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Integrative Therapies for Schizophrenia - Omega-3 fatty acids (Fish Oils) and Glycine

Scott Olson, ND

Omega-3 fatty acids (Fish Oils)

Omega-3 essential fatty acids (oils), which include eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are found primarily in fish (such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon) and some plants. While they are necessary for the proper functioning of our bodies, the levels necessary for health benefits are more than can readily be achieved through diet alone. These oils are used as supplemental treatments for an array of conditions including heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis. These oils also play a role in brain development and function.

People with schizophrenia have low levels of these essential fatty acids in their bodies. Studies of individuals with schizophrenia who were given EPA/DHA suggest that these oils reduce the amount of standard medication necessary to treat the disease. In addition, individuals with schizophrenia who take Omega-3s seem to experience fewer symptoms. However, these studies are too small to provide a definitive answer about the effectiveness of EPA/DHA in treating all people with schizophrenia. Again, supplementing with EPA/DHA remains an adjunctive (complementary) therapy until further studies can clarify its role in treating schizophrenia.

Safety and Dosing

Normal dosing for the omega-3 fatty acids is between 1-4 grams a day. Most fish-oil supplements contain about 18% EPA/DHA, so to get a gram of EPA/DHA, one has to take approximately five 1-gram supplements.

Fish oils have been shown to both lower cardiovascular (heart) disease risk and raise cholesterol in some people. Likewise, EPA/DHA has been shown to lower blood sugar in diabetics and to raise it in some people. If you are taking medications for diabetes, your dosing may have to change. If you are considering taking more than 1 gram of EPA/DHA a day, and are on medications for diabetes or cardiovascular disease, you should consult with your health professional before starting.

Most side effects from taking fish oils are mild. Taking fish oils may act as an anticoagulant (blood thinner), so consult with your health provider if you are taking any blood-thinning medications.

Side Effects of Omega-3 Oils

  • Stomach upset
  • Nosebleeds
  • Loose stools

Glycine

Glycine is a non-essential amino acid (protein) and is another potentially promising integrative therapy for schizophrenia. The biochemistry of Glycine in the brain is just beginning to be understood. One theory on the development of schizophrenia relates Glycine to N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors (which are triggered by various neurotransmitters). NMDA receptors are located all over the brain, and are critical to learning, memory, brain development, and general brain processing. NMDA receptors help to regulate and control the release of dopamine (another neurotransmitter) from other neurons. A deficiency in glycine can cause the NMDA receptors to malfunction, which then impacts dopamine regulation. In other words, low levels of glycine can cause malfunctioning NMDA receptors, which leads to high levels of dopamine, possibly resulting in the development of schizophrenia-like symptoms.

Some studies have shown that supplementing standard antipsychotic medications with Glycine improves the symptoms of schizophrenia. However, the practicality of this treatment is limited by the large amounts of Glycine that have typically been used in the trials (40-90 grams). Lower levels of Glycine may also play a role in supporting and enhancing a standard treatment regime, but future studies are required to determine the effectiveness of these doses.

Safety and Dosing

Typical dosing of Glycine for schizophrenia is .8 grams per kilogram of body weight. Most of the people in the previously mentioned studies took between 40-90 grams a day. This large amount of Glycine should not be taken by anyone who is not under direct supervision from their health care provider. Large amounts of protein (like glycine) can cause problems for people with kidney disease.

Since Glycine is an amino acid (protein), it has very few side effects apart from occasional stomach upset and diarrhea.