The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders reveals that 4 out of the 10 leading causes of disability in the developed countries are mental disorders.
Major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) are among the most common mental disorders that currently plague numerous countries and have varying incidence rates from 26 percent in America to 4 percent in China.
Studies are indicating that this noticeable distribution can be also explained by a lack of certain dietary nutrients contribute to the development of mental disorders. Notably, essential vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids are often deficient in the general population in America and other developed countries; and are exceptionally deficient in patients suffering from mental disorders.
Studies have shown that daily supplements of vital nutrients often effectively reduce patients’ symptoms. Supplements that contain amino acids also reduce symptoms, because they are converted to neurotransmitters that alleviate depression and other mental disorders. Based on emerging scientific evidence, this form of nutritional supplement treatment may be appropriate for controlling major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD), addiction, and autism.
Most antidepressants and other prescription drugs cause severe side effects, which usually discourage patients from taking their medications. Such noncompliant patients who have mental disorders are at a higher risk for committing suicide or being institutionalized. One way for psychiatrists to overcome this noncompliance is to educate themselves about alternative or complementary nutritional treatments.
Safe nutritional approaches have proven to be effective in alleviating the symptoms of mental illness. These approaches include the use of omega-3s, B vitamins, and amino acids, along with changing to a nutrient dense diet of traditional foods.
Our brains are 60 percent fat and require a diet rich in fatty acids to maintain the integrity of cell walls. “Fats embed themselves within the brain and ensure that the nerves and other circuitry function at a better level,” says Jonathan Prousky, ND, MSc. Chronic schizophrenics show higher levels of oxidative stress and cell-membrane breakdown in the frontal cortex and other parts of the brain, as well as lower levels of fatty acids in those areas. That observation, along with evidence that omega-3 supplementation can reduce the incidence and severity of psychosis, leads many clinicians to prescribe fish oil or other sources of omega-3s.
Everyone requires a certain level of niacin, or vitamin B3, in his or her diet, but people with schizophrenia may not only be niacin deficient, they may be niacin dependent, meaning that they require a high dose — up to 3 grams or more daily — to function normally. Andrew Saul, PhD, editor in chief of the peer-reviewed Orthomolecular Medicine News Service, says that Canadian physician and medical researcher Abram Hoffer recommended pairing high doses of B3 with up to 10,000 milligrams of vitamin C, divided into smaller doses throughout the day to increase absorption. “Vitamin C is the body’s most important antioxidant,” Saul says. “Dr. Hoffer believed that, in addition to many other important properties, vitamin C prevented the oxidation of adrenaline to adrenochrome [which Hoffer believed could cause psychotic behavior].”
Glutathione is a master antioxidant, and it’s produced within the body instead of being absorbed from food. Glutathione helps protect the body from metabolic wear and tear and is especially protective in the brain, a metabolic hot spot where 20 percent of the body’s calories are burned. Research shows that the brains of people with schizophrenia have dangerously low levels of glutathione. One of L.A. psychiatrist Jeffrey Becker’s first steps when treating a schizophrenic patient is to test glutathione levels. If they are low, he starts the patient on a supplement called N-acetyl cysteine, or NAC, an antioxidant molecule that provides raw material for the production of glutathione. (For more on the importance of this antioxidant, see ELmag.com/glutathione.)
B6, B12, AND FOLIC ACID
Many people with schizophrenia have malfunctions in a critical metabolic process called methylation, in which life-giving carbon is passed from vitamins to DNA, fats, proteins, or other molecules. Methylation is essential for health throughout the body and, among other things, affects the building of protein from amino acids and proper gene expression. In the brain, it provides some of the necessary building blocks for neurotransmitters, which are the chemical messengers that ferry signals among neurons as well as other cells in the body. Disruptions to methylation are caused by problems in a gene called methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR), which regulates chemical reactions involving folic acid. When people have two bad copies of this MTHFR gene, they suffer a wide range of problems, including schizophrenia, depression, cancers, spontaneous abortion, and others. Treated with the active form of folic acid — 5-MTHF or 5-methyltetra-hydrofolate — along with B6 and B12 (often injected), many people with schizophrenia feel relief from their symptoms.
Copper from new water pipes, lead from old paint — it’s hard to live in this world without exposure to the heavy metals that can compromise or destroy brain cells. Our bodies are designed to try to get rid of the metals, but people with schizophrenia often have toxic levels of three or more heavy metals. This makes the body’s metal-removing protein, metallothionein, work overtime, which winds up depleting zinc — a good metal that helps us transcribe proteins and create neurotransmitters. “Some people may not be taking in the essential nutrients or protein to make enough neurotransmitters in the brain,” says Becker. “When neurotransmitter levels are low, electricity levels are low in the brain. It’s a dim bulb.” For these reasons, many integrative psychiatrists treat their patients with zinc supplements.
A diet of 60 to 70 percent healthy fats, 20 to 25 percent protein, and 15 to 20 percent carbs balances blood sugar and helps avoid the kind of blood-sugar spikes that can rattle an already fragile brain.
Integrative mental-health practitioners check their schizophrenic patients for food intolerances that might manifest as inflammation in the brain.
- Eat more healthy fats: Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids are salmon, herring, sardines, and anchovies, as well as pasture-raised meats and eggs, flaxseeds, walnuts, and omega-3 fish-oil supplements, especially those containing eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
- Get more protein: A healthy brain depends on the steady creation of neurotransmitters. The basic building blocks for these transmitters are amino acids that come from the protein in our diets. Experts suggest that 20 to 25 percent of our diets should come from high-quality protein like meat, eggs, dairy, beans, and legumes. And it’s a good idea to begin the day with a solid helping of protein. “I tell people to have dinner for breakfast,” says naturopath Ray Pataracchia. “You might get sick of eggs every day, so you have to change it up and be inventive.”
- Avoid sugar highs: The brain has an enormous need for glucose, and our blood supplies this essential fuel as it circulates through the brain. This supply needs to be slow and steady, without the peaks and valleys caused by simple sugars found in junk food. Stick to the complex carbohydrates found in vegetables, whole grains, and many fruits.
- Buffer stress with B and C vitamins: Stress bombards even the most ordinary lives, both from the outside — a hectic schedule, an angry coworker, commuting to work in heavy traffic — and from the inside, such as when our bodies battle infection and illness. A steady stream of cortisol and other stress hormones can weaken neurotransmitters. Protect them with vitamins C and B — especially niacin, or B3 — which together can regulate and protect these neurotransmitters. The official minimum daily-requirement numbers, says natural-health educator Andrew Saul, PhD, are laughably low: “For someone with a reasonably good diet, a couple hundred milligrams of supplemental B3 would be wise.”
- Stay connected: Robert Hedaya, MD, at the National Center for Whole Psychiatry, compares human beings to neurons: The more connections one neuron has with other neurons, the more vibrant it is. When the connections are severed, a solitary neuron can shrivel and die. Similarly, humans need a connection with other humans and with nature to flourish.
- Develop a spiritual practice: “Fear creates stress,” Hedaya says. “Whatever it is that you’re stressed about, your cognitive framework is going to treat things as more or less stressful. With a spiritual practice, you develop the perspective that there is meaning to life and that we’re not alone. I think the importance of this is highly underrated in the psychiatric field. If you feel as if everything in life is up to you, that’s a lot of pressure. When you add to that the way that so many people live in isolation, that’s a toxic recipe.”
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