Why do people think vitamins can cure mental illness?

Mental Health @ Home - Why do people think vitamins can cure mental illness?  Bottles of vitamin C and B12

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 with mental illness to live better lives.


There’s more on debunking pseudoscience on the science corner page.

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9 thoughts on “Why do people think vitamins can cure mental illness?

  1. Meg says:

    I went to the pharmacy once when I was having some problems. I think I’d fired my psychiatrist and gone unmedicated, but I don’t really recall the circumstances. At any rate, I walked up the pharmacy counter, and there was a new pharmacist lady working there. She asked if she could help me.

    I said, “Yeah. Do you know of any supplements I could take for paranoia?”

    And she got this terrified look on her face and stepped back and shouted, “No!! You need to take medications for that!”

    And I left the drugstore in tears.

    Interestingly, she quit (or was fired) within a week.

    But I digress. You’ve made a lot of good points here! I agree that vitamins, minerals, et al, just can’t get it done. Unless someone’s bloodwork shows an actual vitamin deficiency, it’s probably futile to hope they can make a marked difference.

  2. BeckiesMentalMess.wordpress.com says:

    I found this very interesting. The only vitamins I have taken was B12’s to help with feeling lethargic. Sometimes, not every day, but sometimes I’ll take them to help with getting motivation if I had a bad night of falling asleep. The only other thing I take at night is Melatonin (10mg). It actually assists with the other medications that I take before I go to bed.

  3. Shanon says:

    I take Sam-e to help with my anxiety/depression. It is a supplement in the US but used as an RX for depression in other countries. It is a natural compound in our bodies that aides in the production of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine; one that cannot be replenished any other than oral supplements or injections if one is deficient. Per the psychiatrist at my counselor’s office, I take this supplement in a “therapeutic dose” which is much larger than what the box says.

    It hasn’t fixed me, but it does help. I know it does, and I have no side effects from it like I did with SSRIs. I also take larger doses of vitamin D3 than the average person.

    Vitamins and supplements aren’t fix-alls, but I think they have a respectable place in the tool kit for recovery.

    • ashleyleia says:

      I’ve thought about trying SAMe, but at the dose that’s needed for depression it just seemed so expensive. I’m in Canada, and I think our prices for supplements in general are quite a bit more than in the U.S.

      • Shanon says:

        Yes, it is expensive in high does. That’s for sure! I had been using the Target brand for the longest time due to cost, but then target stopped carrying it. I get it online. 🙂

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