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Medicine’s Latest Step Backwards

Posted 10/17/2011

“Vitamins linked to higher odds of early death in older women,” the headlines screamed last week.

I finished an anxious call from my 88-year-old Aunt Hildy. Once peacefully ensconced in her Florida condo, now, after seeing a TV news report that vitamins were dangerous when used by women over 62, Hildy was eyeing with great suspicion the field of supplements spread across her kitchen countertop.

Already I’d received a dozen or so emails from worried patients, all of whom I reassured the same way: Your supplements are fine. Just make sure you’re not taking any iron. And watch less TV. Nothing new here on iron–we’ve known the risks of too much iron in men and post-menopausal women for years. That’s because iron is a pro-oxidant (the very opposite of an antioxidant) that can increase your risk for heart disease and damage to arteries.

It’s essential to note that buried in the final paragraph of the article in question (which appeared in Archives of Internal Medicine, October 10, 2011) is the following: “It is not advisable to make a causal statement of excess risk based on these observational data.”  What this basically means is “Hey, these are the numbers and they’re just numbers. They aren’t people and we’re not sure exactly how to apply them to real people.” In other words, they want you to be deeply impressed that they’ve spent 2½ decades on this project even though there’s nothing (except for the iron bit) really worth taking seriously.

Unfortunately, the news media (and whoever wrote the editorial mentioned below) are taking it very seriously.

So it boils down to this: Now that we’ve frightened the pants off you, don’t jump to any hasty conclusions. The researchers grudgingly admit that after attempting to track the nutritional supplement habits of 38,772 women (with an average starting age of 62) beginning in 1986 and all the way until 2008, all they confirmed were two hard facts that doctors had already known about for years. Namely, that iron is bad for you unless you need it, and calcium is good for you. All their other findings are very iffy.

What about the other supplements they were tracking?
The researchers asked all the women about their use of multiple vitamins, vitamin A, beta carotene, B-6, folic acid, B complex, C, D, E, iron, calcium, copper, magnesium, selenium, and zinc. Although the media make a big point of the appearance of a worsened mortality among supplement users, there were simply too many “confounding variables” to draw any reasonable conclusions.

A confounding variable is some piece of information about the participants in the study that skews the results. The confounding variables in this study might include income (supplements cost money many people don’t have), nutritional habits, social support network, exercise, and their overall sense of well-being.

Also, understand that the study would classify a woman using supplements who remained healthy and fit until her death at 88 as being worse off than a woman who didn’t use supplements and who died at 92 after two decades of debilitating chronic illness.  Remember, they tracked a group of women as they aged from 62 to 90 and many died along the way. Rather than base the study on “longevity,” I myself would have chosen “quality and longevity.”

Let’s do some serious thinking about the real reason a study like this was published. Here’s an excerpt from the same concluding paragraph in the article: “We see little justification for the general and widespread use of dietary supplements.” This conclusion was reached only because there didn’t seem to be any longevity benefits from taking supplements.

But let’s face it, by the time you’ve reached your 80s or 90s, it’s unrealistic to expect your supplements to add more years. A far more realistic expectation might be an improvement in quality of life. Unfortunately, no one asked. And thus no one heard potential responses like supplement users feeling “pretty darn good, considering I’m 90” or non-supplement users responding with a plaintive chorus of “Oy veh, don’t ask.

Please don’t miss this next piece, from the same journal’s editorial on the article: “We cannot recommend the use of vitamin and mineral supplements as a preventive measure, at least not in a well-nourished population. Therefore, we believe that politicians and regulatory authorities should wake up to their responsibility to allow only safe products on the market.” (Italics mine.)

At this point, I need to pause for a deep breath, slow my beating heart, and stop hyperventilating. Now for a few facts.

  • First: We are not a “well-nourished population.” We are an overweight and nutritionally deficient population with a 20% childhood poverty rate. In addition, we have so capitulated our nutrition to the food industry and big agribusinesses that much of what we do eat has been grown in depleted soil and is so highly processed (refined) that we’re chewing and swallowing nutritional emptiness.
  • Second: There are thousands of studies published in medical journals worldwide that repeatedly demonstrate the benefits of nutritional supplements. Arguably the world’s expert on this subject, Alan Gaby, MD, has devoted his entire professional career to accumulating data and teaching physicians about nutritional medicine. His cat-crusher of a textbook, Nutritional Medicine, is the result of three decades of work and contains 15,000 references from conventional medical journals to back up his data. Although Nutritional Medicine has been very well-reviewed in naturopathic and integrative medical journals, it’s been completely ignored by mainstream journals like JAMA and Archives of Internal Medicine. Medical students are taught virtually nothing about using nutritional supplements to prevent and treat illness. Most people will learn more about nutritional medicine from their chiropractor, naturopath, or any issue of Life Extension Magazine than they ever will from their doctor. Why are doctors so ignorant about nutrition? Let’s move on.
  • Third: Returns us to a topic near and dear to me—Big Pharma. You likely already understand that medical journals are virtually controlled by Big Pharma. Most journals would simply disappear without sponsorship from the pharmaceutical industry. A large part of this control includes their power over editorial content, a topic pursued at length in the chilling book by former New England Journal of Medicine editor Marcia Angell, MD, The Truth About Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What To Do About It. As I’ve related in previous health tips, Big Pharma wants control over the nutritional industry probably a whole lot more than it wants to discover a cure for cancer. Placing the supplement industry under the control of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) would essentially mean handing the reins to Big Pharma. Imagine Big Pharma’s delight if your Centrum Multiple (along with every other supplement and herb) were available only by doctor’s prescription and at 20 times the current price.

What better way to take over the nutritional industry than alarm the public with articles like this ridiculous “older-women-mortality-rate” study and alert nutritionally ignorant US physicians to demand their elected officials “Do something!” Like the sound of shifting your nutritional supplement choices over to the most clueless people imaginable, your Congressman and your doctor?

The truth about nutritional supplements can be found not only in Dr. Gaby’s astonishingly thorough textbook, but in dozens of international medical journals and in reports by researchers not beholden to Big Pharma. Click here to subscribe (free) to Clinical Pearls and receive a sampling of the nutritional research studies published every single week. Or just read a few back issues and see for yourself.

Over the next couple of years, likely culminating with the FDA regulating all your supplements, we can expect (1) regular media reports of “research” on either the “danger” or “ineffectiveness” of supplements and (2) the source of these alleged research articles predictably to be medical journals financially supported by Big Pharma.

In the meantime, if you’re a woman past menopause or a man of any age, don’t take supplemental iron.

By the end of our conversation, I’d talked my Aunt Hildy into keeping all her supplements (all except the dust-covered ones that expired in the mid-1980s), reminding her that these supplements probably helped her outlive many of the original researchers who started this project back in 1986.

Be well,

David Edelberg, MD

Leave a Comment

  1. E Maroney says:

    Are multi-vitamins with 100% of daily iron okay? Are you just referring to excess iron?

  2. Patrice says:

    Thank you Dr. Edelberg for address this issue and directly confronting the media’s willingness to spread fear.

  3. Jim says:

    Thanks for the straight talk as usual Dr. E.! So helpful to have clarity on these issues.

  4. Jill says:

    Wow. You keep me well-informed and empowered to continue making sound nutritional choices that are noticeably improving my overall health while sustaining my belief in working for the supplement industry. The hard work on both fronts is well worth it. Thanks Dr. E.

  5. Gina Pera says:

    Kudos Dr. Edelberg!

    I don’t know how you have the energy or time to keep up with all the nonsense these days.

    But I’m really glad that you do!


  6. Gina Pera says:

    You know, I don’t detect Big Pharma behind this.

    In my experience, many scientific researchers have outright disdain for vitamins and minerals. They somehow find that these basics of biochemistry are beneath their intellect or scientific rigor. They would rather find something more “interesting” to be the cause of disease, degradation, etc.

    Plus, their diets are often awful! So, I think it’s a bit of “denial” that nutrition is a science, that they can keep eating their pizzas and drinking diet Cokes and it will all be okay. That ill health will ALL boil down to a virus or something.

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