I have to take a break from our stroll down vitamin lane to comment on a statement put out by the US Preventative Services Task Force. The statement reads that there is not enough evidence to recommend for or against vitamin and mineral supplements to prevent cancer or cardiovascular disease. They also condition this statement with the fact that it does not apply to women who are or may become pregnant, children, hospitalized patients, the chronically ill, or those with a nutritional deficiency.
I am not sure where to begin with this so I will just start with the fact that I agree with this statement, but it deeply frustrates me and it is not followed by a call to arms to mobilize all resources we have to remedy this ignorance. The fact that almost all of the vitamins and minerals have been known for over 100 years and yet still to this day we cannot recommend for or against them for the top two killers of people in America attests to the scarcity of good studies done on vitamins and minerals. These substances should have been exhausted as possible treatments LONG before we started inventing new foreign substances to put into our body to do this job. This goes to the very heart of the reason I started this blog. These studies need to be done. We should have known the answer to this long ago.
Secondly this brings up a main issue I have with much of the vitamin research that is done. Very little of it is devoted to treating illness. Often they look at large groups of healthy individuals and try to see a difference between the vitamin group and the placebo group. No pharmaceutical company would allow any of their drugs to be submitted to such research because it is really hard to make healthy people more healthy. The size and cost of a study that would have to be done to pick up the small benefit that may be conferred would not be tolerable. But this is the type of research vitamins are put through most often and not surprisingly no conclusions can be drawn from the studies.
One may notice that I comment mostly on studies looking at using vitamins, herbs or minerals to treat disease, not to maintain health. The reason for this is I feel supplementing vitamins in isolation to maintain health is likely a lost cause. Yes, a multivitamin is likely good to avoid deficiency but by itself it is unlikely to make the difference between health and disease. The reason being is that a multivitamin is amazingly incomplete. We are just in the beginning of understanding micronutrients. A multivitamin only provides a handful of the over 10,000 phytochemicals founds in plants that help us to maintain health. When you eat one single piece of fruit you are ingesting hundreds of chemicals. Each one of these interacts with the absorption and action of the others. And your body, depending on its needs at that time will increase or decrease its absorption of those chemicals at that time. Not to mention the variation in the amount of chemicals in that fruit based on the health of the soil, the ripeness of the fruit, and even the time of day it was picked. Despite this vast variation our bodies have evolved to get exactly what it needs from these plants to be healthy and active.
When a person is healthy and eating the kinds of foods they should be eating (organic fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and a small amount of lean omega 3 rich meat) it all works like an orchastra in perfect harmony. And when we come in with our mega-doses of vitamins and minerals in a untargeted way we are like a child banging on their drums trying to add something meaningful to the music. We add nothing and only cause imbalance. Drug companies know this and so they design their drugs to fix a specific problem, and do not try to design drugs that make healthy people healthier.
But that brings us to all those exceptions they mentioned (pregnant women, children, the chronically ill, hospitalized, and nutritionally deficient). This is where we need the research to know when these vitamins and minerals may play a role. The orchestra is not in harmony and needs help. We have nothing to add to an orchestra that is already playing a beautiful symphony in perfect harmony. We are no where close to the level of knowledge it will take to add anything to this. However, if the cello player is a bit off, we may be able to correct this with targeted therapy with a vitamin, mineral, herb, and if all those fail maybe then a synthetically made pharmaceutical.
Chimpanzees, our closest genetic relative on earth, demonstrate that supplements are likely not the answer to preventing cardiovascular disease and cancer. The rates of these diseases in chimps is drastically lower than in humans. They live in harmony with nature eating the diet that millions of years of evolution have evolved them to eat. They get their dizzying array of phytochemicals not in the form of supplements but in the form of over 100 different types of plants that they consume.
Our bodies are from the earth and we are made up of the same elements as the earth. We need constant replenishment of these minerals to stay alive and healthy. The only way we can keep this healthy connection to the earth is to eat healthy plants that have taken in those minerals and vitamins and incorporated them into themselves.
To date no supplement can replace this. Therefore I urge everyone not to wait for that magic supplement that will replace everything in a healthy diet. You will be waiting for a very long time. To date those 10,000 phytochemicals come in only one safe and reliable form, unprocessed, organic fruits and vegetables and other plant based foods.
However, many studies such as the ones I have highlighted in this blog have pointed toward a role for vitamins, minerals and herbs in treating disease. I just hope statements such as these put out by the USPSTF will not detract from the goal of getting the needed research done to find safer, more effective treatments that bring us back to health rather than artificially alter our bodies with chemicals our bodies are not genetically designed to handle.