Good, Bad or Indifferent
Or all of the above?
by Patrick Quanten MD
I woke up this morning believing a UK government warning had gone out: "Pills are a waste of money and may damage health". Then I realised it had all been a dream. Of course the government wouldn't send out a warning like that. Nevertheless, the government came close enough to the above statement. The statement read: "Vitamin pills are a waste of money and may damage health."
Of course, nobody argues with the fact that most people do not need the supplements as long as they eat a healthy balanced diet. That's good advice, except that "a healthy balanced diet" has never been defined. It is one of those things that we talk an awful lot about without actually knowing what it means.
We generally struggle to define basic principles we continually use and until we do, we can carry on throwing out generalised statements that can't be questioned or put to the test. The real value of those statements, however, is zilch. When you fail to clearly identify what you are talking about, nobody can really understand it or gain any knowledge from it. It easily leads to double standards and confusion.
- The Food Standards Agency says that consumers put their health at risk by taking too many vitamins for too long. Does the Pharmaceutical Industry inform us that taking too many prescription drugs for too long puts your health at risk?
- A ban on chromium picolinate is just around the corner on the grounds that it can cause cancer. Fair enough. No argument. Other well-known high cancer risk factors are fluoride, HRT, steroids, chemotherapy drugs, X-rays, electromagnetic fields from power cables, a whole range of food additives, preservatives and colorants, hydrogenated vegetable oils, and cigarette smoking. I am looking forward to a Government ban on all these on the same grounds.
- Other supplements are named as causing irreversible problems or side effects if taken in large amounts for a long time. Every patient information leaflet of every prescription drug gives a long list of known side effects the drug can cause, when taken in the recommended dosage.
In order to shed some light onto the subject and begin to understand what supplements are and whether or not they have a place in our lives we need to start defining the concepts we will be discussing.
What is Deficiency?
Before we can evaluate whether or not a particular person in a particular situation could benefit from supplementation, we need to clearly establish what we mean when we say that someone is "deficient" in certain areas of his/her nutrition. How can we "measure" deficiency? What is it?
Health Authorities in the Western world are keen to put out lists of what they call Recommended Dietary Allowances. Let's familiarise ourselves with this concept as the name suggests that these "food allowances", recommended by the authorities, might have something to do with the food requirements needed to avoid deficiency.
The Recommended Dietary Allowances, or RDA's, were established in 1941 in response to the threat of war. They were determined in an effort to define nutrient needs for mass-feeding programmes, in which whole populations might need to be supplied with minimal diets. These recommendations are now being applied for purposes for which they were never intended. They are no guide at all to nutritional values of food ingredients, but are a very basic and rough guide to what is required for minimal food survival packages for an entire population, not any individual in particular.
How were these nutrient requirements established? First, the mean quantity of a given nutrient that a population requires was determined according to the standard that half the people eating less than this quantity might show no signs of deficiency, and that half of those with an intake exceeding this quantity may show signs of deficiency. Next, because the mean is an estimate, to allow for variability among individuals the actual RDA is set at two standard deviations above this quantity. This adjustment is supposed to assure that 98% of all healthy persons will have their needs for a particular nutrient satisfied by the amount specified. This amount obviously exceeds by a large margin the minimal nutrient requirement for most people in the population. On the other hand, even by standards used to determine the RDA's, a full 2% of the population will suffer from a deficiency of some nutrients if they follow the RDA's.
Going beyond the question of these figures for our minimal nutrient requirements, we might want to know how much of each nutrient we need for maximum nutrition. Based on clinical, epidemiological and first-hand evidence, the scientists and physicians have noted in their clinical experience that much higher amounts of specific nutrients may be needed to bring some of us to a state of exceptional health.
It obviously isn't down to the RDA's to ensure the health of all of us. There is definitely more to it then that.
Let's summarise the general knowledge gained in the last century about health, diet and the changes made.
1. Man's body is a complex, biochemical machine that has specific requirements for health, including specific nutritional requirements. Apart from the ingredients of food, we also need air, warmth, shelter, sunlight and companionship. A deficiency of any of these essential nutrients will result in ill-health. A Western diet is characterised by dietary excesses and shortages, which have devastating effects upon the body's biochemistry and health.
2. Planet-wide dietary variations are enormous and the body's resilience is remarkable. It is amazing that the health and lifespan of those who are underfed, or indeed overfed, are not worse than the average.
3. A truly healthy or optimum diet has never been fully defined. It is true to say that no portion of the human race has lived on a completely healthy or optimum diet for any great length of time, if ever at all.
4. The rapidity of change in Western eating habits is unprecedented and undoubtedly accounts for many diseases affecting Western man. Before the development of modern technology dietary changes only occurred slowly. Botanical research and modern farming methods have made possible the introduction of new types and large quantities of foods into our food supply. Many of these don't reach us in an unadulterated form. Significant quantities of minerals and vitamins are lost in the process of refining and processing of foods. The more we interfere with food, the greater the potential for health risks is.
5. The majority of diets are influenced by market forces and, in the West, by advertising rather than by scientific recommendation. Food manufacturers have to make a profit. This means that they have to put the interests of their shareholders first, rather than altruistically providing the best foods for their customers.
6. What is a healthy diet for one individual or population may not necessarily be so for other individuals or populations. There is real truth in the old saying, "One man's meat is another man's poison". A failure to appreciate individual variation in biochemistry has resulted in many members of the medical profession dismissing diet as a major factor in disease.
7. An "average" or normal diet is not necessarily a healthy one. Repeated dietary surveys show that in many groups the intake of essential nutrients is low or borderline.
8. Anyone who is ill, or just has symptoms, has a different nutritional requirement from the times when he/she is perfectly healthy. The presence of symptoms or an illness indicates an imbalance in the health status of that individual, changing his/her requirements for nutrition.
So, stop believing that there is such a thing as a healthy diet, fixed and unchangeable, good for every one.
Defining a healthy, balanced diet and a nutritional deficiency is proving a bit of an impossible task. Before we go on to where that leaves us in terms of knowing what to consume to support our body in its effort to be healthy, we will need a greater understanding of what actually causes a nutritional deficiency.
General Causes of Deficiency
Whether or not an individual is deficient in one or more nutrients depends on a lot more than just the amount taken in the diet, let alone the RDA. There are four main factors that influence nutritional status:
Ø Biochemical individuality
Ø The quality of the food we eat
Ø The quantity of the food we eat
Ø The efficiency of digestion, absorption and utilisation
It is now widely accepted that health is an individual matter. We are all different in many ways and what is good for one today may not be good for another today, nor may it be good for the same person tomorrow. We are different and things change all the time. Yet our healthcare system is based on the presumption that we are all the same and nothing ever changes. This is, simply put, bizarre.
The medical profession fully accepts that such an assumption has to be false, but carries on playing the number-game. Everything they do hinges on statistics. If more people report being better whilst receiving a certain treatment, then it must be good for everybody. Well, we know, and they know, that this isn't true, but at least you feel your "chances" of getting better have increased. But does it make a substantial difference to you personally? Let's look at a fictional risk of getting a mutilating and crippling disease of 1 in 10 million. To doctors that is a very low risk and consequently, to the healthcare system, a low priority. For the individual who gets the disease, the risk is 1 in 1 as he/she actually has the disease, and the healthcare provisions paramount. So, in order to increase successful healthcare it must be considered on an individual basis. That, however, the medical profession classifies as anecdotal: a friendly term, meaning "meaningless to us". But can we ever know an individual's risk as opposed to a statistical risk for the whole population? Can we with reasonable accuracy predict the likely problems an individual is heading for?
That, I am afraid, will take us far away from vitamins and mineral supplements, and will therefore have to wait. Suffice it to say, don't turn your back on the old knowledge that "nothing is impossible".
The Quality of Food
Dieticians know exactly how many calories there are in a tomato, what the concentration is of all the main ingredients, and how many we all should have as part of our healthy diet. What the Western world seems to have failed to take note of, is that a tomato grown in England is different from one grown in Italy and one from Mexico. Why? Because everything that makes the tomato what it is, is different: the climate, the quality of sunlight, the soil, the water and the air. The most important ingredient in the quality of our food is how and where it is grown. (link to Healthy Food)
Next is what we do to our food after we have grown it. Do we eat it fresh from the soil or the plant? Do we send it away to be sterilised, vacuum packed or frozen, to be preserved, so we have time to move the food to a great number of places over vast distances?
Not so long ago scientific research showed that the majority of our fruit and vegetables are seriously devoid of vitamins and minerals. It was reported in the popular press under the heading "There is no vitamin C in your orange!" The main reason for the appalling deficiencies is said to be the harvesting of unripe fruit and vegetables, which are then left to "ripen" either during their long transportation halfway across the world, or in cooling units. The lack of a natural environment prohibits the food to become what it was meant to be. The other reason for the general poor state of our pretty-looking fruits and vegetables is the poor quality soil they are grown in, which is a direct result of many years of artificial fertilisation and forced growth.
The Quantity of Food
Dependency on large amounts of refined foods is known to lead to malnutrition, even when there is no undernutrition. If nutrient-dense foods such as whole grains and unprocessed foods are replaced by processed foods that have been stripped of essential nutrients, there will obviously be an alteration of the nutritional status of the person who eats them.
Digestion, Absorption, Utilisation
An individual whose digestive system is inefficient is more likely to have a poor nutritional status than someone with an efficient digestive system. This might seem obvious, yet it is widely overlooked by health professionals and the public alike. "A bit of indigestion; ... suffer from wind; ...bouts of loose stools or constipation", are all mild but definite indications that the digestion is not working properly. Consequently, the food does not get broken down properly; nutrients are lost, resulting in possible nutritional deficiency.
Certain conditions of the intestine reduce the efficiency with which digested foods are absorbed. Examples of these are food allergies such as gluten intolerance, which alters the inner lining of the gut, or polyps, diverticulosis and Crohn's disease. Besides this, the presence of other substances in the diet can prevent certain nutrients from being absorbed properly. For example, tea and coffee reduce the absorption of zinc and iron. Bran fibres can reduce the absorption of calcium, iron and zinc. Foods in their natural status, non-refined, have a combination of substances within them that will aid the process of digestion and absorption. These substances are generally referred to by medical authorities as "impurities".
Some people may also have metabolic abnormalities that prevent the body from efficiently utilising the nutrients that are there. These metabolic problems can be caused by genetic factors, food intolerance, other nutrient deficiencies, food toxins and environmental pollution such as certain pesticides.
Now that we have looked at what constitutes a deficiency, what causes it and how the quality of our food plays a vital role in the nutritional status of the individual, we can move on to the place of supplementation in our diet.
Scientific Reasons for Supplements
As repeated scientific studies have shown the importance of nutritional factors in the prevention and treatment of diseases, it is now taken for granted by doctors and scientists that diet is a major factor in the diseases of the Western world. However, when it comes to the consequent treatment, we find that this is largely ignored in favour of the drug approach. There is no financial reward for sending people home with advice on dietary habits, herbs and home-made remedies. It also demystifies disease and penetrates the wall of jargon and complexity the medical profession has created around itself in order to claim the sole possession of the wisdom of health and disease patterns.
Some of the commonest diseases of civilisation include heart disease, high blood pressure, dental caries, obesity, diverticulosis, gallstones, appendicitis, gout, varicose veins, strokes, diabetes and cancer. They are all more common in the Western world than elsewhere. We produce more of these diseases than anyone else, yet we claim to know how to combat them!
As well as these very serious conditions, many non-killing diseases that beset technologically advanced countries may also be linked to food. These include asthma, eczema and other allergies, chronic degenerative diseases such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, and mental illness. There is increasing, indeed, overwhelming evidence that many of these conditions, if not all, can be prevented and treated by nutritional means. Many sectors of the public have been quick to catch on to the importance of nutrition in such conditions, but the medical profession as a whole has been somewhat slower. It is unthinkable that the enormous number of people across the Western world who are using nutritional supplements, and the vast amount of money spent on them, could have developed on the back of nobody finding any benefit from it. As the medical profession has failed to deliver on their promise of eliminating diseases, the population has over the years more and more turned to where it all began; "you are what you eat."
On top of that, ironically it is our own scientific evidence that has given more substance to the knowledge that food and its quality is of vital importance. It is the Western science that discovered the vitamins and, later on minerals and their precise role. In further experiments it was established how individual treatment protocols with these supplements could influence disease patterns. Some of this research resulted in Nobel prizes for individuals such as Linus Pauling (Vitamin C), but in many cases the establishment had to resort to distancing themselves from their heroes when these people started to turn out even more astounding results from vitamin, mineral and essential element research. Linus was a hero when he researched Vitamin C and the Common Cold; he became a muddled, confused geriatric to the establishment when he published his studies on Vitamin C and Cancer.
It is our research that has listed vitamins and crucial elements and has discovered their function, as well as the impact of various concentrations when taken as supplements. A comprehensive list can easily be found in the extensive literature on the subject but it is of interest just to pick some out for the purpose of this dissertation.
o Vitamin A: infection fighter, skin protector
o Carotenoids: cancer and heart protectors, antioxidants
o Vitamin B 12: the vitality shot
o Choline and Lecithin: nerve rebuilder
o Inositol: nature's sleeping pills
o Pantethine/Pantothenic Acid: better than cholesterol pills
o Biotin: diabetes benefactor
o Magnesium: the heart's most important mineral
o Zinc: immune booster, wound healer
o Copper: arthritis reliever
o Chromium: blood sugar balancer
Benefits and effects have long been established and one has to question why all of the sudden these supplements have come under attack.
Why Fighting against Disease Busters?
As research continued into the effects of supplementation of our diet, reports emerged one after the other of fantastic results in areas where not only the medical profession was struggling, but where they categorically had stated that there was no cure. Research showed that high dosages of Vitamin C could stave off cancer, in some cases reverse it. Impossible! Beta-carotene was hailed as the most essential tool in the natural cancer treatment cupboard with well-conducted tests showing a massive reduction in cancer growth and in many cases "cancer-cures". Not only impossible, but also plain ridiculous!
As the pressure was growing on the mainstream medical authorities to take more notice of these studies, they decided to do their own. They did not want to speak to anybody who was involved in this kind of research, but instead set off on their own. Within a short period of time they were happy to announce that each of these reports was rubbish and that their "repeated" experiments had failed to show any improvement at all when using supplements like Vitamin C or Beta-carotene in cancer patients. Complaints from the established researchers in the field about the flaws in the set-up of the official studies and in some cases the use of inferior supplements were ignored and silenced. Massive media campaigns put the medical authorities firmly in control again. And yet, their problem hasn't gone away. It keeps rearing its ugly head. Then there is nothing else to be done but to make the use of these substances totally illegal, which will put an end to any research into this matter and consequently a stop to continual reports of beneficial effects.
You think I am exaggerating? Here are just a few examples, which have been well documented in the literature and are important to us in order to reach sensible conclusions.
When we go back in time and look at Linus Pauling's studies about the effects of Vitamin C on the immune system and, later on, more specifically on the cancer process, we cannot fail to be impressed by the results. Not only did he stand by his results, but many others also replicated his results. Yet, when the medical hierarchy decided it was time to "once and for all" prove that the man was a lunatic, some twenty years after he had rocked the scientific boat, they could only report that Vitamin C made no difference whatsoever in cancer patients. In hindsight, an important factor in all of this is the Vitamin C itself. Have a look on the bottle of your Vitamin C supplement and it will tell you that Vitamin C is ascorbic acid. True Vitamin C, however, is ascorbate! Furthermore, the success of the C complex can be attributed to the fact that the natural resources, which Linus was also using, contain synergistic components, such as rutin and other bioflavonoids, a copper enzyme, and other factors. None of these are found in standard-issue synthetic Vitamin C, which has been in general use since 1934.
Our obsession with finding the one "active ingredient" keeps hindering our progress in understanding how nature really works. About twenty years ago, even doctors were advising their patients to take Evening Primrose Oil for menstrual problems and it became so popular that it was brought onto the market in our favourite form, a pill. Very popular with patients as well as general practitioners, but disaster was about to strike. The authorities felt that it was essential to find the active ingredient as combination drugs are shunned by the industry regulator. And they found it! The Evening Primrose pill was still sold as Evening Primrose but now only containing one of the ingredients. Effectiveness dropped dramatically, even to the point that as a general practitioner one could not miss the number of women coming back asking to try something else, as this particular supplement did not make any difference. Stripped down to the active ingredient, the ingredient loses its activity.
Hundreds of studies were published demonstrating that people with higher beta-carotene levels had impressive protection against all forms of cancer, heart disease, macular degeneration and a range of other degenerative diseases. Hoffman-La Roche, the leading supplier of the nutrient at that time, confidently funded a series of studies that were expected to make their product, synthetic beta-carotene, a "must" in the lives of everyone who wanted cancer protection. Between 1994 and 1996 the studies were published, and synthetic beta-carotene laid the biggest egg in human history. How could dietary beta-carotene be of such spectacular value, while beta-carotene capsules actually seemed to make cancer prevention somewhat worse? The artificial version is inferior for two primary reasons:
o It does not contain any of the other natural carotenoids.
o Its overwhelming presence interferes with our cells' absorption of the other natural carotenoids in food. For example, the synthetic form lowers the blood's concentration of lutein, another carotenoid with its own unique health-promoting power.
The earlier conclusion that beta-carotene itself shielded us from disease was based in large part on research that didn't involve synthetic beta-carotene, but rather used natural supplements or natural food sources of the nutrient, such as fresh carrot juice. This distinction is usually not mentioned. Equally important is the usually disregarded fact that the carotenoids are fat-soluble nutrients. For optimal absorption and use in the body, they need to be consumed with some fat containing food; a problem in our "fat-free diet society".
Similar stories confuse the matter right across the board, leaving the ordinary person totally bewildered as to what is good and not so good for them. Another problem that follows on from the inefficiency of the artificial supplement is the drive to try higher concentrations.
What to make of it all?
The arguments will carry on raging for some time to come, but here are some essential points that we can conclude from the above information.
1. Nutritional deficiencies are primarily due to the poor quality of our food products. This is a direct result of detrimental farming practices, which have depleted the natural resources of the soil and added toxic chemicals onto the food chain. Equally to blame is the industry and practice of processing our foods. Processing is only useful from the point of view of delaying the natural decaying processes in order to keep the food appearing fresh so it can be sold over longer periods of time. Refining has a similar objective, added to which is the industry's drive to isolate the "active ingredient" and consequently make the food purer. At least that's the marketing angle.
2. We are all individuals and therefore nutritional needs differ from person to person, throughout the changing seasons, and throughout the stages of life. A blanket approach to dietary requirements and nutritional supplementation must therefore be inadequate.
3. Taking supplements on an on-going basis does not reflect the changing needs of the individual. This will lead to the body having to deal with an overflow of vitamins and minerals, just as if they were toxins. The same occurs when people take very high dosages inappropriately. Even the purest and most needed substance becomes a toxin when over-used or allowed to build up inside the tissues.
4. Most of the side effects mentioned fall into one of two categories. They either relate to the body clearing the supplement out because saturation point has been reached, or they are part of a "healing crisis". The fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K are not easily cleared out of the system and have therefore always been used with a maximum known dosage. Water-soluble vitamins and minerals, however, can be easily dealt with even in high dosages. When you take too much Vitamin C, whatever that may mean for the individual, the body will start the clearing process by draining the excess via the urine. If that is inadequate, the gut will provide a powerful alternative and you will have some diarrhoea. Reducing your intake, or stopping it, will stop the symptoms.
As part of a healing crisis, one might see symptoms which result from the body healing itself. The supplement only provides the extra means; it does not have any specific drug-like effects on the system. As the body uses the extra nutrients the cellular metabolism changes and this may show up temporarily as "symptoms" induced by the supplement. From the purely biochemical and mechanistic point of view, which the medical profession holds, it is misinterpreted as a supplement-caused illness. In fact the illness was already there, and the supplement only allowed the body to do something about it. Perseverance will in these instances result in not only the disappearance of the supplement-induced symptoms but also in a significant improvement of the underlying illness.
5. The crucial point about the positive or nil effect of nutritional supplements, as the case may be, is all about quality. To put it in simple terms: artificially made products do not enhance your health, natural products do. But how can you tell the difference, as relying on company's information has proved to be somewhat tricky? I use the following rule of thumb to help me through this one. When the label lists quite clearly all ingredients with their exact concentration, it is very likely this was done in a laboratory. Extracting products directly from natural sources leaves you unaware of "other" possible ingredients in minute quantities and certainly will not give you an exact concentration figure of the substance, as the concentration in the starting product will vary and the extraction process will not produce exactly the same amount all the time either.
Finally, we can conclude that in order to prevent a nutritional deficiency or to rectify it, we need to supplement our diet. The only way to do that effectively is to use extracts from natural sources. No matter how efficient this process is and how carefully it is done, it remains a form of isolating the active ingredient. The only true supplementation is to change your dietary habits and include a wide variety of fresh, unadulterated foods, chosen for their specific qualities that will support your particular system. Supplementation, even with the highest possible quality product, remains a second best option and will never be a match for the real thing: pure, wholesome foods of the right quality and quantity for the individual's momentary needs.