OK, once again we're compelled to man the battle stations in full damage control mode as the medical establishment and the media unleash yet another savage attack on supplements. Headlines are screaming: Vitamins Lack Clear Health Benefits, May Pose Risks and Should We Toss Our Vitamins?
You get the idea. Paul Offit, author of a new anti-alternative medicine book sarcastically titled Do You Believe in Magic has been given unfettered access to the New York Times Op-Ed pages. In his latest screed, Skip the Supplements, he offers as settled science that “until the day comes when medical studies prove that these supplements have legitimate benefits, and until the F.D.A. has the political backing and resources to regulate them like drugs, individuals should simply steer clear.”
This reveals a transparent agenda in which mainstream medical “authorities,” pro-regulatory forces within government, Big Pharma, and their compliant enablers in the media have joined forces to campaign for tighter controls on supplements. If they were to have their way, most supplements would be banned or priced out of existence.
Small, innovative companies that develop new products would cease to exist. The only players left standing would be major companies in the pharmaceutical cartel who have the deep pockets to get drugs approved—a process that routinely costs hundreds of millions of dollars for each new medication.
Not that this regulatory scheme has truly safeguarded the American public from calamity. The Museum of Failed Drugs is littered with examples of killer medications that have passed muster with the FDA, only to be found years later to be so hazardous that they’ve been belatedly banned.
In what universe do the authorities tell consumers to “stop taking supplements” when they:
- Approve drugs for the treatment of cancer that cost tens of thousands of dollars per year that extend the lives of cancer patients by mere weeks without even the slimmest prospects of definitive cure?
- Allow the indiscriminate use of over-the-counter painkillers that routinely cause liver and kidney failure, severe gastrointestinal side effects, and increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes?
- Refuse to ban artificial food flavoring, preservative and coloring ingredients with a slew of known side effects?
- Recommend statin drugs for 75 million Americans on the scantest evidence that they help healthy people who are, merely by arbitrary criteria, considered “at risk”?
- Prescribe powerful psychoactive drugs to 15% of our youngsters who are deemed “bipolar” or “ADHD”?
Clearly there’s a double standard at work here.The new studies uncritically ballyhooed by the mainstream press appear in the latest edition of the Annals of Internal Medicine. Without going into exhaustive and boring statistical and methodological details, here are some of the problems with the Annals articles:
1. Several are “meta-analyses” which are subject to cherry-picking by the authors.
Innumerable studies touting the benefits of supplements were deemed not worthy of inclusion in the statistical analysis—bias, anyone?
2. We don't have enough information about the patients.
The compliance of patients within the studies is far from clear. Recall studies are notoriously unreliable, and patients asked to take supplements in experiments seldom follow instructions. It may be that the very people who take supplements in some of these studies are sicker to begin with, or who have hereditary health problems that prompt them to take supplements for protection
3. The quality of most of the supplements evaluated is questionable.
Bargain-basement multis contain minimal amounts of key nutrients, often in the least bio-available forms. Beta carotene as vitamin A, and d-alpha tocopherol as E, are obsolete forms of nutrients that should be offered in natural, full-spectrumforms.
4. One of the Annals studies claims to demonstrate vitamins are not beneficial, when the aim of the study was to study chelation therapy, not vitamins.
In fact, when vitamins were combined with chelation, they significantly boosted the benefits of chelation.
5. Huge studies like this tend to overlook benefits of supplements for certain subgroups of individuals.
In other words, while supplements may not show dramatic protective effects in healthy people, they may offer therapeutic effects for sick patients. This has been convincingly demonstrated for conditions like AIDS, inflammatory bowel disease, or when drugs deplete critical nutrients.
6. Most studies were not done over long periods of time.
While many of these studies followed vitamin takers for a long time, it may be impossible to assess the full benefits of vitamins in studies that don’t comprise several decades.
7. The benefits of vitamins may not be captured by raw disease and mortality statistics.
Many vitamin users report more robust health, energy, and freedom from minor ailments that are difficult to quantitate in studies. The theme of much of the press coverage of the “Vitamins Don’t Work” story has been to prioritize eating a healthy diet over popping supplements—and there I wholeheartedly agree.
There are ineffable properties of natural foods that we are hard-pressed to isolate in synthetic supplements. But the editorialists at the Annals go way overboard. In a rabid display of partisan non-objectivity, they opine that all supplements are a worthless, or even harmful; and furthermore, that we should abandon research on supplement efficacy as a waste of money—“Case closed,” they prematurely declare.
That’s a little like saying that merely because a high percentage of cancer patients still succumb to their disease, we should decline to fund additional cancer research.
The real take home message of the Annals studies is that our old conception of the A-B-C vitamins may be too limited. These days, I’m much more excited about unique nutrients like Coenzyme Q10, and potent extracts of plants like EGCG from green tea, curcumin from turmeric, and resveratrol from grapes, just to name a few.
It’s unfair, unscientific and downright retro to cast aspersions on supplements based on outmoded 20th Century multivitamins when the 21st Century is brimming with exciting nutraceutical possibilities.
So don’t stop taking your supplements, and stay tuned for the latest developments.
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