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Complementary Therapies for Schizophrenia: Expanding the Clinician’s Toolbox

Complementary Therapies for Schizophrenia: Expanding the Clinician’s Toolbox

Given the burdens of living with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, and the increasing emphasis on improving patients' quality of life, it's no wonder that clinicians and patients are seeking additional treatment options for psychotic disorders. Clinicians who use, study and advocate for nonconventional or “complementary” therapies in psychiatry -- treatments ranging from dietary supplements to Chinese herbs to yoga -- see an opportunity to expand the acceptance and use of these therapies as adjuncts to conventional treatments for schizophrenia.

These practitioners acknowledge that the evidence supporting most nonconventional therapies for schizophrenia is still decidedly modest: The number of rigorous, well-designed studies is limited, and research findings on several of the therapies are inconsistent.

Still, dozens of studies in recent years have found evidence that when combined with antipsychotics, several nontraditional therapies -- most notably Omega-3 fatty acids, glycine, folate, Chinese herbal medicines, yoga practices and spiritually focused group therapy -- yield measurable and sometimes clinically significant benefits in some schizophrenic patients. Based on limited and mainly small or uncontrolled studies, nonconventional therapies may be effective particularly in easing negative symptoms, cognitive symptoms and/or antipsychotic side effects.

Expanding the clinician's toolbox

As Richard P. Brown, MD, sees it, psychiatrists owe it to their patients to be open to evidence-based nonconventional approaches. "Patients and families are desperate -- they're saying, 'There's got to be more you can do for us,' " says Brown, an associate professor in clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, who has devoted much of his work in the past 15 years to the study and practice of complementary therapies, with an emphasis on yoga practices. Brown says he’s seen increasing demand for this approach among patients and families. In fact, he spends 3 or more hours each week responding to calls and e-mails from individuals who seek his help -- typically refractory cases of patients who’ve tried several conventional therapies with little relief. He gives workshops and talks internationally, including a presentation on complementary therapies for schizophrenia, given in May at the American Psychiatric Association's 2007 annual meeting. Brown views complementary therapies as a broader set of tools that clinicians can employ to help patients live less disrupted, more fulfilling lives. "It's like going to a car mechanic," he explains. "Some mechanics know how to fix only Toyotas or GM cars. Some mechanics can fix any kind of car. So I say, What kind of mechanic do you want to be?" With complementary therapies, "we can give you tools so you can help any patient who walks in the door."

Increasing interest among clinicians

Among most U.S. psychiatrists, Brown admits, there has traditionally been little interest in complementary therapies, particularly for serious disorders like schizophrenia where conventional medications produce the most dramatic improvements. "Most psychiatrists are quite frightened by the idea of alternative medicine," he says. Still, Brown has seen an upswing in interest among some psychiatrists, particularly younger physicians and those from Asian countries. "When I give talks on this, the room is stuffed and people are overflowing out into the hall." It's a sign, he says, that "clinicians aren't satisfied with the treatments we have to offer." According to a nationwide survey of psychiatrists, conducted in fall 2006 regarding schizophrenia treatment, 95% of respondents said new, more effective treatment options were needed for schizophrenia. And 80% said they had changed medications for their schizophrenia patients more than once in the previous 12 months, with the drugs’ lack of efficacy as the primary reason.

James H. Lake, MD, is a frequent presenter at major conferences on nonconventional approaches in mental health care, chairs the American Psychiatric Association’s Caucus on Complementary, Alternative and Integrative Care -- which counts 100-plus members -- and was recently appointed to an APA Task Force on Complementary and Alternative Medicine. He is on the clinical faculty at Stanford University’s Department of Psychiatry and has a full-time private practice in integrative psychiatry -- an approach that uses both conventional biomedical therapies and evidence-based complementary therapies alone or in combination, depending on the unique symptoms and preferences of each patient. Lake attributes the growing interest in complementary therapies to concerns about the safety, effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of antipsychotic medications, in light of research findings including findings from the recent CATIE trials.

Textbooks synthesize evidence for complementary therapies

Based on his clinical experience, training in complementary medicine, interviews with clinician-researchers, and an extensive review of the scientific literature on nonconventional therapies used to treat psychiatric disorders, Lake has produced two books for clinicians: the Textbook of Integrative Mental Health Care (Thieme Medical Publishers, October 2006, by James H. Lake) and Complementary and Alternative Treatments in Mental Health Care (American Psychiatric Publishing, December 2006, co-edited with David Spiegel, MD).

The Textbook of Integrative Mental Health Care provides critical reviews of the evidence for nonconventional and integrative approaches to core symptoms including depression, anxiety and psychosis. The key goal of the book is to evaluate nonconventional approaches used to assess and treat common mental health problems, and to present evidence-based guidelines for their appropriate use. Lake hopes to transform the APA’s Caucus on Complementary, Alternative and Integrative Care into a full-fledged committee that will eventually recommend specific clinical practice guidelines to governing bodies within the association. (Most APA guidelines currently do not discuss complementary approaches.)

Not a substitute for Rx meds

Lake emphasizes that as properly practiced, "integrative psychiatry" is based on compelling evidence from randomized controlled trials, and is meant to supplement, not supplant, conventional medications. "By no means am I trying to replace antipsychotic medications with herbs," he says. "I prescribe conventional antipsychotics all the time -- they are very important." Lake notes that several schizophrenic patients have come to him seeking to discontinue conventional medications. In most cases, he advises against it but often recommends augmentation strategies. In limited cases, he will agree to work with a patient toward the goal of reducing doses or even discontinuing antipsychotics, but the patient must be stable, have a history of good compliance, follow an appropriate regimen of complementary therapies, and must be committed to a holistic program including healthy diet, exercise, and preferably a mind-body practice such as yoga or tai-chi.

Three levels of evidence

For each of the core symptoms for which Lake has reviewed the evidence for nonconventional treatment approaches, he has classified potentially beneficial therapies into 1 of 3 categories:

Substantiated therapies are those for which there is "compelling research evidence" -- by Lake's criteria, based on positive findings of a meta-analysis or systematic review of at least 3 well-designed, randomized, placebo-controlled trials with significant statistical power.

Provisional therapies are those for which there is "significant positive evidence" -- meaning 1 or 2 well-designed, randomized controlled trials, and if a meta-analysis of studies has been performed, the findings are promising but not compelling.

Possibly effective therapies are those often supported by anecdotal evidence or for which the evidence from research studies is limited or inconsistent.

For schizophrenia, Lake's Textbook of Integrative Mental Health Care concludes that "there are no substantiated nonconventional treatment approaches at the time of writing" (October 2006). In interviews, however, Lake explains that this reflects the paucity of large, well-designed studies on the subject, rather than the limited effectiveness of nonconventional treatments for schizophrenia per se.

Indeed, Lake writes, "It is important to remark that many conventional approaches in current use are also provisional or possibly effective when the same rigorous criteria are applied." In this context, "the effectiveness of many provisional nonconventional approaches is probably comparable to that of many treatments used in conventional mental health care."

Lake expects that future studies will produce compelling evidence for some complementary therapies for schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. Meanwhile, he is encouraged by the steady pace of research on nonconventional treatments. The amount of funding that the National Institute of Mental Health has devoted to studying complementary therapies has ranged from $6.7 million in 2001 to $3.9 million in 2002, with an estimated $4.3 million in funding for 2007, according to data from the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

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