Orthomolecular Psychiatry As a Preventative Measure
Many health-conscious people take a multivitamin daily because they wish to provide
their bodies with an optimal amount of vitamins and minerals. This simple idea, that one cannot
rely solely on diet to take in all the nutrients one needs, is widely accepted. A field of
complementary and alternative medicine called orthomolecular therapy draws on the same basic
understanding. From the Greek "ortho," right, orthomolecular describes a treatment that
provides "the body with optimal amounts of substances which are natural to the body" (4).
Orthomolecular psychiatry, in particular, is the prescription of extra nutrients to treat mental
disorders. Some orthomolecular practices, such as those attempting to cure cancer and
schizophrenia, are advised against by health agencies (6). However, the therapy can also be
applied as a preventative measure for more common disorders, or for conditions that might
otherwise seem like a result of societal pressures instead of physical problems. If vitamins and
minerals enhance day-to-day bodily functions, their absence in the diet may account for
abnormal functions of the mind.
Proponents of orthomolecular psychiatry state that "micronutrients" are necessary for the
health of the brain, and a deficiency of any one of them threatens the equilibrium of the brain's
chemistry (2). Diseases such as scurvy and beriberi, caused by a lack of nutrients, are
accompanied by depression or irritability╤mental complications. Although these diseases are
rare in the developed world, their symptoms suggest that mild nutrient deficiency could account
for mental problems in people who may think they are taking in enough nutrients (2).
Depression is one of these problems. According to a study conducted in 2000, about seventeen
percent of mildly depressed women and twenty-seven percent of seriously depressed women did
not consume the recommended daily allowance of vitamin B12 (2). In another study, seventy
percent of depressed patients given a chromium picolinate supplement showed improvement (2).
These results suggest that consuming more essential nutrients through supplementation could
have a noticeable effect on the mental health of these patients.
A surprising case involves nutrients affecting behavior in an extreme way. Decreased
blood cholesterol levels have been linked with violent behavior, especially in men under the age
of thirty (5). The results of a study in which one group's cholesterol levels were lowered ten
percent showed that in this group, fewer people died of coronary heart disease. However, violent
deaths and suicide were twice as common in the lower cholesterol group than in the control
group (5). While keeping in mind that variables such as alcohol may also affect violent behavior
in studies such as these, researchers have begun to consider the relationship between diet and
mental instability. Orthomolecular psychiatrists would cite this research as an example of the
indispensability of a key nutrient in the body. Although excess cholesterol endangers the heart,
moderate amounts are essential to the health of the brain.
Work by Stephen Schoenthaler and Bernard Gesch has suggested the importance of
nutrients to the mental stability of prisoners (2). Gesch found that prisoners in the UK were
making poor nutritional choices because of a lack of education; some did not know what
vitamins were. They were generally deficient in selenium, magnesium, potassium, iodine, and
zinc (7). The group of prisoners given a multivitamin supplement and omega-6 and fish oil
capsules showed a thirty-five percent decrease in violent acts over nine months (2). In
Schoenthaler's California study, he found that young men on a supplemental vitamin pill showed
a thirty-eight percent decrease in violent behavior (1).
The implications of this study suggest the value of orthomolecular psychiatric methods.
Instead of the prisoners' violence simply being a part of their personalities or a disposition to
anger, developed by environmental pressures, it may be the result of their failure to nourish
themselves with everything their most complex organ needs to function properly. The reason
why supplementation seems so effective may be that a lack of nutrients in the blood affects the
processes of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, in the brain (1). Gesch believes that mental
problems are a logical result of an insufficient diet: "Despite that fact that it's only 2% of our
mass, [the brain] uses 20% of the energy available to the rest of the body╔When we make
changes to our diet, which is the organ that is likely to be affected the most?" (1). The findings
suggest that if the population, especially young men, supplemented their diets with vitamins,
essential lipids, and minerals, they would not only be less likely to commit violent acts, but also
more likely to live depression-free lives.
Women who do not take in enough nutrients through their diet or with a supplement seem
to be as vulnerable as men to the resulting mental problems. A lack of calcium, niacin,
tryptophan, thiamin, and Vitamin D has been linked with women's participation in spiritual cults,
both historically and in primitive societies today (3). Symptoms commonly exhibited by
"possessed" women include unconsciousness, convulsions, and sudden changes in speech or
activity (3). These are all possible results of a nutrient deficiency, but can appear to be mental
rather than physiological problems. Calcium deficiency can cause tetany, a neuromuscular
condition marked by muscle spasms, seizures, and emotional confusion (3). In some primitive
cultures in Ethiopia, South Africa, the Arctic, and elsewhere, women are more likely than men to
develop the symptoms common to calcium deficiency and possession because they are denied
food in favor of their husband's or children's needs (3). If put on an orthomolecular prescription
of supplemental vitamins and minerals, women in these cultures would likely experience fewer
instances of involuntary "possession"; their counterparts in societies with more nutrient-rich
diets do not have such experiences.
Orthomolecular psychiatry has not been fully tested or approved for treatment of serious
mental diseases once they have already developed. For the treatment of schizophrenia and
autism, for example, simply taking more vitamins has not proven effective, and may even be
dangerous (6). "Megadosing," or taking a dose of vitamins or minerals 20 to 600 times more
than a normal allowance, is not recommended by health officials (6). It can be toxic and can
endanger pregnancy. Some doctors and scientists also fear that patients will rely on
orthomolecular treatment instead of regular treatment, and those who use in it in conjunction
with other medication will interfere with the effectiveness of the other treatment (6). The body
and brain have a minimum need for vitamins and minerals, but they also have a maximum
tolerance. Therefore, discretion should be used when choosing to rely on orthomolecular
psychiatry to treat fully-developed mental diseases.
Yet as a preventative measure, orthomolecular psychiatry seems like a safe solution.
Considering all the mental complications that can arise from nutrient deficiency, the
supplementation of these nutrients might be an easy and effective way to bring hope and stability
back into the lives of many people suffering from mental anguish. Especially when those
affected are blamed for their problems, orthomolecular therapy could be vindicating. Delinquent
youth, violent prisoners, "possessed" women, and even simply those suffering from depression
would be able to feel less guilty and confused if they could benefit from the simple re-balancing
of their vitamin levels. Linus Pauling, the Nobel laureate and chemist who coined the term
"orthomolecular," saw the goal of orthomolecular practice as providing "the optimum molecular
environment for the mind" (2). The human brain is possibly the most complex structure in
existence. Simply by providing it with every molecule it needs, one creates an environment in
which a healthy brain can thrive.
1) "Crime Diet". KPIX-TV (San Francisco): May 2003. C. 2002, ACF Newsource.
2) Freinkel, Susan. "Vitamin Cure: Can common nutrients curb violent tendencies and dispel
clinical depression?" Discover Magazine: Medicine. Vol. 26, No. 05, May 2005.
3) Kehoe, Alice B. and Giletti, Dody H. "Women's Preponderance in Possession Cults: The
Calcium-Deficiency Hypothesis Extended". American Anthropologist, c. 1981 American
Anthropological Association. c. 2006 JSTOR. <http://www.jstor.org/view/00027
%3D%26None%3D%26sd%3D%26ed%3D%26jt%3D> (available through BMC library)
4) Orthomolecular.org, homepage. The Center For The Improvement Of Human Functioning
International, 2006. <http://www.orthomolecular.org/>
5) "Understanding and Preventing Violence, Volume 2: Biobehavioral Influences: Relationship
Between Blood Cholesterol and Violent Behavior". Commission on Behavioral and
Social Sciences and Education. c. 2006 National Academy of Sciences.
6) "Vitamin Therapy, Megadose/Orthomolecular Therapy". BC Cancer Agency, 2006.
7) Gesch, Bernard. "Influence of supplementary vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids on
the antisocial behaviour of young adult prisoners". British Journal of Psychiatry.
<www.physiol.ox.ac.uk/natural.justice/Resources/GeschetalBJP.pdf>(first result for "bernard gesch" on google.com)