patients. A simple lab test can reveal elevated histamine levels.
- Heavy Metal Testing: Testing for high concentrations of heavy metals pinpoints environmental toxins which may cause psychotic symptoms in schizophrenia patients.
Functional Treatment of Schizophrenia
Functional treatment of schizophrenia focuses on correcting chemical imbalances through nutrition. Orthomolecular psychiatry requires the full participation of the patient; treatment can only be successful if the schizophrenia sufferer is willing to adhere to the recommended changes in his or her diet. Additional lifestyle changes such as exercise and stress management are also an important part of eliminating the symptoms of schizophrenia.
In order to successfully treat schizophrenia through nutrition, it is necessary to eliminate processed foods and "junk" foods from the diet. Food items containing refined flours, added sugars, and chemical additives must be avoided, and snack foods that provide only empty calories are forbidden. In addition, foods that are known to cause an allergic response in an individual must be eliminated.
Once testing has identified the chemical imbalances that are affecting a particular individual, one or more of the following nutritional measures may be recommended:
- Vitamin and mineral supplementation: Large doses of vitamins and minerals may be used to compensate for deficient levels of these important nutrients which result in poor methylation, pyroluria, and other triggers for schizophrenia symptoms.
- Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acid supplementation: These essential fatty acids are needed to promote healthy brain function.
- Amino acid therapy: Supplementation of amino acids is necessary to balance the neurotransmitters needed for healthy mental function.
- N-Acetyl Cysteine: This important metabolite protects and cleanses the body from heavy metals such as lead and mercury; it is also known to boost antioxidant activity.
- Anti-inflammatory herbs: There are a number of herbs that have known anti-inflammatory properties and can be used successfully to support the immune system and reduce inflammation; these include ginger, chamomile, capsaicin, turmeric, arnica, and many others.
Conventional medicine holds that schizophrenia is a disease for which there is no known cure; patients are advised that they will require life-long treatment and medication to control the worst of their symptoms. However, through the use of orthomolecular therapy, an increasing number of schizophrenics have experienced great improvement in their symptoms.
While the best results come with early intervention, patients at any stage of the disease have been shown to respond well to treatment through nutrition. With the help of a naturopathic healer, many people who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia and other mental disorders have gone on to live healthy and fulfilling lives.
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