vitamins, belief, hazards, Lewis Kuller, M.D.

Believing is Seeing

Believing is Seeing

© 2006 Wellness Clubs of
“No, you’ve got it backwards!” you may be saying, “The expression isn’t ‘Believing is Seeing’ it’s ‘Seeing is Believing.’

You’re right, of course. Seeing is believing . . . or is it? I was struck recently by a statement made by Saint Augustine of Hippo. “Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.”

Medical researchers seem to have declared war upon vitamins. For four successive weeks I have seen headlines decrying the use of supplemental vitamins. Headlines have proclaimed Report Warns Against Taking Large Vitamin Doses for Prevention, Vitamin Supplements May Do More Harm Than Good and Anti-oxidant Vitamin Supplements Decrease the Effectiveness of Cholesterol Lowering Drugs. Each article reported the results of a new research study purporting to have found that vitamin supplements are hazardous to health.

The headlines actually reflect the belief system of medical researchers rather than actual objective evidence of risk or benefit. None of the articles contained objective evidence to substantiate the conclusions drawn by the authors. Sadly, few, if any, journalists have a strong scientific background. They are unable to review the findings for themselves and they therefore publish as fact the opinions expressed by their sources.

What do the authors of the anti-vitamin articles believe? They believe that vitamins are of no benefit at best, and at worst may cause great harm either directly or indirectly by affecting the actions of the drugs in which they do believe.

This is a quote from one of the editorialists, Lewis Kuller, M.D., DrPH. “All the hype about antioxidant vitamins being a big winner in preventing heart disease is totally unproven . . . Only a diet rich in antioxidants has been proved to be associated with a low risk of coronary artery disease. People who take vitamins are a highly selected group of individuals who are interested in their health, so they often don’t smoke, they exercise and weigh less, and they are often better educated. That may be one of the reasons they are healthier; it doesn’t have anything to do with taking vitamins.”

Can someone who ardently believes that vitamin supplements have nothing to do with health objectively review statistics regarding their benefits? Can he design a study in a manner that will allow the benefits to be seen? The answer is he can if he will. Recent reports, however, clearly show that he will not.

Studies can be manipulated to produce desired results. I want you to be aware of three methods commonly used to demonstrate that vitamin supplements are ineffective or harmful.

The first is to design a study using a sub-optimal amount of the vitamin being tested, or to discontinue the study before any beneficial effects have had time to emerge. Both have the same predictable outcome – no benefit seen.

Vitamin E, for example, must be taken at a level of at least 400 IU daily to optimally prevent damage to the LDL cholesterol in the body. The two studies that used this level demonstrated a dramatic decrease in heart attack rates. One showed a 50 % reduction in second heart attacks within two years, the other showed a 50 % decrease in heart attacks within one year.

Nearly all studies of vitamin E have used daily supplementation of 30 to 100 IU, however. One would not predict any significant benefit from the supplementation, since it is well below that known to be necessary to prevent oxidation in the body. Nevertheless, when no benefit is seen the study authors proudly proclaim that they have demonstrated that vitamin E is ineffective in preventing heart disease.

A second technique is to supplement a single nutrient rather that the full complement of nutrients necessary to produce a desired result. Vitamin E can again be used as an example. Vitamin E prevents oxidation in the body by donating an electron to an unbalanced molecule called a free radical. This, in effect, makes Vitamin E itself a free radical. It must be recycled by receiving an electron from vitamin C or a similar source if it is to continue to perform its function.

Vitamin E alone is not sufficient to fully protect the body from free radical damage. Other nutrients must be present in adequate amounts to do so. Supplementing a single nutrient, like vitamin E, is like trying to manufacture more cars by placing more transmission specialists on the assembly line and providing them with all the transmissions they can handle. The number of cars coming off the assembly line may briefly increase, but the end result will be a decline in the number of cars manufactured as the other workers on the line become exhausted or run out of parts attempting to keep up.

This is precisely what is seen when single nutrient studies are performed. It is totally predictable, yet researchers continue to do this type of study and then proclaim, “Vitamins do more harm than good.”

A third tactic that can be used to reach a desired conclusion is to look for something that appears to be adversely affected by the substance, even though this may have nothing to do with the well being of the individual. A recent article urging physicians to tell their patients to stop taking vitamin supplements used this technique.

Researchers looked at the use of a cholesterol-lowering drug with and without antioxidant vitamins. A legitimate end-point to determine benefit would have been the number of individuals in each group suffering a heart attack or stroke. Another significant finding would have been the amount of oxidized LDL cholesterol present in each group, since oxidized LDL is a primary trigger of coronary artery disease. Instead the researchers chose to look at HDL2, a sub-type of HDL. It did not rise as high in the group taking the antioxidant vitamins, and the authors pointed to this as “proof” that antioxidant supplements are inherently dangerous.

It is quite likely that the HDL2 did not rise as greatly in the vitamin group because it was not needed. One of its roles is to act as an antioxidant to protect LDL cholesterol. With LDL being protected by the antioxidant nutrients an increase in HDL2 would not be needed.

Believing is seeing. I find scientific evidence supporting the use of nutritional supplements nearly every week, strengthening my belief that they are beneficial. Others, with the same articles at their disposal, refuse to see and continue to believe that there is no evidence supporting their use. The next time you see a headline warning against the use of vitamins just remember that there is none so blind as he who will not see.

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