One of my reasons for becoming a health professional is I want to support people experiencing mental health problems. I know from first-hand experience that mental illness is not ‘from the neck up’, and that nutrition can be a powerful tool in rebalancing our biochemistry and helping to restore health.
This post looks at a seldom talked about and often misunderstood aspect of mental illness: auditory hallucinations. That is, hearing sounds, voices, music and things that aren’t actually there. Sometimes this can be very frightening and disturbing for the person affected, and for their loved ones too.
During my late 20s, when OCD was dominating my life, I would have the following experience about once a month.
The scenario would usually be at home. I would be doing some chores, working on my computer, or simply staring out the window. The house would typically be quiet, as would the neighbourhood. And then I would hear it. Distant, pretty music. It often sounded like wind chimes. I would ask my husband “Can you hear that music?” and his answer would always be no. I would then spend some time describing the music and trying to work out where it might be coming from. Eventually it would stop. I did note that the music always sounded the same, that only I seemed to be able to hear it and that it was always distant and difficult to determine from where it was coming.
This went on for years and I never gave it much thought. I’m lucky my auditory hallucinations were occasional and pleasant. This is not the case for some people.
When I first started working with my naturopath, who has extensive experience helping people affected by OCD, one of the many careful questions she asked me around my health and symptoms was “Do you ever experience auditory hallucinations?” It was an ‘a-ha!’moment. I replied yes, nothing scary, but I regularly hear distant, mysterious music that no one else seems to hear.
My auditory hallucinations were one of many, previously seemingly unconnected symptoms, that disappeared once I’d been treating my OCD using nutritional and herbal medicine for several months. When having one of my follow-up sessions with my naturopath she shared a few anonymous anecdotes with me about previous clients of hers who had also experienced auditory hallucinations – hearing voices when no one was there, hearing people calling their name. One client, a young man who was a star football player, had at first wept in her office because he thought he was crazy, then wept with relief when he was reassured that this was not the case - that his symptoms were potentially caused by nutritional deficiency.
So, what can be one of the causes of auditory hallucinations?
According to the late Carl Pfeiffer, MD, a pioneer in the field of nutritional medicine for mental health, auditory hallucinations are one of many symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency. B vitamins are so important for the structure and function of the nervous system. B12 is particularly important for formation and maintenance of the myelin sheath, the fatty coating on our nerves.
In his book Mental and Elemental Nutrients, Pfeiffer lists other symptoms of B12 deficiency as follows.
However, as J MacDonald Holmes, MD, noted in his 1956 paper in the British Medical Journal, Cerebral Manifestations of Vitamin B12 Deficiency, many of these symptoms do not indicate a specific illness without doubt. Thus, B12 deficiency may not be considered until symptoms become more severe.
In Mental and Elemental Nutrients, Pfeiffer cites a 1969 study by H Wieck et al, titled Psychoses as a manifestation of B12 deficiency, where B12 deficiency was found in 58% of 138 cases (that’s 138 patients) of functional psychoses (disturbance in thought or emotion not caused by head injury or intoxication) and decreased mental function.
It is important to note that B vitamins are most easily absorbed by the body when we have good levels of ALL the B vitamins (the B-complex normally includes: B1, 2, 3, 5, 6, B9/folate, and B12). B12 also requires adequate amounts of vitamins A and E and biotin for absorption. Furthermore, many B vitamin supplements (particularly those found in supermarkets and some health stores) contain synthetic forms of B vitamins that can actually be harmful to human health.
Some substances that deplete B12 in the human body are alcohol, copper, lead, mercury (such as amalgam dental fillings), chemicals in cigarettes, some prescription drugs (antacids, laxatives, anticoagulants, drugs for gout and diabetes, for example), and the bacteria Helicobacter Pylori. In addition, some genetic defects can adversely affect metabolism of B vitamins (that is, the body’s ability to use B vitamins for function, repair and growth). Finally, Celiac disease, weakened digestion, low production of stomach acid (hydrochloric acid), low production of intrinsic factor in the stomach, and the use of oral contraceptive pills can all impair B12 absorption in the human body.
If you or someone you love is experiencing auditory hallucinations, consider that vitamin B12 deficiency may be one of the causes, as well as general deficiency in all B vitamins or in the synergistic minerals. Blood serum tests may not be useful as these give no indication of tissue stores of a nutrient. I recommend seeing a nutritionist experienced in treating mental health.
While only a small amount of B12 is needed by the body each day, active B12 is found solely in animal proteins such as meat and eggs. Vegans, vegetarians and those eating little protein (such as the poor) are more at risk of B12 deficiency, and it is possible that some individuals may require greater amounts of B12 because we are all biochemically individual - we all have somewhat different body chemistry, and different life experiences that affect our biochemistry.
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