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The big news in health this month was that “Vitamins don’t work.”

That headline was reported on the Drudge Report, and multiple sources picked up on three studies looking at “multivitamins.” The reporters presumably loved the title of the editorial “Enough is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements.”

Now I will admit my bias. My bias is that modern medicine is the “Flat Earth Society,” and its adherents are infused with hubris – they “know not that they knoweth not.” In other words, classically trained physicians (and I am one) fall into the trap of forgetting that they don’t have all the answers, and that the truth is always unfolding. Today in 2013 what we believe is true will not be seen to be true in a hundred years.

In reality, even classically trained physicians use vitamins and mineral supplements all the time in their practice, and believe that they work – even the guys from the Ivy League who treat naturopaths and “complementary” physicians with such contempt. They prescribe Vitamin D all the time for bone preservation. They give iron for blood deficiency. They use sublingual and injectable B12 for pernicious anemia and neuropathy. These are vitamins and minerals.

They just don’t want you, the patient, to have the option of taking things you believe make sense. They want the FDA to control things, so only someone with an MD or DO behind their name can prescribe supplements.

But regardless of this, science marches on. In their special year-end edition, “Complementary Prescriptions Journal” reviewed the most important research findings from 2013. I excerpt from their extensive report:

Folate supplementation reduces the risk of colorecral adenomas, the precursor lesion to colorectal cancer (“Public Health Nutrition”)

Vitamin D intake reduces lung cancer in women (“American Journal of Clinical Nutrition”)

500 mg of vitamin B12, 800 mcg of folic acid and 20 mg of B6 slowed shrinkage of the whole brain volume by 50 percent over two years. In a follow up in 2013, the gray matter area of the brain associated with Alzheimer’s had shrinkage reduced up to seven fold on the vitamin combination (“PNAS online”)

… but vitamins “don’t work.”

CoQ10 protects against beta-amyloid induced mitochondrial malfunction (“Cellular Physiology and Biochemistry”)

L-Carnitine has been shown to prevent the damaging effects of statins on the mitochondria (“Frontiers in Physiology”)

Calcium, vitamin D, inulin and soy isoflavones improves bone metabolism in post-menopausal women (“Aging Clinical and Experimental Research”)

Higher serum folate levels were correlated with higher cognitive test scores in children (“Nutrition”)

… but vitamins “don’t work.”

Every month in the news another article appears about the benefit of vitamin D. It decreases risk of dementia, stabilizes arrhythmia, contributes to longevity and prevents multiple cancers, to name a few. And as an Orthopaedic physician I cure and diminish polyneuropathy – a sickness of nerves – in patients by giving them under-the-tongue (sublingual) B12, even though their labs may not show deficiency, and even though they have been under the care of a neurologist.

If you are an observant clinician who actually treats patients, and if you read the basic science and the medical literature, you really cannot conclude that we should “Stop Wasting Money on Vitamins.”

It is true that I do not use a multivitamin, and of all the “vitamin” interventions, a multivitamin is probably the least provably beneficial. A multivitamin is probably best used for its cost-effective source of zinc. In my studies of patients, most people – even young people – seem to be somewhat zinc deficient when sophisticated studies are done. Which is probably why plastic surgeons have found improved healing when patients are given high doses of zinc post-operatively. But again, “Vitamins don’t work.”

Pharmaceutical companies have everything to lose by you treating yourself. And they have everything to gain by studies that are designed to fail – as in the study of vitamin E and vitamin C where the patients (in this case doctors) took the wrong kind of vitamin E and woefully inadequate doses of C and reported 50-percent non-compliance. Or more recently Omega-3 fatty acids were blamed for increased prostate cancer risk, the implication being that men should not be taking such supplements. But, the studies did not look at users of fish oil supplements but rather at blood levels of men in two groups who were both sadly deficient in their plasma levels of Omega-3. And the differences in those blood levels between the two groups were small – between deficient and slightly more deficient.

Be very suspicious of studies sponsored or even touted by Big Pharma. And I would keep in mind that science changes more rapidly than general medical practice. There is a saying about truth: First it is ignored, then it is violently opposed, and finally the truth is accepted as self-evident. I just hope the real truth about vitamins is accepted before Big Government (in the form of the FDA) tells us that they won’t let us “waste our money on vitamins” anymore by outlawing their sale in the public interest.

Please, don’t let the government save me from myself. Please.

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