Schizophrenia is a chronic, severe, disabling brain disease. People with schizophrenia often suffer terrifying symptoms, such as hearing internal voices not heard by others, or believing that other people are reading their minds, controlling their thoughts, or plotting to harm them. These symptoms may leave them fearful and withdrawn. Their speech and behavior can be so disorganized that they may be incomprehensible or frightening to others. Schizophrenia increases a person’s risk of suicide, self-mutilation, substance abuse, and other social problems such as unemployment, homelessness, and incarceration.

Schizophrenia is found all over the world. The severity of the symptoms and the long-lasting, chronic pattern of schizophrenia often cause a high degree of disability. Approximately 1% of the population develops this condition during their lifetime; more than 2 million Americans suffer from the illness in a given year. Although schizophrenia affects men and women with equal frequency, the disorder often appears earlier in men. Men are usually affected in their late teens or early twenties, while women are generally affected in their twenties to early thirties.

Researchers aren’t sure what causes schizophrenia. Problems with brain structure and chemistry are thought to play a role. There appears to be a strong genetic component, but some researchers believe that environmental factors may contribute. They theorize that a viral infection in infancy and/or extreme stress may trigger schizophrenia in people who are predisposed to it.

Conventional drug treatment for schizophrenia is moderately effective. While it seldom produces a true cure, it can enable a person with schizophrenia to function in society.

Untreated schizophrenia is a very dangerous disease for which there is effective treatment, and for this reason it is not ethical to perform studies that compare a hypothetical new treatment against placebo. Therefore, studies of natural treatments for schizophrenia have looked at their potential benefit for enhancing the effects of standard treatment (or minimizing its side effects). No natural treatments have been studied as sole therapy for schizophrenia.

Glycine

Up until recently, all common medications used for schizophrenia fell into a class called phenothiazines. These drugs are most effective for the "positive" symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hallucinations and delusions. (Such symptoms are called "positive" because they indicate the presence of abnormal mental functions, rather than the absence of normal mental functions.) In general, however, these medications are less helpful for the "negative" symptoms of schizophrenia, such as apathy, depression, and social withdrawal.

The supplement glycinemight be of benefit here. A clinical trial enrolled 22 participants who continued to experience negative symptoms of schizophrenia despite standard therapy.1 In this double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study, volunteers were randomly assigned to receive either 0.8 g of glycine per kg of body weight (about 60 g per day) or placebo for 6 weeks, along with their regular medications. The groups were then switched after a 2-week "wash-out" period during which they all received placebo.

Significant improvements (about 30%) in symptoms such as depression and apathy were seen with glycine when compared to placebo. Additionally, glycine appeared to reduce some of the side effects caused by the prescription drugs. Furthermore, the benefits apparently continued for another 8 weeks after glycine was discontinued.

No changes were seen in positive symptoms (for instance, hallucinations), but it isn’t possible to tell whether that is because these symptoms were already being controlled by prescription medications or whether glycine simply has no effect on that aspect of schizophrenia.

Four other small double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials of glycine together with standard drugs for schizophrenia (including the newer drugs olanzapine and risperidone) also found it to be helpful for negative symptoms.1-4

However, one small double-blind, placebo-controlled trial (19 participants) suggests that adding glycine to the drug clozapine may not be a good idea.5In this study, glycine was found to reduce the benefits of clozapine without helping to relieve the participants' negative symptoms. Lack of benefit, although no actual harm, was seen in two other double-blind, placebo-controlled trials of glycine and clozapine.6,37Another recent study not specifically limited to clozapine also failed to find benefit with glycine.43

Curiously, a natural substance (sarcosine) that blocksthe action of glycine has also shown promise for schizophrenia.34

For more information, including dosage and safety issues, see the full Glycine article.