The War on Vitamins

Every so often, the mainstream media makes a big splash about some study that allegedly shows that vitamins don’t do any good. The story is often helped by weak evidence that they might even cause harm. The latest assault in this war on vitamins occurred two weeks ago with headlines such as “Vitamins seen as no help in heart disease.”

This particular study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and was haled as one of the most comprehensive of its kind. It covered ten years and followed almost 15,000 participants. These participants happened to be male physicians. They were divided into two groups: one group took 400 IU of vitamin E each day; the second group took 500 mg of vitamin C along with the vitamin E each day.

The study was designed to see what effect this would have on a broad range of cardiovascular events: heart attacks, strokes, congestive heart failure, angina, and so-called revascularization such as bypass surgery. Overall, no statistically significant effect was found. There were two exceptions: vitamin E alone was associated with fewer heart attacks, but it was also associated with more hemorrhagic strokes.

I’ll start with just some of the things that are wrong with this study.

Like most of the studies of its ilk, this one was designed to use vitamins as though they were pharmaceuticals. That means researchers ignored important issues such as each person’s initial nutrient status and whether the dose each received actually met their physiological need. For example, 500 mg extra of vitamin C is a fairly low dose and we don’t know what form of vitamin E was used—different forms have different effects.

The class of the subjects leads me to another weakness of the study. Would this study design have shown a positive result from 400 IU of vitamin E and 500 mg of vitamin C if it had been conducted on subjects living below the poverty line instead of male physicians who we can assume live comfortably? I know of at least one study that asked that question and found that the answer was “Yes.”

Although the quality of the science is a problem, the more important problem is the media event into which such studies are made. These news items affect decisions people make about their health. Some people see a headline that says vitamins are no use and so decide to stop taking them—after all, it’s in the news, so it must be true. The point is most definitely not that people should critically analyze every piece of health news they see or hear. That should already be done by the science journalists who report these studies and fail utterly to present a critical perspective on matters that affect suffering, life, and death.

That’s why I regard reports like this in the mainstream media as useful for little more than information on what big shot institutions think we should know. And even then, they often mangle the message.

As I examined this latest study about vitamins, I thought of the people who actually know what they’re doing with nutrients for therapy and for primary prevention. So I visited the website of the Orthomolecular Medicine News Service. Here are the titles of some recent news releases: Vitamin C Slows Cancer Down, Vitamin E Prevents Lung Cancer, Vitamin B6 Reduces Colon Cancer, and Vitamin D Stops Cancer, Cuts Risk in Half.

These are all news releases reporting on research. You probably didn’t see them in your daily newspaper or on the evening news. There are a number reasons. Some of those reasons include: the NIH didn’t fund the re-search, the researchers aren’t from a big shot institution, the research wasn’t published in a big shot journal, it wasn’t promoted by the PR department of the sponsoring big shot institution, and on and on. In short, it’s not re-spectable. And as we all know, if it’s not respectable it can’t be true.

So the next time you read or hear about some study that claims that vitamins don’t do any good, pause and ask yourself: what news didn’t reach me?