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With the increasing number of studies on nutrition, more health professionals are recommending nutrients to help with psychiatric disorders. This approach is similar to “orthomolecular psychiatry,” a controversial field of mental health that suggests psychiatric illnesses can be successfully treated by correcting imbalances and deficiencies among naturally occurring biochemical constituents of the brain, such as vitamins and other micronutrients.
The origins of orthomolecular psychiatry are traced back to 1927, when Paul J. Reiter used manganese as a treatment for schizophrenia. In one of his first studies, Reiter found that 23 of his 50 schizophrenic patients improved after injections of the nutrient.
Although many health practitioners experimented with nutrients and psychiatry in the interim, the term “orthomolecular psychiatry” was first used by Linus Pauling in an article published in the journal Science in 1968. In his paper, Pauling, who won two Nobel prizes, discussed the treatment of psychiatric conditions with substances that naturally occur in the body, such as such as vitamins, minerals, enzymes, trace elements, and co-enzymes.
In the practice of orthomolecular psychiatry, high amounts of vitamins are sometimes used, not to correct a deficiency, but to alter the body’s biochemical environment. Additionally, dietary manipulation, calorie restriction and fasting are sometimes utilized.
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Other advocates of orthomolecular psychiatry around the same time as Pauling’s first paper were included Abram Hoffer, Carl Curt Pfeiffer, and Humphry Osmond, all of whom treated psychiatric disorders with nutrition extensively. Hoffer believed in treating alcoholism with high amounts of niacin and prescribed megadoses of the nutrient to Bill Wilson, the cofounder of Alcoholic Anonymous. The Pfeiffer Treatment Center in Warrenville, Illinois is based on Pfieiffer’s work and has treated patients with psychiatric ailments according to Pfeiffer’s megadose therapy protocols since 1988.
Orthomolecular psychiatry has been used to treat most every psychiatric disorder, most notably schizophrenia, depression, autism, and ADHD. In the early 1950s, Hoffer and Osmond conducted over two dozen studies using megadoses of vitamins to treat schizophrenics. Although their experiments were successful, the results were seen by mainstream psychiatry as anecdotal. Traditional medicine considered orthomolecular proponents to be radical and the early advocate’s body of work was rejected by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 1973.
Overtime, the work of orthomolecular psychiatrists was ultimately verified with tens of thousands of studies. By 2004, the annual meeting of the APA had a number of presentations about nutrition and psychiatry, including the following:
- Nutrition and Psychiatry: A Historical Perspective
- Omega-3 Essential Acids and Psychiatric Disorders
- SAMe, Folate, and B12: One-Carbon Metabolism and Depression
- Psychiatric Applications of Chromium
Today, research on nutrients and mental health is a common occurrence at APA functions as well as in peer-reviewed medical journals. While some psychiatrists still practice orthomolecular psychiatry, many naturopaths, nutritionists and other health practitioners treat mental health conditions with nutritional therapy, a variation of orthomolecular psychiatry.
Alpert JE. SAMe, folate, and B12: one-carbon metabolism and depression. Program and abstracts of the American Psychiatric Association 2004 Annual Meeting; May 1-6, 2004; New York, NY. Symposium 19C.
Connor KM. Nutrition and psychiatry: a historical perspective. Program and abstracts of the American Psychiatric Association 2004 Annual Meeting; May 1-6, 2004; New York, NY. Symposium 19A.
Cott JM. Omega-3 essential acids and psychiatric disorders. Program and abstracts of the American Psychiatric Association 2004 Annual Meeting; May 1-6, 2004; New York, NY. Symposium 19B.
Davidson JRT. Psychiatric applications of chromium. Program and abstracts of the American Psychiatric Association 2004 Annual Meeting; May 1-6, 2004; New York, NY.
Hoffer A, Osmond H. A perceptual hypothesis of schizophrenia. Psychiatry Dig 1967 Mar;28(3): 47-53.
Pauling L. Orthomolecular psychiatry. Science 1968;160: 265-71.