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Hope for schizophrenia – in your health food store?

In Health and Nutrition by Martin OliverLeave a Comment


Due to society’s stigma against mental illness, schizophrenia is a condition that we all hope not to develop. In general terms, it is considered a form of psychosis that is characterised by a breakdown in thought processes and emotional responsiveness. Those affected commonly experience a range of symptoms including hearing voices, having paranoid thoughts, and communicating through disordered speech. According to the mainstream view its association with split personalities is misleading and inaccurate.

Most commonly diagnosed in the late teens and early twenties, schizophrenia is considered to be caused by both genetic and environmental factors. If a parent has the condition, the chances of becoming schizophrenic are about 6.5%, compared to 1% across the general population. Among environmental triggers and risk factors, it is more common among people living in urban settings. Social isolation, childhood abuse or trauma, and family dysfunction all increase its likelihood. Marijuana use has been identified as another risk, but this conclusion has been disputed.

In terms of everyday life, the condition has a debilitating effect that can make it hard for the person to function, doing ordinary things such as keeping a tenancy, holding down a job, and having relationships. Schizophrenics tend to die about 12-15 years younger than average, largely due to lifestyle factors such as obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, and a very high smoking rate.

Shaman or schizophrenic?

According to American mythologist Joseph Campbell, what we describe as schizophrenic today would have been viewed in shamanic cultures as mystical or visionary. Such a person would have been seen as specially endowed with gifts, and would have come under the tutelage of the village shaman. Some schizophrenics themselves have described their experiences more positively, as an initiation or in mystical terms, and following recovery considered themselves to possess shamanic healing powers.

According to a Jungian model, the schizophrenic is a person whose ego has been invaded by archetypal forces. Rather than seek to mend a fragmented psyche, some Jungians believe that it may choose to split into numerous personalities as a means of handling certain crises. Modern mainstream society, dominated by reason and the overriding need for normalcy, has no positive framework through which to view the experience.

To simplify things, this article looks at the condition from the Western mental illness perspective, but acknowledges that ‘delusions’ and ‘hallucinations’ are not necessarily viewed as such by people from some other traditions.

Nutrition and psychiatry

Conventional schizophrenia treatment places a strong emphasis on anti-psychotic medication that is designed to suppress brain activity of the neurotransmitter dopamine: side effects include lethargy and drowsiness. This pharmaceutical use is usually complemented by community support programs. Physical and mental exercise have also been found to improve brain function, and are both helpful.

Another, less publicised avenue for treating schizophrenia is targeted nutrition, which has the advantages of boosting levels of overall health, and being free from potentially harmful side effects. Over the years this field has come to be known as orthomolecular psychiatry. However, as a matter of commonsense, a person with the condition who is already taking pharmaceutical drugs should be wary about stopping them without discussing this with a doctor, as such a step could be dangerous.

Hoffer’s research

A leader in the field of treating mental illness through nutrition is Dr. Albert Hoffer, an American psychiatrist with decades of experience in this field, starting in the 1950’s. The essence of his program was to eliminate certain processed foods and food additives, and to tackle food sensitivities. The diet was supplemented with vitamins, minerals and fatty acids, with special attention to niacin (vitamin B3).

Deficiency of this vitamin can cause muscular pain, skin irritation and indigestion, and a more severe lack can be responsible for psychotic symptoms. Between 1952 and 1960, Hoffer carried out double-blind studies that strongly suggested a benefit for schizophrenics taking vitamin B3 in megadoses: results were most impressive for those whose condition was more recently developed rather than chronic. Hoffer’s theory was that B3 works by facilitating oxygen supply to the brain, and curtailing the production of adrenaline, a neurotransmitter that in excessive quantities can cause delusions and hallucinations.

In Hoffer’s experience, niacin was more effective when used in conjunction with vitamin C, folic acid (vitamin B9), and essential fatty acids. More recently, the best combination of nutrients to go with B3 is now considered to be folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12. Because B12 is hard to absorb in high doses, injecting it can be more effective than the oral route.

Carl Pfeiffer

Similar to Hoffer, Carl Pfeiffer was a pharmacologist who worked in the same nutritional area, and was involved in the orthomolecular treatment of schizophrenia between 1965 and 1988. He made further advances by identifying three ‘biotypes’ for the condition that corresponded to imbalances in the body. Methylation is an important process occurring in the brain that maintains chemical balance, and where it is over-active, levels of the amino acid homocysteine drop, and vice versa. People with genetically inherited schizophrenia are more likely to have inherited a homocysteine-lowering enzyme.

Pfeiffer’s three most common schizophrenia biotypes are:

  • Under-methylated (correlated with high blood histamine and excess copper). This type is commonly associated with delusional thinking or catatonic symptoms.
  • Over-methylated (low blood histamine and low copper). Issues here tend to be paranoia and auditory hallucinations.
  • Pyroluria (a health condition characterised by low levels of zinc and vitamin B6). This is associated with mixed symptoms, and is about five times more prevalent among schizophrenics than the wider population. The most common cause of pyroluria is considered to be stress, and it often develops during teenage years.

Excess copper intake destroys vitamin C and folic acid in the body, and can have negative consequences for mental health. As a result, it is wise to steer away from copper teapots and unlined copper pans.

Each of the biotypes benefits from a different range of supplements and amino acids, and in Australia, tests are carried out by integrative nutritionists including Blake Graham in Perth.

In addition, Pfeiffer also looked at food sensitivity, finding that this was the primary cause about 10% of the time, and a factor in about 50% of cases. The worst mental disturbances were linked to such foods and substances as wheat, milk, cane sugar, tobacco, and eggs. While about 4% of schizophrenics are gluten intolerant (compared to about 1% across the population), no direct correlation with coeliac disease has been identified.

Today the Pfeiffer Treatment Center still runs in Chicago, offering its services on a non-profit basis.

Other nutritional findings

As might be expected, a poor diet with an excess of sugar and saturated fat worsens the long-term outcome for schizophrenics. A good diet with the right type of oil intake will go a long way to help.

Omega 3 oils are found in brain cell membranes and regulate their signals. For schizophrenics these oils have been found to help a lot, ideally in a 1:1 balance with omega 6. Sources of omega 3 include oily fish, flaxseed oil and meal, walnuts, chia seeds, and pumpkin seeds. While the healthiest sources of omega 6 are evening primrose oil and borage (starflower) oil, it is most easily accessible in a range of vegetable oils such as corn, safflower, sunflower, cottonseed, and soya.

For schizophrenics, the breaking down of fatty acids from the brain membranes via over-active enzymes is generally faster than for the population as a whole, and most are deficient in these fats. To compensate they need more essential fatty acids in the diet, and useful co-factors are vitamin B3, vitamin B6, vitamin C, and zinc.

Another significant loss of fat from the brain is via oxidants, found in places such as fried and burnt food. The solution is to boost intake of antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E. Vitamin C in particular is very good at ameliorating the symptoms of schizophrenia, and people with mental illness tend to have an elevated requirement for it that can be up to ten times higher than average.

Studies have also found that the amino acid glycine has a positive benefit for schizophrenia. It supports the central nervous system and is an inhibitory neurotransmitter (one that has a calming rather than stimulating effect).

Still on the margins

Anybody checking out the topic of schizophrenia on Wikipedia may not know anything about tackling the condition via orthomolecular approaches. This is because either the information was never added to the Wikipedia page, or because somebody felt that it should be censored, and kept safely out of the public’s reach.

Whether or not this is the case, nutritional approaches to schizophrenia and other mental health conditions have not been adopted by the mainstream, with possible reasons being vested interests in the drug industry, and entrenched ideas that are resistant to change. In the meantime, public awareness of alternative nutritional avenues for tackling mental illness, ADHD and autism is steadily rising, and being disseminated via online networks and support groups.


Pfeiffer Treatment Center  www.hriptc.org
Brain Bio Centre  www.foodforthebrain.org

About the author
Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver is based in Lismore, and writes on a range of environmental, health and social issues. He takes the view that sustainability is about personal involvement, whether this involves making our lives greener, lobbying for change at a political level, or setting up local eco-initiatives.

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