Vitamin D Has More Benefits Than Previously Thought

May 17, 2019 · Posted in Potential Treatments · Comment 

supplementsVitamin D has long been known as an important vitamin for bone health, preventing conditions such as osteoporosis and rickets. More recently, research suggests that vitamin D may also protect against conditions such as cancer, heart failure, diabetes, respiratory tract infections, and autoimmune disease.

Many Americans have low vitamin D or a vitamin D deficiency. The human body produces vitamin D in large amounts when the skin is exposed to ultraviolet B rays in sunlight. Vitamin D can also be absorbed from vitamin D–fortified foods such as dairy products, some orange juice, and cereals. Some foods such as fatty fish, beef liver, and egg yolks naturally contain some vitamin D, but it is difficult to get enough vitamin D just from consuming these foods.

Low mood or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), in which people feel depressed during winter periods of limited exposure to sunshine, have been linked to low vitamin D.

Other symptoms of low vitamin D vary but can include pain in the joints, bones, or muscles; fatigue; and breathing problems.

Editor’s Note: A few small studies have suggested that 1,500 IU per day of vitamin D supplements can help depressed mood, even in those with normal vitamin D levels. Several studies have indicated that children or adolescents with psychiatric disorders are especially likely to be vitamin D–deficient. Another study found that higher amounts of vitamin D (4,000 IU) could improve cognition in healthy volunteers more than lower doses could. Vitamin D also improved cognition in people with multiple sclerosis and in those with the autoimmune disease Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.

Vitamin D Deficiency in Newborns Linked to Higher Risk of Schizophrenia in Adulthood

May 13, 2019 · Posted in Risk Factors · Comment 

mother and babyA 2018 study by Darryl W. Eyles in the journal Scientific Reports found that newborns with vitamin D deficiency were more likely to develop schizophrenia later in life. The study made use of several Danish data depositories and had a large sample size of 2,602 participants. In this case control study, registries of patients treated for schizophrenia were matched up to preserved dried blood samples collected at their births, and these were compared to other dried blood samples from people without schizophrenia who shared the same sex and birthdate.

The researchers divided participants into quintiles based on vitamin D levels at birth. Compared to those who fell into the fourth quintile, those in the lowest quintile were 44% more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia in adulthood. The researchers also determined polygenic risk scores for each participant, that is, they calculated schizophrenia risk based on the presence of various genes. The two processes together explained 1.2% of the variance in schizophrenia diagnoses.

Risk factors for vitamin D deficiency include being born in the winter or spring, living in high-latitude locations, spending early life in an urban setting, and being darker-skinned (especially in high-latitude locations). These risk factors are all correlated with decreased skin absorption of UV rays from the sun, which is how the human body produces vitamin D. The vitamin D receptor is expressed in the brain in areas that are relevant to schizophrenia, such as areas with a lot of dopamine activity, and each of the above risk factors also applies to schizophrenia.

As expected, participants born in the winter and spring had lower vitamin D levels. Participants whose parents had immigrated to Denmark had lower vitamin D than those with parents native to Denmark.

Newborns’ vitamin D levels depend completely on their mothers’ vitamin D levels, so Eyles and colleagues suggest that ensuring pregnant women have adequate vitamin D levels could prevent some cases of schizophrenia.

Adolescents with Bipolar Disorder May Have Higher Levels of Vitamin D–Binding Protein

May 7, 2019 · Posted in Diagnosis, Risk Factors · Comment 
illustration of vitamin D binding protein

Vitamin D binding protein. Illustration: Emw [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

A 2018 article by Brawnie Petrov and colleagues in the journal Translational Psychiatry suggests that adolescents with bipolar disorder have higher levels of vitamin D–binding protein than adolescents without a mood disorder. The researchers wrote that vitamin D–binding protein “responds early to cellular damage by binding…structural proteins and activating inflammatory cells.”

This pilot study suggests that measuring levels of vitamin D–binding protein could be a useful marker of bipolar disorder. The study was small, with only 12 participants who had bipolar disorder, 11 who had unipolar depression, and 13 with no mood disorder. The researchers hope to follow up with larger studies in adolescents and adults using blood that has already been collected from people with bipolar disorder.

Vitamin D–binding protein is not measured by a standard blood test. The study authors used a technique where they “fished” for inflammatory factors that might be linked to mood disorders. The researchers began by looking for a link between other inflammatory markers in the blood and bipolar disorder, which have repeatedly been found in other studies, but they did not find any such association. There also did not seem to be a link between bipolar illness and vitamin D levels in the blood, only vitamin D–binding protein levels.

It can be especially difficult to distinguish early bipolar disorder from unipolar depression, and if the results of this small study are replicated, a blood test might eventually help to identify people with bipolar disorder earlier.

Meta-Analysis Finds Omega-3 Fatty Acids Do Not Reduce Cardiovascular Disease Risk

May 1, 2019 · Posted in Potential Treatments · Comment 

heartIn a 2018 meta-analysis published in the journal JAMA Cardiology, researcher Theingi Aung and colleagues found that across 10 studies including a total of 77,197 participants, omega-3 fatty acid supplementation did not reduce risk of coronary heart disease in people at high risk. This newer finding conflicts with a 2017 advisory from the American Heart Association that suggested omega-3 fatty acid supplementation might prevent cardiovascular disease.

When it comes to mood disorders, it has been similarly difficult to pin down whether omega-3 fatty acids are helpful. Data on omega-3 fatty acid supplements for the prevention of depression have been ambiguous, with small numbers of studies and variations in study design that make it difficult to draw strong conclusions about whether these supplements can improve or prevent depression.

A 2016 systematic review by Paola Bozzatello and colleagues in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found only seven studies of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in bipolar disorder. The studies had small sample sizes and widely varying dosage parameters, so the evidence that can be drawn from them is not strong, but the review did find a modest benefit on bipolar depression (but not mania) when omega-3 fatty acids were added to a treatment regimen, compared to treatment as usual.

The same review found that studies of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in unipolar depression also varied widely, and thus it was difficult to draw inferences from them. Some meta-analyses found no benefit to omega-3 fatty acid supplementation, while others suggested that omega-3s could improve depression. The review found that the type of omega-3 fatty acids used might matter. Supplementation with EPA seemed to improve depression more than supplementation with DHA. The review also cited a 2014 comprehensive meta-analysis by Giuseppe Grosso and colleagues in the journal PLoS One that analyzed the findings from 19 studies in people with depression or depressive symptoms. Grosso and colleagues found that people with more severe depression seemed to benefit more from omega-3s.

Preventing Illness in the Offspring of a Parent with Bipolar Disorder

April 18, 2019 · Posted in Potential Treatments · Comment 

family with boy

A 2018 article by researcher Robert Freedman and colleagues in the American Journal of Psychiatry reported that prenatal nutritional supplements can reduce mental illness in at-risk offspring. The article made a good case for supplementation with folate, phosphatidylcholine, and vitamins A and D.

Here we describe some additional ways to minimize risk of mental illness in children who are at risk for bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses.

Some efforts at prevention can begin even before a child is conceived. Avoiding smoking or drinking alcohol and maintaining a nutritious diet to prevent inflammation and excessive weight gain before conception could reduce adverse epigenetic effects on the offspring. Epigenetics refers to environmental influences on gene transcription. The impact of life experiences such as a mother or father’s substance use is not registered in their child’s DNA sequence, but can influence the structure of the child’s DNA or its packaging.
Maternal good health and wellbeing during pregnancy has also been shown to improve neonatal health and functioning.

Once a child is born, they can be encouraged in healthy habits, including a nutritious diet, good sleeping habits, regular vigorous exercise, and mindfulness/meditation training (which pediatric psychiatrist James Hudziak has suggested should be universal).

For a child who is beginning to develop mood or behavioral symptoms, more intensive intervention may be prudent. Research supports the effectiveness of family interventions such as family-focused therapy (FFT) for youth with depression, cyclothymia, or bipolar disorder not otherwise specified (BP-NOS) and a family history of bipolar disorder. Researcher David J. Miklowitz described the effects of this intervention in a 2013 article in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Depression in children 3 to 6 years of age is as common as depression in older children (with rates around 1–2%), and robust improvements have been observed when families engage in parent child interaction therapy (PCIT) with a focus on emotional development. In PCIT, parents are coached while interacting with their children and encouraged to establish warm interactions while setting appropriate limits. In a study by Joan L. Luby and colleagues published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2018, using PCIT modified to include an emotional development component improved depression and associated symptoms in children aged 3 to 11, and it also improved mothers’ mood and behavior. Read more

Prenatal Prevention of Psychiatric Illness with Nutritional Supplements

April 15, 2019 · Posted in Potential Treatments · Comment 

pregnant woman with a pillIn a 2018 article in the American Journal of Psychiatry, researcher Robert Freedman and colleagues shared the results of a systematic review of data on nutritional supplements during pregnancy for the primary prevention of psychiatric illness in the child. Freedman and colleagues concluded that the evidence is robust that prenatal folic acid supplementation plus multivitamins not only can prevent birth defects such as cleft palate, spina bifida, and microcephaly, but also social withdrawal, decreased attention, and aggression at age 18 months. They wrote, “Supplements of up to 4 mg [of folic acid] before 12 weeks gestation have been found to be safe and effective.”

The effects of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation depended on when the supplements were taken. Taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements early in pregnancy was linked to an increase in schizophrenia and more symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the offspring. However, supplementation after 20 weeks of pregnancy decreased preterm delivery, low birth weight, and asthma.

As of 2017, choline supplementation during pregnancy is recommended by the American Medical Association. Their recommendation is based on research in which the choline precursor phosphatidylcholine (5,000-6,300 mg/day) was given to mothers beginning in the 18th week of pregnancy and continued in the newborn for two weeks to three months after birth in the form of 100mg of liquid phosphatidylcholine. This supplementation regimen normalized the P50 auditory evoked potential, a measure of inhibitory sensory gating that is abnormal in patients with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and infants whose parents had psychosis, depression, or smoked (all risk factors for a later diagnosis of schizophrenia).

Healthy individuals show a reduced response to an auditory cue when it is repeated 50 milliseconds after the initial cue. In people with schizophrenia, response to the repeated cue is not suppressed. Not only did the P50 auditory evoked potential normalize with phosphatidylcholine supplementation, but at 3.5 years of age, those who received phosphatidylcholine supplements in utero and as newborns had fewer problems with attention and social interactions. The findings were even more robust in those with the CHRNA7 genotype (a genetic variation in the alpha 7 nicotinic receptor), which is a risk factor for schizophrenia.

Supplementation with vitamins A and D during gestation also decreased the risk for schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders in offspring. Recommendations include Vitamin D at doses of 600 to 4,000 IU for pregnant mothers and 400 to 1,000 IU for infants. Because of potential toxicity, vitamin A should be limited to 8,000 units from diet and supplements combined. (Supplements typically contain 2,500 units.)

While there are some methodological limitations to the findings, Freedman and colleagues conclude, “As part of comprehensive maternal and fetal care, prenatal nutrient interventions should be further considered as uniquely effective first steps in decreasing risk for future psychiatric and other illnesses in newborn children.”

Editor’s Note: Given the high risk of psychiatric illness (74%) in the offspring of a parent with bipolar disorder and the finding of abnormal P50 auditory evoked potential in patients with bipolar disorder, the recommended nutritional supplements should be given special consideration during gestation of a child who has a parent with bipolar disorder. According to the 2018 article by Freedman and colleagues, this would include folate, phosphatidylcholine, vitamin A and vitamin D.

Eating Beef Jerky and Other Nitrate-Cured Meats Linked to Increased Mania Risk

April 10, 2019 · Posted in Risk Factors · Comment 

In a 2018 article in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, researcher Seva G. Khambadkone and colleagues reported that a history of eating nitrated dry cured meat, such as beef jerky, was associated with a more than threefold increase in the risk of current mania. Eating other types of meat and fish products was not linked to mania.

The study included 217 people with mania, 91 with bipolar depression, 79 with unipolar depression, and 371 with schizophrenia, plus 343 control participants without a psychiatric disorder. Each participant responded to a questionnaire assessing whether they had ever eaten certain foods. The researchers had the idea that eating foods such as undercooked meat or fish, which might carry infectious agents, could be connected with mania, since inflammation seems to be linked to psychiatric illness. To the researchers’ surprise, their analysis found an independent link between eating nitrated dry cured meat (such as beef jerky, turkey jerky, or meat sticks) and being admitted to a hospital with acute mania.

Having eaten other cured meats such as salami or prosciutto was not linked to mania, nor was having eaten any other food.

Following these findings, Khambadkone and colleagues designed a study in which rats were given meat with added nitrate. The rats showed hyperactivity that resembled human mania, alterations in brain pathways that have been linked to bipolar disorder, and changes to gut microbes.

Antioxidant Supplement Coenzyme Q10 Looks Promising for Bipolar Depression

April 8, 2019 · Posted in Potential Treatments · Comment 


Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is an antioxidant that occurs naturally in the human body, but its levels decline with age, medical illness, and depression. In a randomized, controlled trial that was published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology in 2018, researcher Maryam Mehrpooya and colleagues found that adding coenzyme Q10 supplements to a treatment regimen improved bipolar depression compared to adding placebo.

The pathophysiology of bipolar disorder involves mitochondrial dysfunction, oxidative stress, and inflammation, and coenzyme Q10 can affect all of these pathways. It is also neuroprotective, and may help prevent the degeneration of neurons in people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or Huntington’s diseases.

The study included a final total of 69 participants who were randomly assigned to receive either 200 mg/day of coenzyme Q10 supplements or placebo in addition to their normal treatment regimen, which had been stable for at least two months at the time of the study. Participants’ bipolar depression was rated at the beginning of the study, after four weeks, and after eight weeks. At the eight-week mark, coenzyme Q10 showed a statistically significant benefit over placebo with a large effect size. Three participants who received coenzyme Q10 experienced full remission of their depression, and 72% of those in the coenzyme Q10 group improved compared to only 12% of those who received placebo.

The study had some limitations. It was small, and twenty participants dropped out of the study before its completion, which may have inflated the findings.

Previous research found that coenzyme Q10 had benefits in specific populations. In two non-blind studies (studies in which participants know that they are receiving the treatment in question rather than possibly a placebo), 29 older patients with bipolar disorder improved when taking 800 mg to 1200 mg/day of coenzyme Q10. A randomized, controlled trial of coenzyme Q10 in people with multiple sclerosis and depression found that 500 mg/day reduced fatigue symptoms and depression. Coenzyme Q10 has also improved well-being and energy in small, controlled trials in people with breast cancer, Gulf War veterans, and elderly populations.

Taking coenzyme Q10 is low-risk. It had no adverse effects in the study by Mehrpooya and colleagues. Gastrointestinal reactions are possible, but can be managed by taking coenzyme Q10 with food and spreading out dosing throughout the day. Insomnia is also possible, but is less likely when coenzyme Q10 is taken early in the day. One effect to note is that coenzyme Q10 can interact badly with the blood-thinner warfarin.

Editor’s Note: The study by Mehrpooya and colleagues is interesting. Another antioxidant, N-acetylcysteine (NAC), also took 2 months to work in trichotillomania and bipolar depression, so patients should be warned not to expect a quick response with either coenzyme Q10 or NAC. Other potentially useful supplements include: Vitamin D3 (1500–5000 IU/day), folate or L-methylfolate, and acetyl-L-carnitine. Acetyl-L-carnitine may work more quickly, based on its presumed mechanism (increasing the production of the inhibitory metabotrophic glutamate receptor mGluR-2, which inhibits glutamate release).

Inflammation Associated With Duration of Untreated Unipolar Depression

February 14, 2019 · Posted in Brain Imaging, Course of Illness, Neurobiology · Comment 

depressed woman

Researcher Sophia Attwells and colleagues reported at a 2018 scientific meeting that the longer the time that a patient went without treatment for depression, the more inflammation they exhibited on positron emission tomography (PET) scans. Attwells and colleagues used the PET scans to assess the total distribution volume of TSPO, which is a marker of brain microglial activation, a form of inflammation.

Strikingly, in participants who had untreated major depressive disorder for 10 years or longer, TSPO distribution volume was 29–33% greater in the prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and insula than in participants who were untreated for 9 years or less. TSPO distribution volume was 31–39% greater in these three important regions of gray matter in participants with long durations of untreated major depressive disorder than in healthy control participants.

Editor’s Note: In schizophrenia, the duration of untreated interval (DUI) is associated with a poor prognosis, but not with inflammation. Researcher Yvette Sheline has also reported that less time on antidepressants compared to more time treated with them was associated with greater hippocampal volume loss with aging in patients with major depression.

Given Attwells and colleagues’ remarkable finding about the adverse effects of the DUI in depression, including inflammation and brain volume loss, and other findings that associate more episodes with poorer functioning, cognition, and treatment responsiveness, physicians and patients should think hard about committing to long-term antidepressant treatment to prevent episodes, beginning early in the course of illness.

This editor (Robert M. Post) would propose that if a second depressive episode occurs after a first depression that responded well to treatment, this would be an appropriate time to start antidepressant prophylaxis. Most guidelines suggest that prophylaxis be started after a third episode, but these recommendations generally do not account for newer data on the pernicious effects of experiencing repeated depressive episodes. In addition to causing dysfunction and disability, going through four depressive episodes doubles the risk of dementia in old age, and this risk increases further with each successive episode, according to researcher Lars Kessing.

Having too many depressions is bad for the brain. In Kessing’s studies, two episodes of unipolar or bipolar depression did not increase the risk of dementia compared to the general population, while four depressions did. One could compare the effects of repeated depressions on the brain to the effects of heart attacks on the heart muscle. A heart might still function well after one or even two heart attacks, but the chances of significant loss of function and the risk of congestive heart failure increase as a function of the number of heart attacks. After even one heart attack, most patients change their lifestyle and/or go on prophylactic medications to reduce risk factors such as elevated blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, weight, blood sugar, and smoking. The benefits of reducing heart attacks are a no brainer. Trying to prevent recurrent depression with pharmacotherapy and adjunctive psychotherapy after a second depressive episode should be a no brainer too.

In addition, if antidepressants are not effective enough in preventing depressions, lithium is an option, even in unipolar depression, for preventing both episodes and suicide. The evidence of efficacy in both instances is very strong according to an article by Mohammed T. Abou-Saleh in the International Journal of Bipolar Disorders in 2017.  The renowned psychiatrist Jules Angst’s recommendation as to when to start lithium treatment was that if a patient had had one episode or more in the previous five years in addition to the present episode, then they were likely to have two further episodes in the following five years, and lithium prophylaxis would be recommended.

Family History of Lithium Response A Potent Predictor of Lithium Effectiveness

February 11, 2019 · Posted in Current Treatments · Comment 


Researcher Martin Alda and colleagues reported at a 2018 scientific meeting that a family history of good response to lithium is highly predictive of response to lithium in a current bipolar patient. A good prospective response to lithium was seen in 68.6% of patients with a family member who responded well to lithium. Only 22% of those without a family member with a positive lithium response responded well to lithium.

Editor’s Note: Other predictors of a good response to lithium include: a family history of mood disorder, classical euphoric mania with clear-cut well intervals between episodes, lack of a simultaneous anxiety or substance abuse disorder, starting lithium early rather than late in the course of illness after many episodes or rapid cycling has occurred, and a sequential pattern of episodes of mania followed by depression, and then an interval of wellness (i.e. M-D-I rather than D-M-I). Even in those without these characteristics, lithium has many benefits including neuroprotection, reduction of suicide risk, and improved medical health (perhaps through its ability to increase the length of telomeres which are bits of DNA at the end of each chromosome). Longer telomeres are protective, while people with shorter ones may be vulnerable to some medical and psychiatric illnesses.

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