Margot Kidder is on the phone from New York, seething about a story in a Toronto paper that "entirely missed the point of what I have to say." Instead, the story focused on the more unsavoury elements - most of them false, she said - of her now legendary 1996 nervous breakdown.
What she was speaking about in Toronto last week, and will discuss on Wednesday night in Montreal, is the success of nutritional therapy in treating psychiatric illnesses. The Canadian-born actor, best known for her role as Lois Lane in the 1970s and '80s Superman films, is a spokesperson for this treatment, known as orthomolecular medicine. It's the reason, she said, she managed to pull herself back from the brink of that "well-publicized breakdown" - many years of suffering from manic depression."
I'm doing it because after 25 years of going to conventional psychiatrists, and every kind of therapy and drug you've ever heard of, I finally realized that drugs were not the answer," said 57-year-old Kidder. " I actually found out why I had that chemical imbalance and went in and fixed it. I've been using (the treatment) for 10 years and I've not had an episode of manic-depression for 10 years."
Kidder said she believes there's a big difference between orthomolecular medicine and psychiatric drug therapy, which treats the symptom. The orthomolecular approach examines what causes the symptom and tries to eliminate it, she said.
"Listen, the drugs they give people with mental illness would make a well person sick," Kidder said. At the International Schizophrenia Foundation, director Steven Carter sees benefits in combining orthomolecular medicine with more traditional drug treatment.
"We don't consider orthomolecular an alternative therapy," said Carter, whose organization is a sponsor of Kidder's talk in Montreal. "It is at best complementary," Carter said. "In mental health, we use it in conjunction with drugs for treating schizophrenia, for example."
Using vitamins, minerals and amino acids, the orthomolecular treatment searches for the optimal nutritional balance in the body. "When that is achieved, everything functions better," Carter said, "especially drugs. Then, if the body is functioning optimally, fewer drugs will be required."
When her illness started, Robyn Hertz and her mother, Sara Sochaczevski, never imagined they could make the request to lower drug dosage. Last March, 25-year-old Hertz had her first psychotic episode, showing the classic symptoms of schizophrenia. "She was delusional, hearing voices," Sochaczevski said. Hospitalized for two months, she left the hospital in "a mess," her mother said. "The drugs tranquilized her to the point that she was sleeping 16 hours a day. She could barely read a page in a book." And even though the "big" voices in her head were gone, Hertz could still hear background voices.
"The doctors said she was supposed to learn to live with it," Sochaczevski said.Hertz had gained 25 pounds and was too fatigued to function normally. In the meantime, her mother had joined AMI-Quebec, a Montreal mental-health association, and read in their newsletter the story of a suicidal schizophrenic who was not responding to treatment. Desperate not to institutionalize her child, the mother searched for help and discovered orthomolecular medicine.
"Within one year he was better and functioning," said Sochaczevski, who has met both mother and son. She got in touch with the International Schizophrenia Foundation in Ontario, and a naturopathic doctor from Toronto treated Hertz.
"Basically, he saved my kid," she said. Within two months, all of Hertz's voices were gone. She has a full time job, sleeps nine to 10 hours a night and is thinking of going back to school in September. The formula, a combination of vitamins B3 and C, includes a diet that is free of wheat, sugar, dairy, caffeine and alcohol. Hertz is still on her traditional drug medication, but has begun reducing the drugs.
"The more they reduce her meds, her weight will come down and she will get better and better," her mother said. "Dairy and gluten allergies are common to people with schizophrenia," said Carter, who has headed the Schizophrenia Foundation for nearly 20 years.
"I've seen many cases when removing them - a majority of the symptoms will abate. These are confirmed by orthomolecular doctors around the world." The important aspect of orthomolecular treatment is biochemical individuality, said Carter, who questions how drugs can be given without looking at diet. While acknowledging genetic predisposition to schizophrenia, there are other external and environmental factors, he believes. For example, he said, "you or I may be allergic to milk, but some person with schizophrenia and a dairy allergy will go into a psychotic state."
What orthomolecular medicine does is correct the biochemical imbalance and optimize nutritional status, he said. So why does this effective, and relatively inexpensive therapy still operate outside the medical model? For one thing, Carter said, orthomolecular treatment, in its heyday in the 1960s, was sidelined by anti-psychotic drugs. "They were much more dramatic and, frankly, much more lucrative than adjusting diet and looking at exercise."
Kidder says that, since pharmaceutical companies can't obtain global patents on "a naturally occurring product ... it is not profitable to have alternative solutions to mental illness out there on the marketplace." From Carter's perspective, most medical doctors know too little about biochemistry. In medical school "they learn pharmacology as opposed to nutritional biochemistry," he said. But interest in the process is growing, even within the medical community, he said.
John Hoffer, a professor of medicine at McGill University who practices in the areas of internal medicine and endocrinology and does research on human protein and amino acid metabolism, will be the moderator at Kidder's talk on Wednesday night. Son of Canadian orthomolecular pioneer, psychiatrist Abram Hoffer, he admits that orthomolecular treatment has "inspired a fair bit of controversy," especially after clinical trials done at the Douglas Hospital some years ago were unable to reproduce the findings that had been reported.
"In my opinion, they didn't do the studies properly," Hoffer said, "since they only looked at people with chronic, long-lasting schizophrenia, while the therapy seemed to work best in the early or acute phase of schizophrenia." There is increasing evidence in recent years, Hoffer said, that in the acute phase, schizophrenia responds to this therapy. However, he acknowledged that it isn't a proven treatment and would like to see more research done. Perhaps it will be.
"The department of psychiatry at this hospital feels that new ideas are worthy of being aired," Hoffer said, "although they don't advocate it as a treatment and don't want people to think they could stop taking their effective anti-psychotic medication." At the Douglas Hospital, director of research and of the prevention and early intervention program Ashok Malla, also a professor at McGill University, agreed that there is no firm evidence as yet about the orthomolecular treatment.
"We need to start looking at conducting proper randomized control trials," said Malla, who was recently awarded the McGill University Canada research chair (Tier 1) in early psychosis. Malla sees potential there, but not as an alternative to the current medication, he warned. "I wouldn't throw (orthomolecular treatment) out of the window," he said. "There's good reason to believe that it's worth a try, but in a properly scientifically controlled experiment. We need more study."
For Sochaczevski, it's hard to understand why orthomolecular treatments aren't even tried. "Vitamins don't kill anybody," she said. "Can you imagine if we can cure these illnesses with vitamins and diet? How many people could have been helped who are sitting in institutions?"
Skepticism set in early and has endured. With most of us popping daily doses of multivitamins and omega 3, it seems so normal to use nutrients to maintain health and even to treat illness. But when Linus Pauling, the father of orthomolecular medicine, first identified the use of non-toxic, non-invasive vitamins, minerals and amino acids in 1969, he was met with a skepticism that has taken practitioners years to dispel.As time went on, orthomolecular medicine was categorized along with other holistic treatments that included psychic healing, astrology and kinesiology. The notion that orthomolecular medicine - or megavitamin therapy as it was known early on - was espousing an end to all pharmaceutical drug treatments also made it suspect. It didn't help that the anti-drug bandwagon has been in the news in the form of the world's most famous Scientology practitioner, Tom Cruise. His belief system that all drugs are bad, it turns out, has nothing to do with orthomolecular medicine; Scientologists espouse all illnesses are psychosomatic and can be cured when the believer has been "treated" - known as "auditing" in Scientology.
But what began as megavitamin therapy is surely, steadily, becoming more accepted. Using biochemical individuality as its precept - Margot Kidder would not disclose her own treatment because it was specific only to her - the treatment is being examined by a variety of mainstream medical professionals. Will it be recognized as a viable and possibly more successful treatment of a variety of physical and mental illnesses? Some who have been helped by the therapy hope so. And despite the skepticism, they are willing to go on the record about their treatment.
"People like Margot and my daughter," Sara Sochaczevski said, "have great courage in being out there to try to help others. "If you believe or don't believe in the treatment, people like them should be complimented for doing it."
Source: Montreal Gazette, May 8, 2006