While most practitioners, conventional and alternative, focus on fighting heart disease, arthritis and cancer, there is growing concern over the silent epidemic of mental disorders that is becoming one of the most common causes of premature death.
Depression is poorly understood and tolerated in a society that is focused on positivism and a ‘can-do’ spirit. But it is depression’s extreme cousin - bipolar disorder, or manic-depression - that is perhaps the most perplexing of all the mental disorders.
>From 1 to 4.5 per cent of people worldwide will develop bipolar disease during their lifetime. It typically emerges in late adolescence or early adulthood. During manic periods, the sufferer may be overly impulsive and energetic, with an exaggerated sense of self. The depressed phase brings overwhelming feelings of anxiety, low self-worth and suicidal thoughts.
The cyclical nature of the illness means an episode may resolve on its own. Nevertheless, treatment to achieve and maintain a balanced state is important - without it, bipolar disorder can lead to suicide in nearly 20 per cent of cases.
For years, lithium has been the standard solution for this problem. Taken regularly, it can effectively control mania and depression, and reduce the likelihood of a recurrence. The problem is, it’s still not known how or why lithium works - or fails - in some cases.
Those who don’t respond to lithium or can’t tolerate its side-effects, which include weight gain, tremor and excessive urination, are generally prescribed mood stabilisers such as valproate - the only anticonvulsant approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in bipolar disorder - and carbamazepine.
The brain is a chemical factory that produces neurotransmitters, chemical messengers that help to maintain the body’s biochemical balance. To do this job, the brain needs raw materials in the form of amino acids, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.
Most of us obtain these materials from a well-balanced diet plus daily supplements. But some people have absorption or metabolic disorders severe enough to significantly alter brain function. When this happens, a range of conditions such as bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia and attention-deficit disorders can occur.
New treatment approaches
Each of us processes foods in our own way. This is why it is possible for some to thrive on a vegetarian/vegan diet while others need an omnivorous diet to be healthy. Similarly, some individuals seem to get all they need from food alone while others require supplements, sometimes at many times the recommended daily allowance (RDA), to remain healthy.
The complexity of the issue has given rise to what is called ‘orthomolecular medicine’, a term coined by nutritional pioneer Linus Pauling in 1968 (Science, 1968; 160: 265-71). Since that time, advances in molecular biology and brain chemistry have identified many inherited nutritional imbalances and mechanisms that can lead to mental disorders.
A large percentage of depressed people (Br J Psychiatry, 1970; 117: 287-9) and schizophrenics (Psychiatr Clin Neurosci, 1999; 53: 531-3) is low in folic acid and may be deficient in omega-3 fatty acids (Psychiatr Res, 1999; 85: 275-91; Prostagl Leukotr Essent Fatty Acids, 1996; 55: 3-7). Similarly, individuals with bipolar disorder may have metabolic disturbances that can affect levels of important, mood-regulating neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine and norepinephrine (noradrenaline).