A long-time friend and colleague—himself an author and editor, like me—sent me an article from the July 19, 2013 issue of The Atlantic entitled “The Vitamin Myth: Why We Think We Need Supplements,” by Paul Offit.
He sent it to me because he knew I had devoted a number of years in my career to alternative medicine, and was responsible for starting the most extensive and successful line of alternative health newsletters, back in the days of print.
He commented to me: “I defer to your expertise in this area. What do you think?” This article is my long-winded attempt to answer him.
First, let me deny any expertise. I have no medical education or background. I am just a layman, with the proviso that I have read thousands more articles and attended hundreds more conferences and worked with dozens more medical practitioners than the average layman. I am tempted to say that I must be doing something right, since I am now 75 and do not take a single prescription for any physical condition. That is so unusual today that when I go into a hospital for a routine age-related checkup, such as a colonoscopy, my attending doctor will put me on exhibit to other doctors and nurses as some sort of medical oddity.
But I dare not brag, for who knows what tomorrow may bring. My good health may be just a result of picking a family with the right genetic history to be born into. And I never smoked nicotine in my life, thanks to a mother who hated smoking and our father’s addiction to it, and successfully preached total abstinence from cigarettes to her three sons. Then again, my good health—so far— may just be due to substituting lots of sex and vodka for the weed. That’s my favorite explanation.
The Atlantic’s article starts out:
“Nutrition experts contend that all we need is what’s typically found in a routine diet. Industry representatives, backed by a fascinating history, argue that foods don’t contain enough, and we need supplements. Fortunately, many excellent studies have now resolved the issue.
“On October 10, 2011, researchers from the University of Minnesota found that women who took supplemental multivitamins died at rates higher than those who didn’t. Two days later, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic found that men who took vitamin E had an increased risk of prostate cancer.”
What nonsense. There are hundreds of variables in studies like that. Unless we know how these two studies accounted for variables (and most do a pretty poor job), that statement is meaningless.
I have given up reading these articles, pro and con, about vitamins. It’s the same old, same old.
The problem is that there is very little pure research done today without an agenda. Whether the agenda is pro-vitamin or anti-vitamin, pro-alternative medicine or anti-alternative medicine, that agenda has been (at most) bought by the industry promoting that viewpoint or (at least) influenced enough by that industry to make me somewhat skeptical of the results.
Note that The Atlantic’s author refers to an “industry” behind the promotion of vitamins, while the “good guys” consist of “nutrition experts.” That in itself is a joke in the way he presents it. Yes, the vitamin industry has grown into a formidable one today, but it is still David to the Goliath that is the government-pharmaceutical-Establishment medicine industry. Mentioning David without Goliath reveals your bias, Mr. Offit.
America today has become a fascist nation. Every aspect of our public life is governed by the collusion of Big Government and Big Corporations—i.e., corporatism—and corporatism is just a nice word for fascism.
In the area of health and medicine, the participants in that fascist collusion include the federal government (the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, etc.), which sets the agenda; the American Medical Association (AMA) and the other, more specialized doctors unions; the licensing boards at all governmental levels; Big Pharma, the industry behind all those highly lucrative pills that have made Americans the most drugged people in history; the United Nations, which seeks to destroy the independent alternative movement through CODEX; the medical schools that train young recruits; and of course the corporate media, like The Atlantic. And that’s just for starters. I apologize to the other participants in the Fascist Medical Complex that I haven’t recognized.
See what I mean by David and Goliath?
Dr. Linus Pauling
Ironically, The Atlantic’s article zeroes in on Dr. Linus Pauling, the popularizer of vitamin C (and much more). I say ironically because Dr. Pauling was the Lone Ranger battling the Fascist Medical Complex in the 1970s and 80s. There was no alternative medicine industry back then; just a few valiant but lonely folk-medicine writers, and Prevention magazine. The Fascist Medical Complex, while it has grown over the years like every aspect of fascism, actually controlled the agenda in that pre-Internet era more than it does today. It was due to the force of Dr. Pauling’s independent research and ideas, not to mention his courage, that he ignited the vitamin revolution.
I first became familiar with Dr. Pauling—irony of ironies—when I was on the editorial staff of National Review and Bill Buckley went after Pauling for alleged pro-communist views. (Pauling won two Nobel prizes in his lifetime, one of them in chemistry and the other the Nobel Peace Prize. The communists and conservatives were united in considering “peace” to be a communist doctrine.) I was barely out of my teens, I idolized Bill Buckley, and of course I took the National Review line. Shame on me; President Obama will understand how impressionable we are in our “youths.” Some day I will revisit that controversy.
My next encounter with Pauling was on the medical front. I was the editorial partner in a health newsletter start-up called Modern Health Report. The publisher partner was Dan Rosenthal, whom I had met when we both worked (with other distinguished alumni like Lew Rockwell) at Neil McCaffrey’s original Arlington House and Conservative Book Club.
I was a medical virgin, having never even seen a doctor for any serious medical problem, and so my foray into health writing followed the prevalent allopathic (drugs and surgery) medical line. My unexpected conversion to alternative medicine was a result of two things: my re-introduction to Dr. Pauling and the now-forgotten DNEA controversy. (But that’s another story for another day.)
I interviewed Pauling regarding his first general-audience blockbuster, Vitamin C and the Common Cold. I became so fascinated that the interview finally extended into three issues of my monthly newsletter. For his part, he was utterly generous with the time he extended to an unknown writer with a start-up newsletter. His only requirement was that he be given prior approval regarding my presentation of his health views; he wanted no misinterpretation. I had no problem with that. I was further impressed when he came back with no substantial changes in my writing, but some prescient (and embarrassing) grammatical corrections. Any editor can appreciate the awkwardness of being corrected in your area of supposed expertise by a famous scientist, but this only increased my appreciation for Dr. Pauling. If he had not become one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century, he would have made a great copyeditor.
Reflections on the Health Field
This is supposed to be an article, not a book, so let me jump to some conclusions as an amateur in the field of health.
After a decade of starting and editing alternative health newsletters, I became somewhat jaded. Alternative practitioners start at a financial disadvantage compared to those who follow the Establishment line, so understandably they look for supplemental income, which usually comes from selling alternative pills or products. Everybody wants to sell you something. Most of the time this is legitimate, but there is always the temptation—after coming to an agreement with a vitamin company, say—to hold back any criticism of their products you don’t like.
Even when alternative practitioners give in to this temptation, I point out that at least they are just wasting some of your money on unnecessary or subpar products and services. They are not killing hundreds of thousands of patients each year, as allopathic practitioners and treatments do.
Hippocrates, the founder of medicine, famously said: “First, do no harm.” I would add, “Do not be sold anything. Do your own research and decide on the right treatment.”
Besides, I have made the transition, in large part, from allopathic medicine to alternative health to more of a mind-body outlook. When I look at a friend or acquaintance with a pessimistic personal outlook on life, no zest for life, I usually also see a person who then succumbs to all sorts of medical problems. This is not a scientific conclusion, but a personal and anecdotal observation, though I have attended some illuminating seminars on this subject by brilliant practitioners, including a top researcher for the National Institutes of Health (I know, I dissed them earlier) and a prominent surgeon at Yale Medical School, who told me: “Every surgeon usually has a good idea of how successful the operation will be, based on the patient’s attitude beforehand. The surgeon doesn’t understand why that correlation exists, but he knows it does exist.”
The good part of mind-body therapy is that it minimizes selling products. The bad part is that it’s so difficult to quantify scientifically. It is easy to dismiss as a blame game: “If you get sick, it’s your fault”—which is not true, and is not believed by mind-body practitioners. I have not become a Christian Scientist by any means, but my lifelong anecdotal observations are too pervasive to dismiss.
So, What’s a Person to Do?
Here is where I presently stand, always open to change based on new evidence or experiences.
First, I attempt to remain as actively engaged in life as possible, every step of the way. I may be a political doomsayer based on the evidence, but I try not to let that discourage me from leading a personal life full of challenges and excitement and anticipation.
Second, in addition to an active life, I try to make wise food and environmental choices. Those usually are not the ones hawked by the Fascist Medical Complex, but that, too, is another story for another day.
Third, with any health problem, I first seek the least invasive and most “natural” solutions.
And fourth, when those don’t work, I do not hesitate to utilize allopathic solutions, even surgery (but not chemotherapy) when absolutely necessary.
For example, when I was diagnosed with serious prostate cancer several years ago, I did not hesitate to use allopathic solutions because of my family’s pervasive history of prostate cancer, which killed my otherwise healthy father, among other things. But I went to the best facility for prostate cancer in the world—Johns Hopkins—and few people realize how easy it is to get the best, rather than just the closest and most convenient. Even there, I researched the doctors and chose the one I wanted because he did not seem to be wedded to one particular kind of treatment, like operations. The result was radiation with no chemo or surgery, and the results have been excellent so far.
Fifth, and finally for now, I believe in preventive nutrition, and, in our toxic environment (another result of the Fascist Medical Complex at work), I believe in the wise and selective use of vitamins and supplements. As always, do not be sold vitamins and supplements, but do you own research and experiment.
For me, that brings me back to Linus Pauling and vitamin C. The great thing about vitamin C is that there are no negative side effects and you cannot overdose. When you have reached the limit of what your unique body needs to utilize, you will start getting diarrhea. Cut back a little and stay at that level. For me, that’s 10,000 mg a day. Most of my friends laugh and consider that a colossal overdose and waste of money, but then I don’t get colds or the flu and who knows what else—and they do.
Besides vitamin C—the closest thing to a “miracle pill” that I know of—learn what else your unique body really needs. From early childhood on, I’ve always been plagued by fever blisters on my lips. From my research in alternative medicine, I learned that this is due to a deficiency of L-Lysine in the body. I started taking 1,000 mg of L-Lysine a day. No more fever blisters. And recently I took a very comprehensive series of blood tests at the authorization of an alternative M.D., and it showed I was on the borderline of magnesium deficiency, so I now take 200 mg of magnesium daily. I have not been “sold” these three supplements by advertising. I take them on the basis of experience, results, and scientific testing.
I’m sure almost every reader of an alternative inclination has a couple of “must take” supplements to add to my three. But be aware that any supplement can be made to look like a necessity. I have a friend who goes nowhere without his briefcase. It is filled not with office papers but with dozens of supplements, probably 50 or more, that he takes on precise schedules. I don’t want to live like that. I’m going to die someday no matter how many pills I take.
Well, time to stop preaching and return to the business of planning the second half of my life.