Could schizophrenia be a sleep disorder?

Illustration for article titled Could schizophrenia be a sleep disorder?

Schizophrenia is among the most damaging and least understood of all mental disorders. Now a seemingly minor symptom — the fact that many schizophrenia patients complain of sleeping problems — could actually provide a crucial key to unraveling the disease.

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At first glance, trouble sleeping might not seem like that big a deal, the sort of thing that is easily explained away by the difficulties of coping with this disease, or perhaps the result of various medications. And yet Oxford researcher Russell Wilson and his team recently published results that show these sleep problems exist regardless of any of these external lifestyle factors — suggesting a potentially much deeper link between schizophrenia and the brain's sleep centers.

As New Scientist reports, the researchers tested this idea by studying mice with defects in their SNAP25 gene, which is linked to schizophrenia in humans. They placed the mice in an environment where twelve hours of light was followed by twelve hours of darkness. While the mice with normally functioning SNAP25 genes were active during the artificial daytime, the altered mice were the exact opposite. Something was deeply wrong with their circadian rhythms.

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That in turn suggested a problem with their suprachiasmatic nucleus, a piece of brain tissue that gathers information on surrounding light levels so that the rest of the body knows when to be active and when to effectively power down. The researchers discovered the relay links between the SCN and the rest of the body were damaged in the altered mice, and this had caused the internal clocks throughout the rest of the mice's bodies to get wildly out of sync with the brain.

Speaking to New Scientist, Foster explains how deeply this affects the body's biology:

"There is a defect in the way that the master clock in the SCN is talking to peripheral clocks. It's rather like jet lag. All of the biology is in different phases. Once you disrupt sleep you precipitate a raft of additional problems that make things worse and further destabilise the neurotransmitter systems of the body."

While this doesn't mean the body's malfunctioning internal clocks actually cause schizophrenia, these experiments suggest that they could well be a vital piece of the puzzle in explaining what causes the disease. This link is strengthened by the fact that many other diseases linked to disrupted sleep patterns, such as cardiovascular disease and obesity, are also common in schizophrenia patients.

Current Biology via New Scientist. Image by Kim D. French, via Shutterstock.

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DISCUSSION

I wouldn't say "just...", but of course proper sleep is integral to one's health. Just like levels of stress and one's social support can have a large (and often under-emphasized) impact on mental health. That being said, I think one area that goes almost completely neglected is nutrition. Here's an interestin­g (and seldom reported) test case with schizophrenic patients:

In the mid-sixtie­s, at the Veterans Administra­tion Hospital in Philadelph­ia, doctors removed all wheat products from meals provided to schizophre­nic patients (without their knowledge or permission­). Four weeks without wheat and there were distinct and measurable improvemen­ts in the hallmarks (and behavioral outbursts) of the disease: a reduced number of auditory hallucinat­ions, fewer delusions, less detachment from reality. Psychiatri­sts then added the wheat products back into their patients' diets and the hallucinat­ions, delusions, and social detachment RUSHED RIGHT BACK. They removed the wheat again, and symptoms got better. Added it back, they got worse.

(A double-blind gluten-free/gluten-load controlled trial in a secure ward population.

Vlissides DN, Venulet A, Jenner FA.

[www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov])

(conclusio­ns were corroborat­ed by psychiatri­sts at the University of Sheffield in England)

Whether or not people would like to admit it, or accept, what you eat is the raw material of your body - that includes your brain. The modern sugar-lade­n, carbohydra­te-heavy Western diet (including wheat - even the "healthy" whole variety...which has a worse metabolic effect on the body than sugar) has wreaked absolute havoc on both. There's been a skyrocket increase in mental disorders in the last 50 years alone, just as processed foods and hybridized wheat strains flooded the market (again, wheat/refined grains jack the shit out of your blood glucose/insulin levels more than even sugar). This isn't to say that everyone who eats wheat/sugar will develop schizophre­nia, or that drugs can't be useful tools. The point is - proper nutrition is (and should be) an integral part of treatment. The worse thing about cutting out sugar and wheat (and gluten-hea­vy) products? You eat healthy!

This, of course, isn't a quick fix, and requires a lifetime of diligence (and support in the psycho-social environment). And, as noted before, it needs (like any other illness) to be attacked on all fronts. Or, as Aldous Huxley once said - "Nothing short of everything will really do."

The embedded video is a small portion of a documentary called Feed Your Head ([store.documentarychannel.com]), which deals with the issue (yes, that's Lois Lane in one of the clips). Dr. Abram Hoffer, whose treatments the documentary highlights, has had legitimate success (two of the other women interviewed in the above video were form patients who were interviewed extensively...both were able to eventually completely wean off of medication). Here are two other accounts:

[www.youtube.com]

I don't mean to imply that it has a 100% efficacy rate, or that modern medication should be completely shunned. Far from it, those drugs can be indispensable tools. But the goal, rather than a lifetime sentence, should maybe be that of a cast or crutch that helps to heal a broken bone. And, one more time, things like a proper support system (and sleep, and lower stress) are vital.

I get that people will pooh-pooh this as anecdotal evidence, or that proper nutrition is somehow a load of shit - but it has worked in these people's cases. And, given that its shown to be effective in the area of schizophrenia (which has been dubbed by modern science as incurable), I don't see why it wouldn't be an avenue to aggressively explore. Worst case scenario? Healthy eating.