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What is Orthomolecular Psychiatry?

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  • Written By: Toni Henthorn
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 01 November 2016
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Orthomolecular psychiatry is alternative medicine in which practitioners, after evaluating the individual biochemical makeup of patients with mental disorders, attempt to prevent or treat the disorders using dietary modifications and supplements. Although proponents of this treatment date it from the 1920s, the earliest documented uses of orthomolecular psychiatry occurred in the 1950s under the direction of Abram Hoffer and Humphrey Osmond. Most practitioners of orthomolecular psychiatry try to phase out the use of conventional antipsychotic medications in the treatment of mental disorders, based on their belief that there are natural substances present that can provide the same therapeutic benefits of any of the traditional drugs for psychosis. Orthomolecularists have claimed that many psychiatric conditions, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, attention deficiency hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and depression, occur because of biochemical imbalances in the body, three of which are pyroluria, histadelia, and histapenia. In 1973, a task force of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) reviewed the cumulative scientific body of evidence for orthomolecular psychiatry and concluded that the treatment system lacked credibility.

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Although there is little to no substantive medical evidence to support their beliefs, the proponents of orthomolecular psychiatry state that many psychotic conditions exist due to low blood sugar, low thyroid functioning, food allergies, and heavy metal poisonings. Carl Pfeiffer, a homeopath who believed in orthomolecular medicine, attributed depression to high blood levels of basophils and histamines, cells and chemicals commonly involved in allergic reactions. He proposed to treat this condition, which he called histadelia, with methionine and Vitamin B6 supplements. Although many patients received this treatment in his Pfeiffer Treatment Center, he did not disclose any of the results in peer-reviewed journals.

In addition to histadelia, Carl Pfeiffer purported to treat another condition, which he called pyroluria, in which improper formation of the oxygen-carrying molecule of the blood, hemoglobin, results in high blood and urine levels of chemicals called pyrroles. Pfeiffer and other orthomolecularists claimed that pyroluria causes such conditions as autism, schizophrenia, Down syndrome, and epilepsy. Further research has not found a causative link between pyrroles and any mental condition. Furthermore, urine and blood screenings of mental disease patients have not produced the expected elevation of pyrroles in schizophrenic patients.

Although mainstream psychiatrists discredit orthomolecular psychiatry, the uses of nutritional supplements and dietary modifications have yielded enormous benefits for some patients. Dr. Linus Pauling won the Nobel Prize in medicine for his groundbreaking work with Vitamin C in the treatment for the common cold. In 1999, clinical trials supported the use of omega-3 fatty acids in the treatment of bipolar disorder. Many cancer patients take megavitamins to help with their fight against tumor cells. Nutritional supplements can be useful in cases of inadequate intake or faulty assimilation of dietary nutrients, but most medical experts agree that eating nutritious foods best accomplishes the goal of maintaining the proper balance of essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.

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