Complementary Treatments for Schizophrenia

About 1 in 3 people still have symptoms even after they start taking an antipsychotic medication for their schizophrenia, so many of them seek other ways to manage those symptoms. While you shouldn't give up your medication and talk therapy, another type of treatment might be worth looking into.

Before you try anything else though, talk with your doctor to be sure it's safe for you. Some of these "alternative" treatments are more proven than others, but generally speaking, we don't have a lot of research on how effective they are.

Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)

Doctors have used this procedure for a long time to treat depression. A mild electrical current goes through your brain while you're under anesthesia.

Some psychiatrists recommend it for schizophrenia when antipsychotic drugs don't help your symptoms. About half of people who are resistant to antipsychotics have major improvement once they start doing ECT, too.

Side effects can include confusion and memory loss, so it's likely your doctor will hold off until you've given medication a chance to work.

Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS)

It's the same idea as ECT, but it's more targeted and precise and has fewer side effects.

For DBS, you'll need an operation to have a matchbox-sized electrical stimulator put into your chest. Wires from this device send electric signals to activate brain areas like the nucleus accumbens, which helps control motivation and logical reasoning.

Everyone in a group of people with treatment-resistant schizophrenia who got DBS surgery had fewer social isolation symptoms and auditory hallucinations a year later. While most studies have been small, this treatment could be a game-changer for some people.

B Vitamins

Recent studies support what some psychiatrists have believed for years: B vitamins -- found in foods like meat, eggs, and nuts -- can ease schizophrenia symptoms.

When people took supplements of these vitamins (including B6, pyridoxine; B9, folate; and B12) with their antipsychotic medication, they had fewer symptoms than people who only took medication. The shorter the time someone had symptoms, the more likely the vitamins were to help.

Some people say niacin (vitamin B3) helps with paranoia and delusions, and there might be a biological basis for the claim. But no studies now show such a benefit, so we need more research.

B vitamins may have more dramatic effects for people who haven't been getting enough of them in their diet.

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Omega-3 Fatty Acids

These nutrients are key building blocks of brain cell membranes. They help cells send signals to the others around it.

People with schizophrenia may not have enough omega-3s in their bodies. Some say that omega-3 supplements like fish oil help keep their symptoms at bay. In one study of people at risk of schizophrenia, those who took fish oil were less likely to progress to psychosis.

Taking omega-3s could give you mild nausea, diarrhea, and nosebleeds.

Cannabidiol (CBD)

One ingredient in the marijuana plant, cannabidiol, shows promise to relieve psychotic symptoms. Small-scale trials suggest that CBD helps stop hallucinations and delusions in people with schizophrenia. In lab studies of animals, their learning ability and working memory improved when they were given CBD.

Researchers don't fully understand what CBD does to the brain to control symptoms and sharpen thought, but they suspect it could be the drug's anti-anxiety and anti-inflammatory properties.

Amino Acids

For people with negative symptoms of schizophrenia, like social isolation and slowed speech, high doses of the amino acid glycine (which you can buy as a supplement) may make a big difference. In one study, treatment-resistant people had on average about one-third fewer negative symptoms, and their well-being got similarly better.

Other amino acids, including D-alanine, D-serine, and sarcosine, may also improve symptoms.

Most people aren't bothered by taking amino acids, but you might get queasy from glycine.

Melatonin

Some people report that how much sleep they get affects how severe their schizophrenia symptoms are. Melatonin, a hormone that controls sleep-wake cycles, may encourage quality shut-eye.

It seems that people with schizophrenia have higher "sleep efficiency" when they take melatonin. In other words, they're asleep for most of the time they're in bed. They may also sleep more deeply.

Since melatonin also helps calm your body's stress response, some researchers think it may relieve stress-related symptoms such as paranoid thoughts, too.

Antioxidants

When you have schizophrenia, the structure of your brain often changes over time. Chemicals from the environment can damage cells, an effect known as oxidative stress. Some doctors recommend antioxidants, like vitamins C and E and N-acetyl cysteine, because they help protect your body's cells from this kind of damage.

The evidence is less clear, though, about whether antioxidants help with specific symptoms. Researchers who looked at 22 studies found that people who took an antioxidant with their antipsychotic medication had fewer psychotic symptoms than those who didn't. But they also said we need more larger, better-designed studies.

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Diet

A gluten-free diet may be especially good if you have trouble processing wheat. Some researchers think that in gluten-sensitive people, when certain proteins move from the digestive tract into blood vessels, they can attach to receptors in the brain and interfere with normal thinking and reasoning, causing psychotic symptoms. This theory hasn't yet been confirmed, but studies suggest that cutting out gluten can lessen schizophrenic symptoms.

A low-carb or ketogenic diet may also help, perhaps because the ketone molecules that your body makes when you eat this way can block anxiety-related brain chemicals.

Since people with schizophrenia are more likely to have lifestyle-related conditions like heart disease, you should eat plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit and less food with unhealthy sugars and fats.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on October 29, 2018

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