Why do people think vitamins can cure mental illness?

Clker-Free-Vector-Images on Pixabay

This is a follow-up to an earlier post I wrote on whether “natural” is better. I also recently saw the documentary Letters From Generation Rx on Amazon Prime, and it got me thinking about the notion that vitamins can cure mental illness. I suppose in some ways it’s a natural reaction to the imperfect nature of currently available treatment options. Medications don’t work for everybody, and it can sometimes take a lot of trial and error to find something that does work. There are potential side effects, sometimes very serious ones. That does not mean, though, that we should be grasping at straws and using unproven methods.

One of the parents featured in Letters From Generation Rx was the founder of TrueHope, a Canadian company that markets micronutrient formulas as a treatment for bipolar disorder and several other conditions. This man’s wife had suffered from bipolar and taken her own life. His daughter and son both had bipolar disorder and had not responded well to medication. He decided to start them on micronutrients, including forcefully sedating his daughter and making her take the pills. Both the son’s and daughter’s illnesses eventually went into remission, and the family attributes this to the micronutrients.

It was after his children’s recovery that the father started the TrueHope company, which has faced various regulatory issues and court challenges with Health Canada. The website claims that “Truehope EMPowerplus Advanced is scientifically proven to effectively help with bipolar disorder” and “causes significant reductions in the symptoms of bipolar and other mental disorders”.

I was curious to see how EMPower Plus Advanced would compare to Ultra Preventive X by Douglas Laboratories, a super-powered multi-vitamin/mineral/supplement that I’ve taken before on the recommendation of my naturopath. The ingredient lists were very similar. Many of the vitamins and minerals were in approximately the same amounts in both formulas. Ultra Preventive tended to have higher doses of some of some of the vitamins, while EMPower Plus tended to have higher doses of the minerals. As for the remainder of the supplements, EMPower only lists the ingredients without amounts, describing it as a proprietary blend. Ultra Preventive has many of the same supplements, but its label explicitly states the amounts. Ultra Preventive also has more active ingredients overall, while EMPower claims that it has a special formulation that allows for greater absorption.

I took Ultra Preventive for about 6 months last year because my bloodwork showed elevated levels of an inflammatory marker, and it was one of the recommendations my naturopath made to try to bring down the inflammation. Did it cure my depression? Nope.

For years vitamins have been suggested by some as a treatment for schizophrenia. In 1968, molecular biologist Linus Pauling proposed the term orthomolecular psychiatry, and made the argument that mental illness should be treated with vitamins and other substances naturally found in the body in order to bring them back up to their optimal concentration.

WebMD has a list of supplements that are sometimes used for schizophrenia, and gives an effectiveness rating for each. Most are listed as insufficient evidence, while others are listed as likely ineffective. A few are listed as possibly effective: ginkgo biloba, glycine, and inositol.

The site schizophrenia.com lists some vitamins and other supplements that “seem to help” people with schizophrenia, including some that have shown promising results in early trials, but it lists EMPower Plus as a “disproven (or unproven) and overmarketed ‘schizophrenia treatment’”.

A study in the journal CNS Drugs found that supplementation with folic acid, vitamin B12, and vitamin D could be helpful for certain individuals with schizophrenia, but they did not recommend it as a primary treatment strategy. This is the kind of approach I think we need to see more of. Not fringe groups saying vitamins only, not scientists dismissing vitamins and other nutrients as not worth studying, but a balanced approach that looks at how various nutrients can fit into the overall picture of mental health.

Meanwhile, the TrueHopes of this world are likely to add to the stigma around mental illness, as the vitamin cure perspective feeds into ideas that mental illness isn’t actually real. That’s really not helpful. What we need is more evidence-based treatments that will actually help those of with mental illness to live better lives.


Originally published at mentalhealthathome.org on January 17, 2019.