Schizophrenia is a brain disorder that affects approximately one percent of the American population. While its prevalence is low, the debilitating impacts of this disease stretch from patients to family and community members.
The symptoms of schizophrenia – hearing voices that others do not hear, believing that others can read their minds and control their thoughts, and sitting for hours without moving or talking – make it difficult for sufferers to care for themselves or hold a job. Thus, external help is often needed.
Doctors admittedly know very little about the way in which schizophrenia works. Treatment options are available to help patients lead fulfilling lives, but many sufferers simply live with the symptoms. Meanwhile, researchers continue to study this disease and understand its causes. New evidence supports that prenatal nutrient deficiencies can increase the risk for developing schizophrenia in adulthood. Chief among these deficiencies is vitamin D.
Correlation between Schizophrenia and Winter Seasons
Studies have revealed for some time that environmental factors may be involved with the development of schizophrenia. According to some researchers, “birth rates during the winter and spring months are 5 to 8 percent higher among individuals that later develop schizophrenia than in the general population during the same months.” Most of the studies investigating the correlation between winter births and schizophrenia have been conducted in regions where marked temperature variations occur.
While studies from the northern hemisphere of the world have demonstrated that schizophrenia is in fact related to birth season, those of the southern hemisphere have yielded similar results. One test, conducted in 1979 and published online in 2007, further revealed that a lacking resistance to infection may also be linked to schizophrenia. Scientists and health officials attribute both factors – birth season and compromised immune system in early years – to vitamin D.
The Role of Vitamin D in the Body
Vitamin D is fat-soluble and produced primarily from ultraviolet rays that hit the skin. It is naturally present in very few foods and is available as a dietary supplement. One of the foremost roles of vitamin D is to promote calcium absorption in the stomach. This is necessary for bone growth and strength throughout all stages of life. Other roles of vitamin D include the following:
- Regulate neuromuscular and immune system functions
- Reduce inflammation
- Monitor genes that regulate cell functions
- Maintain cell growth and communication in all organs of the body
With such a catalog of responsibilities in the human body, researchers find that the link between vitamin D and brain disorders is not surprising. Today, however, additional research supports that the need for vitamin D begins even prior to birth. Recent studies have shown that deficient prenatal vitamin D increases the risk for adult schizophrenia.
The Link between Schizophrenia and Prenatal Nutrients
Scientists with the Queensland Brain Institute have discovered that newborn babies with deficient levels of vitamin D have a greater risk of developing schizophrenia in adulthood. The research team compared concentrations of vitamin D in babies who later developed schizophrenia with healthy controls. Minute blood samples were part of the screening process that revealed low vitamin D levels led to a two-fold increased risk of developing the brain disorder.
In essence, the Queensland team discovered that vitamin D is important for healthy brain growth. The team also realized that establishing a link between schizophrenia and prenatal nutrients could decrease the number of schizophrenia cases. Investigator Professor John McGrath said, “While we need to replicate these findings, the study opens up the possibility that improving vitamin D levels in pregnant women and newborn babies could reduce the risk of later schizophrenia.”
Low vitamin D is prevalent in many countries, both because of weather conditions and mainstream diets that lack the nutrient. As such, the three-year Queensland study may influence public health messages in the future. As pregnant women are now advised to increase folate consumption to reduce the risk of spina bifida in their babies, vitamin D may become the nutrient that prevents schizophrenia.