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How Schizophrenia Impacts a Person's Physical Health

Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that can have a serious impact on a person’s physical health.

Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that can cause hallucinations, delusions, and abrupt changes in someone’s demeanor. It can be a challenging illness to manage, both for people who have it as well as their caregivers. Some of the biggest challenges of living with schizophrenia are the ways it can impact a person’s physical health.

Schizophrenia and health conditions
People with schizophrenia are at a greater risk for a number of serious health conditions. They are also at risk of being diagnosed with these conditions at younger ages. Some common physical health issues are:

  • Obesity
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Diabetes
  • Viral diseases
  • Osteoporosis
  • Sexual problems
  • Poor dental hygiene

What’s the connection? Having schizophrenia can make it difficult to stay consistent with many of the habits and routines that are the foundation of health and wellness—cooking, meal planning, staying physically active, dental care, hygiene, and attending preventive care appointments.

Medication side effects
Medications may be another contributing factor. Medications called neuroleptic drugs (also known as antipsychotics) are a mainstay of schizophrenia treatment. These medications can help reduce and control psychotic symptoms. Unfortunately, like every medication, they are associated with side effects. These include weight gain, drowsiness, and restlessness—weight gain in particular increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Cortisol
Another possible contributing factor is cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone.” Psychosis can increase levels of cortisol, and high levels of his hormone can increase the risk of weight gain, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Some research suggests that schizophrenia itself may directly affect the body as much as the brain.

Substance use
People with schizophrenia are also at a greater risk of substance use disorders, including the use of alcohol, nicotine, cannabis, and cocaine. The use of these substances can contribute to health issues such as heart disease and cancer. It can also contribute to worsening symptoms of psychosis. If a loved one is struggling with substance use, this is something that needs to be discussed and addressed with their healthcare providers.

Deprioritized physical health
Some studies have shown that the physical health of people with schizophrenia can be overlooked by healthcare providers. This may be due to focusing all available time and energy on treating the symptoms of the disorder. Schizophrenia can also make it difficult for a person to communicate what they are thinking and feeling—which can make it hard for a person with schizophrenia to describe physical discomfort.

Helping a loved one stay healthy
As a caregiver, you are in a position to have a significant impact on the physical health and wellbeing of your loved one with schizophrenia. Staying as healthy as possible is largely the same for someone with schizophrenia as someone without schizophrenia, and includes:

  • Preventive care appointments and wellness exams with a primary care physician, including routine blood work and vaccinations.
  • Dental hygiene, including brushing and flossing each day and regular appointments with a dentist.
  • Managing any diagnosed health conditions and keeping appointments with healthcare providers that treat those conditions.
  • Eating a balanced and nutritious diet built around lean protein, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains—and avoiding food that is high in sugar and unhealthy fats.
  • Staying physically active and exercising regularly.
  • Following a consistent sleep schedule.

Remember that your health is just as important as your loved one’s—pay attention to your own needs! Make appointments with your own healthcare providers. Spend time relaxing and doing things you enjoy. Include your loved one in your own health plan—if you want to eat healthier, find some recipes you can cook together. If you need to exercise more frequently, take walks or work out together. You might be the caregiver, but asking your loved one to support you as well can have benefits for you both.

Medically reviewed in September 2021.

Sources:
National Institute of Mental Health. "Schizophrenia."
Toby Pillinger. "Schizophrenia affects your body, not just your brain – new study." the Conversation. May 11, 2018.
Living with Schizophrenia UK. "Physical Health and Schizophrenia."
Nursing Times. "Health risks of people with schizophrenia." August 22, 2016.
Psychiatry Advisor. "Daily Living Impairments in Schizophrenia: An Overlooked Topic."
National Institutes of Health. "Targeting Health Risks in Early Stages of Schizophrenia."
Moira Connolly and Ciara Kelly. "Lifestyle and physical health in schizophrenia." Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 2018. Vol. 11, No. 2.
Lauren Thau, Jayashree Gandhi, and Sandeep Sharma. "Physiology, Cortisol." StatPearls. February 9, 2021.
Young-Hyuk Kim, Seunghyong Ryu, et al. "The Psychology of Food Cravings in Patients With First-Episode Psychosis." Frontiers in Psychiatry. December 11, 2020.
Kathleen Smith. "Schizophrenia and Substance Abuse." PSYCOM.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. "What are the other health consequences of drug addiction?"
Bernadette Winklbaur. "Substance abuse in patients with schizophrenia." Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 2006. Vol. 8, No. 1.
Lesley Roberts, Andrea Roalfe, Sue Wilson, and Helen Lester. "Physical health care of patients with schizophrenia in primary care: a comparative study." Family Practice, 2007. Vol. 24, No. 1.
David P. J. Osborn. "The poor physical health of people with mental illness." Western Journal of Medicine, 2001. Vol. 175, No. 5.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Prevent Heart Disease."
Selvi M. Das Purkayastha and JoAnn R. Gurenlian. "Oral Healthcare for Patients With Schizophrenia." Decisions in Dentistry. May 20, 2020.
Living with Schizophrenia. "Healthy Living: Schizophrenia and Diet."

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