Is niacin a possible successful treatment for schizophrenia?

niacinSchizophrenia is a devastating disease. Characterized by hallucinations, delusions and disorganized thought, it destroys lives. While the condition can be controlled with appropriate medication, a cure remains elusive. But just what constitutes “appropriate medication” is controversial. “Antipsychotic drugs that block dopamine and serotonin receptors in the brain have been the mainstay of therapy, but the involuntary muscle movements, restlessness and tremors they can cause are troublesome. An alternative school of thought maintains that mental illness can be addressed with nutritional therapies, particularly with the use of certain vitamins in the right dose. This idea was first formulated by Dr. Abram Hoffer, a Canadian psychiatrist whose pursuit of science began with a degree in agricultural chemistry from the University of Saskatchewan, followed by a PhD in biochemistry, and finally a medical degree from the University of Alberta. During his graduate studies young Hoffer worked at a wheat products laboratory in Winnipeg where he was charged with developing an assay for vitamin B-3, commonly known as niacin. This triggered a life-long interest in the vitamin and its biochemistry, with Hoffer eventually concluding that it had a significant role to play in the treatment of schizophrenia. As a practicing psychiatrist, Dr. Hoffer came up with the ‘adrenochrome hypothesis’ which he believed explained the symptoms of schizophrenia and offered a hope for treatment with vitamins.

Dr. Hoffer’s basic idea was that schizophrenia was a biochemical abnormality characterized by the buildup of chemicals in the brain called adrenochromes. These are normally formed from adrenalin, but in a healthy nervous system they are quickly metabolized. In schizophrenic patients, however, the mechanism for breaking down adrenochromes is impaired. Hoffer claimed that administering adrenochromes to volunteers resulted in hallucinations reminiscient of schizophrenia and hypothesized that reducing adrenochrome concentrations in schizophrenic patients would result in the alleviation of symptoms. From his biochemistry background he knew that niacin could reduce the formation of adrenalin from its precursor, noradrenalin, which meant it would also reduce adrenochromes since these were made from adrenalin. He also rationalized that adrenochromes could be reduced back to adrenaline through the administration of vitamin C.

Starting in the 1950’s Dr. Hoffer began to administer high doses of niacin and vitamin C to his schizophrenic patients and claimed he noted an improvement after a month. Paranoia and delusional symptoms decreased to an extent that hospitalized patients could be discharged. But, Hoffer maintained that if they stopped taking the vitamins they would experience a relapse. However, if they continued with the regimen for years, there was a chance of a complete cure. The problem, though, was that other researchers were unable to confirm Hoffer’s successes, resulting in skepticism about his claims. Interestingly, subsequent research did show that schizophrenic patients have a genetic defect preventing them from successfully eliminating adrenaline metabolites, so the adrenochrome theory is not ready to be dismissed. Still we are left with the fact that no properly controlled clinical trials have demonstrated significant benefits of vitamin megadoses in schizophrenia. That’s not a great surprise because schizophrenia is a complex disease, not characterized by a single cause. Genetic vulnerability as well as environmental effects are significant factors and lack of oxygen just after birth may also play a role.

Nevertheless, some psychiatrists continue to administer megadoses of niacin to schizophrenia patients and claim they see improvement. But such evidence is anecdotal. Perhaps further research will reveal that some vitamins used appropriately are beneficial, but for now, the evidence is on the side of using mainstream antipsychotic medications. It certainly is unwise for patients to try megavitamin therapy without a physician’s supervision. While doses of niacin under 1,000 mg are considered safe, higher doses can cause liver damage, gastritis, diabetes and an increase in blood uric acid levels.

Alexandra Pires-Ménard

 

 

3 Responses to “Is niacin a possible successful treatment for schizophrenia?”

  1. Suman says:

    1500 mg of magnesium is a lot. Please advise in which form it is being administered.

  2. Larry Ryan says:

    Presently my son has been battling Parra Schitz for 10yrs. Everything you have said here rings a bell with us/him. We also take a keen interest in his welfare and up to date conventional treatments. We have been successful in having the treating Dr of Psych add supplemental Magnesium and Fish-oil to his medications. They have had an observable effect of calming the behavioural spikes. He is more respectful and cognitive as a result. We will be advocating a transition to Ortho Molecular therapy trial very soon. At first as an Adjunct to conventional typical anti-psychotics and see what happens. If successful, will move progressively toward a gradual phase out of the synthesised drugs under clinical supervision and with the long term view of maintaining the Orthomol regime. Cheers and Thankyou.

  3. Kim Siebert says:

    My son first got symptoms of schizophrenia 10 years ago and we took him to a doctor who started him on niacin and other supplements and it didn’t help and he had to take drugs (usually abilify). Then we moved to a new house that had a water neutralizer that used magnesium oxide as the chemical and he got well for a few months but unfortunately we didn’t realize what was going on and he stopped taking the niacin and other vitamins and he got sick again until recently I realized that he had gotten well because he needed the magnesium in his protocol.

    So now with the supplements (niacin, magnesium, vitamin C, B6, B12 and folate, besides a good multivitamin) he has been off medications for 5 weeks and has less symptoms than he had on medications with no supplements. (He would do even better if he was more careful to take the supplements 3 times every day and if he would stop drinking energy drinks.) This is after years of not being able to stop taking his meds for more than about 3 days without having to start taking them again because of the voices and feeling strange.

    Unfortunately the usual protocol suggested by doctors who give niacin for schizophrenia does not include enough magnesium for the many who need it, so of course the studies that have been done have not been as successful as they could have been. It absolutely did not work at all for my son without about 1500 mg of extra magnesium a day, and it absolutely does work with all the supplements I listed above.

    I realize that this is an anecdotal report, but most people with schizophrenia really have very little to lose by trying the vitamins – plus they don’t have to go off medications to give it a try. My son’s life and most people’s lives who have schizophrenia are truly being ruined by the illness because the medications don’t make them normal, they just blunt the symptoms, and it is well worth the small risk of liver damage (which by the way is also a risk with the antipsychotic drugs, that’s why they always had my son take liver function tests). There are really no cases of people getting permanent liver damage from taking regular niacin, only slow release niacin which they give for cholesterol. The studies that supposedly show liver damage actually only show elevated liver enzymes and they interpret that as liver damage when in reality, the liver is working just fine.

    While I respect Dr. Hoffer’s work very much, I believe that his adrenachrome theory is incorrect. I think the main cause of schizophrenia has more to do with a broken feedback mechanism for slowing the production of dopamine in the body along with insufficient cofactors for the pathway that breaks down dopamine. If you supplement the cofactors to allow that pathway to function, then the person can often get rid of the excess dopamine rather quickly (within a week or two if they don’t take caffeine and other drugs that increase dopamine).

    If a person has to wait until the proper research is done on a protocol that doesn’t offer any profit to the pharmaceutical companies, they will be waiting a long time while their lives pass by. With this illness one must do their own research, or the people who love them must do the research for them, since most of them will be unable to do the research themselves.

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