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Treating depression with prescription “medical foods”

“Medical foods” aren’t vegetables or vitamin supplements – they are substances that are specifically formulated to meet unique nutrient needs that result from a specific disease or condition. They require physician supervision and are available only by prescription.

Medical foods have been developed to treat a variety of conditions, including depression, schizophrenia, insomnia and Alzheimer’s disease.

They are made of natural ingredients similar to the vitamins, minerals and amino acids used in supplements, but in concentrated, therapeutic amounts. They are usually taken in powdered mix or pill form.

One such product, Deplin®, is prescribed as an add-on treatment to antidepressants for depression, and as an add-on treatment to antipsychotics in schizophrenia. Deplin® contains L-methylfolate, which is used to manage low levels of folate, believed to be a factor in depression. L-methylfolate boosts the synthesis of the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, which are associated with mood. It’s processed by the brain immediately, faster and more effectively than folic acid or folate from one’s diet.

Food and Drug Administration requirements for medical foods are more stringent than those for supplements but much less so than those for drugs. Medical foods are not required to conduct the type of clinical trials required for drugs, however, clinical trials on Deplin® have been completed or are ongoing. Medical foods must meet FDA compliance guidelines for good manufacturing practices, registration of food facilities and truthful and non-misleading labeling. All ingredients must be “Generally Recognized As Safe” or be FDA-approved food additives.

Side effects of L-methylfolate are minimal, according to the manufacturer, and it has not been associated with weight gain, sexual dysfunction, nausea, or akathisia. It should not be taken by individuals with a known hypersensitivity to folate or folic acid.

Medical foods cost less than most drugs, but they are usually not covered under health insurance plans.

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