Vitamin Controversy

Dr. Zoltan P. Rona

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE RESEARCH AND PROPAGANDA

Attacks on the natural health care industry are accelerating. In fact, these attacks by government and Big Pharma are expected to increase in the years to come, mostly as a result of growing public interest in alternatives to harmful chemicals and prescription drugs.

Some of these are overt – for example, the banning of harmless supplements like Nattokinase by Health Canada about a year ago. Many, however, are covert – such as the publication of fraudulent research on vitamins and other natural health products.

Unscrupulous drug company marketers and their paid medical allies are increasingly using negative propaganda. Their unexpressed purpose is to convince the public to stop using nutritional supplements instead of drugs. Yet drugs are the third leading cause of death, while deaths due to supplements are non-existent. The drug companies are trying very hard to make us forget that fact. By the way, Health Canada, the mouthpiece for the drug industry, still has no adequate explanation as to why it banned Nattokinase, a harmless alternative to dangerous prescription blood thinners.

The only reason that I can see for this growing tendency to attack the supplement industry is financial.  It is not because the naysayers have any true concern for your health. Sales of nutritional supplements in North America are expanding at what drug companies perceive to be an alarming rate, and this has Big Pharma concerned.

In 2012, the supplement industry sold over $12 billion worth of products. Yet, this still pales in comparison to the sales volume of the drug companies. For example, the drug Abilify, used to treat psychotic disorders, alone had $6.4 billion in sales in 2012.

Misleading the Public with Meta-Analysis of Flawed Studies

A recent example of the smear campaign against nutritional supplements is the rather alarmist and grossly misleading study on multivitamins published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in December 2013. I received such a large number of frightened phone calls and letters from people because of this report just after the Christmas holidays that I thought it deserved to be addressed in this article.

The editorial in this journal, written by five doctors, alleges that multivitamins are ineffective at preventing disease. Further, it went on to claim that taking vitamins could actually be harmful to your health. All this was based on a meta-analysis (a study based on other studies) and not on double-blind, placebo-controlled research. The media put it on the front page of just about every news broadcast and newspaper in the country.

The deceptive thing about this is that the authors did not base their conclusions on any new research, but instead based their comments on an assortment of previously published, flawed, negative studies on multivitamins, conveniently grouping them together to yield the negative conclusions.

This tactic is very misleading and can be used in myriad ways. For example, as many have pointed out, one can cherry-pick dozens of studies that show no link between cancer and tobacco smoking, and make it seem like it’s quite all right to continue smoking cigarettes. However, such meta-studies can be useful only if the researchers quote all the studies (positive and negative) to draw their conclusions.

In 2004, a similar scare was created with a cherry-picked meta-analysis of vitamin E, declaring it to be associated with a greater death risk of cardiovascular disease. What the authors failed to disclose was the fact that the studies in question all used synthetic vitamin E (dl-alpha tocopherol). To say that the conclusion here was misleading is an understatement. The end result was that many cardiovascular disease patients who were doing just fine on high dose, natural source vitamin E (mixed tocopherols) got frightened of taking the supplement and abruptly discontinued its use.

Also, in 2008 a study claimed that calcium supplementation could increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. This study too was grossly deceptive because, like other nutrients, calcium is interdependent on numerous other factors including the levels of vitamins, other minerals, hormones, the health of the digestive system and the degree of physical activity. To make an overly simplified pronouncement based on one factor, namely calcium supplementation, without looking at the numerous other variables in calcium biochemistry and nutrition, can only lead to erroneous conclusions. Yet, when this study was published there was no mention of these facts and the general public became frightened of using any supplement containing even trace amounts of calcium.

Sure, it’s possible that calcium supplements without a proper diet, enough physical activity, and in the presence of magnesium and vitamin D deficiency leads to heart disease.  But, does this mean that all middle-aged women should stop taking calcium supplements? I think not. It simply means that calcium supplements without a balance of magnesium and other nutrients can lead to heart problems. Unfortunately, the people who published this information failed to give the public the whole story.

The Real Story

In the 1950s, doctors acted as advertising spokespersons for cigarettes. They appeared on TV and in print media extolling the virtues of cigarette smoking to help people overcome anxiety, shyness, and other imagined ills. Instead of cigarettes, conventional doctors now advise you to take Prozac, statin drugs, immunosuppressives and NSAIDS. Unfortunately, they also tell you that vitamin supplements are worthless. Who’s kidding whom?

If you had one study which concluded that cigarette smoking prevents inflammation and 1000 studies that proved the opposite, which would you believe? When it comes to taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement, the analogy is the same. On the one hand you have hundreds of published studies verifying the numerous benefits of supplementing with a multivitamin, while on the other hand you have a significantly flawed study that says the opposite.

Contrary to what has been reported by the media about the dangers of various nutrient supplements over the years, the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of nutrients in published scientific studies is very encouraging. Unfortunately, few of these studies ever reach headline status and are quickly forgotten. So, let me review some of this evidence:

VITAMIN C and E: Several large population studies in the 1990s demonstrated significant reductions in heart disease in those supplementing vitamin C and E. The best known of these studies came from UCLA which evaluated over 11,000 men over a 10 year period. It showed that men who took 800 mg a day of vitamin C lived 6 years longer than those who only consumed 60 mg a day of vitamin C. In effect this is a reduction of cardiovascular mortality of 42%.

Studies that use inadequate doses of vitamin C will almost always fail to show any major benefit and mislead the public. In positive studies, the cardiovascular benefits of vitamin C can usually be seen only when the doses used are at least 1,000 to 6,000 mg daily.  In Linus Pauling’s research, the correct recommended heart attack preventive doses were between 10,000 and 20,000 mg daily. Clearly, the amount of vitamin C used in the most recent negative study (500 mg) was not nearly enough.

MULTIVITAMINS – Getting back to multivitamin and mineral supplements, the Physician’s Health Study II (PHS-II) found that taking a multiple was associated with an 8% reduction in overall cancer incidence and a 12% reduction in cancer deaths after over 11 years of follow up. The PHS-II study also found a 39% reduction in fatal heart attack risk in those taking a multivitamin.

Further, the Supplementation in Vitamins and Mineral Antioxidants Study (SU.VI.MAX) found a 31% reduction in total cancer incidence in men that supplemented with a multivitamin.

In a 2012 study on 23,943 subjects who took antioxidant vitamin supplements over an average of 11 years, the individuals who used antioxidant multivitamins were 48% less likely to die from cancer and 42% less likely to die due to any cause compared to non-users of antioxidant vitamins.

VITAMIN B COMPLEX – A 2013 study done on 88,045 postmenopausal women reported that vitamin B6 and riboflavin intake from diet and supplements reduces the risk of colorectal cancer in postmenopausal women. A 2007 study of 81,184 subjects found that low vitamin B6 intake is associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer.
 

SELENIUM – Another 2013 study of 77,446 men and women aged 50 to 76 found an inverse relationship between dietary selenium and the risk of pancreatic cancer. All these nutrients are found in virtually any multivitamin and mineral supplement.

In conclusion, there is a great deal of published evidence to support daily vitamin and mineral supplementation. Don’t be a victim of phony media propaganda. Before you decide to stop all your nutrient supplements, take a real look at the data. It in no way supports the contention that supplemental nutrients are worthless.


References

  • Preliminary rebuttal against recent attacks against dietary supplements.
  • Flawed research used to attack multivitamin supplements.
  • Stop wasting money on supplements.
  • Drugs are the Third Cause of Death.
  • Lamas GA, Boineau R, Goertz C, et al. Oral High-Dose Multivitamins and Minerals After Myocardial Infarction. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2013;159(12).
  • Grodstein F, O’Brien J, Kang JH, et al. Long-Term Multivitamin Supplementation and Cognitive Function in Men: The Physicians’ Health Study II. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2013;159(12).
  • Guallar E, Stranges S, Mulrow C, Appel LJ. Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2013;159(12):850-852.
  • Smith AD, Smith SM, de Jager CA, et al. Homocysteine-lowering by B vitamins slows the rate of accelerated brain atrophy in mild cognitive impairment. PloS One. 2010;5(9):e12244.
  • Sardesai VM. Role of antioxidants in health maintenance. Nutrition in clinical practice: official publication of the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition. Feb 1995;10(1):19-25.
  • Olson CR, Mello CV. Significance of vitamin A to brain function, behavior and learning. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research. Apr 2010;54(4):489-495.
    (Ed: for the complete reference list, see extended version posted at http://www.vitalitymagazine.com)

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