Monday, September 17, 2012

Vitamins for Mental Illness: Making a Responsible Decision

You can find all sorts of places that recommend different vitamin supplements to help with treating mental illness. Since I have had such a hard time taking regular medications, I have a new doctor who is adding in some supplements for me. I know the research really is not out there to prove the positive effects of supplements mental illnesses. The most recent studies have been done on the effect of Omega-3's on depression, indicating that it may be beneficial, but is is still not a widely used treatment. Overall, extensive research studies have just not been done on the many supplements people are recommending and doctors are really suggesting these things based on small preliminary research studies and evidence from what they have seen with their own patients. That is not to say supplements do not work, it just means we have a lot of research to do to prove, to our Western scientific satisfaction, that they do.

If you are working with a Psychiatrist that you have researched and trust who prescribes supplements, I think it is safe to try them. However, I think far more people take them on their own than really work with a MD and I think that is risky for a few reasons.

First, there is a misunderstanding that supplements and they are completely safe and both adults and children can use them because they are "all natural." That is simply not true. Supplements change the chemistry of your brain, that is why you would be using them to treat mental illness, so clearly they have an effect on you and it is possible the effect could be negative. You can take too much of a supplement and supplements can have dangerous interactions with each other and prescription medications. Also, even our doctors do not know how much is a "safe" dose of a supplement because there are really no regulations around them. 
Photo by Katie Norris

There is also a myth that supplements have no side effects. But really, anything you put into your body can have a side effect. We try supplements in order to make us better, which means they have an effect on our body, which means they can have negative side effects as well as positive. One supplement my doctor gave me to help me sleep did make me tired but also gave me extreme stomach pain about four hours after I took it, which lasted for about twelve hours. So, even though it helped me fall asleep, I woke up four hours later in pain, could not sleep, and then had to try and get through half of my work day with a chronic, sometimes immobilizing stomach ache. One thing you also have to be sure of with side effects of supplements is that many of the supplements are combinations of a few different things in  one pill. When you research side effects look up each individual ingredient to find more accurate information.

Lastly, one of the arguments against using supplements is that often some of the supplements your doctor will prescribe for you are supplements that they sell from a company they make money from. True, this could be a red flag, but at the same time, doctors also get rewards from the prescription medications they give you. I have had a few doctors that change my medication to the "latest" new drug, which often is not covered by insurance and not available in generic form often causing us to spend $600 for one drug per month. (But of course the first month is free due to the samples the doctor gives me brought to them by the drug representatives.) You really have to research your doctor to see if they are suggesting supplements because they really believe they work, or because they can make a lot of money off of them.

My point in this post is not to make you fear supplements. Obviously I think they can work as I am willing to try them. It is just to warn you from getting caught up in the hype that supplements are so natural that there are no risks in taking them and you can even prescribe things for yourself since you can go to any drug store and pick them up. If you want to try supplements, my advice is to only do so under the supervision of a Psychiatrist who takes a truly holistic and responsible approach to mental health. How do you find a Psychiatrist like that? It's hard. It takes a lot of research to find the one doctor of hundreds who truly understands and is willing to use both regular and non-pharmacological treatments.


Rev. Katie


  1. It always boils down to that - making the decision. The problem is that many don't bother getting expert opinion before buying supplements such as biosil, only to regret things later when something goes wrong.

  2. In the end, it's really up to the patient if he'll take in medications suggested by online pharmacy reviews.