Dr. Michael Turcotte
Educator of Holistic Healthcare and Traditional Naturopathy
A PRIVATE MEMBER NON-PUBLIC ESTABLISHMENT
Why Whole Food Supplements
The Science Behind Whole Food Complex vs. Synthetic Vitamins
Science has clearly demonstrated a need for humans to supplement with a few key nutrients if we want to live long, healthy lives. Unfortunately, science has also shown that synthetic forms of these nutrients are not only of little value, but can also be harmful to our well-being.
Synthetic vitamins are those which are not made by nature. They are chemical products created in a laboratory and have different biological structures than vitamins which occur naturally in food. These fake vitamins will mostly be found in cheap supplements, fortified and enriched foods like bread and cereal, and foods marketed as having “added vitamins” like calcium and Vitamin D.
Because synthetic vitamins are different from those found in nature, they also have a different biological effect.
Aren’t All Vitamins Created Equal?
You might think that Vitamin E on any nutrition label means Vitamin E, and that all Vitamin E is the same or it wouldn’t be called Vitamin E. But synthetic Vitamin E made in a lab is indeed different from the Vitamin E found in avocados.
Part of what makes the nutrients in food so beneficial is that they all work together, an effect which renders them exponentially more powerful than isolated (single) vitamins alone like tablets of Vitamin C or Vitamin B6.
Synthetic calcium taken by itself can be dangerous, but combine natural calcium with all the other co-factors and micronutrients in an orange, and it gets ushered into your cells and utilized with simplistic perfection.
For supplement use to truly be effective, most of us have to overcome a few mental road blocks.
1. First, we have to realize the need for supplementation.
2. Next, we have to understand that not all vitamin supplements are created equally.
3. Finally, proper amounts of the supplement have to be ingested in order for our cells to benefit.
I could add a fourth common obstacle here, and that is an unsupportive spouse who resists the financial requirements of using quality supplements. Effective, well-processed supplements do cost more than the cheap, mass-produced products on TV that depend on marketing for sales rather than quality.
You’re not doing your health any favors by buying cheap vitamins at the supermarket. This is indeed one instance where you get what you pay for.
Naturally Occurring Vitamins Provide a Health Benefit
The human body was designed to absorb nutrients from food, not synthetic chemicals. Man has never, and will never, replace or improve upon nutrition provided by nature. This is why nutritional supplements should be made from fruits, vegetables, animals, and herbs.
When we take a synthetic Vitamin C tablet, we’re giving the body a fake vitamin which does not occur in nature in that particular form. When we eat an apple, however, we not only get Vitamin C, but the hundreds of other healthy phytochemicals and micronutrients the entire fruit contains. This makes the Vitamin C in an apple much more effective and powerful.
These studies support the notion that real food nutrition is much more important for wellness than synthetic vitamins.
1. “Naturally occurring fruit and plant sourced micronutrients increase health and prevent illness.” Boyer, J and Liu, RH. Nutrition Journal 2004, 3:5
2. “Naturally occurring fruit and plant sourced essential micronutrients provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition and reduce the risk of chronic illness.” Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 78(3): 517S-520S
3. “Diets high in naturally occurring essential micronutrients sourced from fruits and plants help prevent heart disease and cancer, and also help protect against a variety of other illnesses including cataracts, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and asthma.” Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 2003, 78: 414-421
4. One study done on lifestyle, genetics, and degenerative disease echoed the above (#3) sentiments (Science 2002, 296: 695-698), and so did this research on oxidants, antioxidants, and degenerative diseases of aging (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 1993, 90: 7915-7922).
5. “Dietary consumption of naturally occurring vitamins from fruits and vegetables lowers risk of lung cancer, heart disease, cataracts, and age-related macular degeneration.” Free Radic. Biol. Med. 2009, Jan 15; 46(2): 299-304
It only stands to reason, since food is how we nourish the body and provide the building blocks for good function, that any vitamin supplements we take should be made from food or other natural sources.
Science Shows Synthetic Vitamins are Harmful
Over the last few years the media has been bombarded with stories reporting that vitamins are dangerous, but what they don't tell us is that every study (I’ve ever seen) that showed supplements to be harmful was done ONLY using synthetic vitamins. Anything we consume that is not made by nature, and this includes synthetic vitamins, is seen by the body as a toxin and will result in a defensive biological reaction.
This toxic effect that many synthetic vitamins have on the human body has even caused some studies to be halted early.
1. In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 22,000 pregnant women were given synthetic Vitamin A. The study was halted because birth defects increased by 400%. N. Eng. J. Med. 1995; 333: 1369-1373
2. Another study involving 29,000 male smokers who were given synthetic beta-carotene and synthetic Vitamin E was also stopped when rates of lung cancer, heart attacks, and death increased. N. Eng. J. Med. 1994: 330; 1029-1035
We have been taught to view nutrition in term of “recommended daily allowances,” as though we need so much of vitamin X every day for heart health and so much of vitamin Y for good digestion, but vitamins don’t work in isolation.
The Physicians Health Study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, reported no benefit of supplementation with isolated synthetic beta-carotene. N. Eng. J. Med. 1996; 334(18): 1145-1149
Vitamins in nature work in synergy with one another, and taking vitamin X and vitamin Y alone can actually disrupt the healthy nutrient ratios we need for good function, an effect which can result in harm.
1. “The Alpha-Tocopherol Beta-Carotene Trial observed a higher death rate in the isolated synthetic beta-carotene group and no treatment effect in the isolated alpha-tocopherol group.” Nutr. Rev. 1994; 52(7): 242-245
2. “The Heart Outcomes Prevention and Evaluation study reported greater all-cause death with isolated Vitamin E.” N. Eng. J. Med. 2,000; 342(3): 154-160
3. A research study conducted in March of 2009 showed that “taking synthetic Vitamin C and synthetic Vitamin E actually blocked the beneficial effects of exercise in terms of insulin sensitivity and antioxidant activity.” PNAS, published ahead of print May 11, 2009. “Subjects who received naturally occurring Vitamin C and Vitamin E from consuming fruits and plants did not have this problem.”
Vitamin companies are very aware of the growing desire of consumers for natural products. In response, many of them are deceptively feeding synthetic vitamins to either yeast or bacteria, extracting the vitamins back out again, and calling them “natural" or "specially stabilized" or "minimally processed" It’s important to question your supplement company about this practice, and ask whether yeast, bacteria, or synthetic vitamins are used at any stage during processing.
If yeast is listed on the label, and not nutritional yeast then chances are high you are being misled.
Vitamin E Increase Risk of Prostate Cancer
Back in 2009, the initial report of the Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial (SELECT) found "no reduction in risk of prostate cancer with either selenium or vitamin E supplements but a statistically non-significant increase in prostate cancer risk with vitamin E."
Then came the recently released update, which allegedly shows that high doses—400 IU's a day or more—of vitamin E may increase your risk of prostate cancer by 17 percent.
"Based on the results of this trial, [the researchers] suggested that men should have a serious conversation with their doctors about whether taking vitamin E supplements is a good idea."
However, there's a glaring problem with this finding, which has been completely overlooked by conventional media, and the researchers of the study itself.
For some reason, many fail to appreciate that there are usually major differences between natural nutrients and their synthetic counterparts.
They simply do not have the same biological effects, and this appears particularly true when it comes to vitamin E.
Synthetic Vitamin E is Problematic, or even dangerous then why even use it?
In this case, the vitamin E used was all rac-α-tocopheryl acetate—a synthetic petrochemically-derived form of dl-alpha tocopherol, which has known toxic effects. GreenMedInfo.com has a listing of published research relating to the many ill health effects related to this compound. The Toxicology Data Network also lists numerous health problems related to synthetic vitamin E at various dosages.
Unfortunately, most studies investigating vitamins use synthetic versions.
On the one hand this is good, as synthetic vitamins in general have overwhelmingly been shown to be largely harmless yet due to very little is absorbed into the body. However, studies such as this one—and the journalists reporting on the findings—can also do great disservice by failing to specify that the results pertain to petrochemically-derived vitamin E. The study says absolutely nothing about the health effects of natural vitamin E (d-alpha tocopherol). Part of the problem with synthetic alpha tocopherol is that it depletes gamma tocopherol. Thus causing health issues due to depletions.
As explained in a recent article by Life Extension:
"In 1997, we announced that taking only the alpha tocopherol form of vitamin E displaces critically important gamma tocopherol in the body. By displacing gamma tocopherol, we feared that high doses of alpha tocopherol could increase cancer risks.
In fact, three years after Life Extension's first warning, the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health released the results of a huge study(10,456 men). The findings showed that men with the highest gamma tocopherol blood levels had a fivefold reduction in prostate cancer risk. This same study showed that selenium and alpha tocopherol also reduced prostate cancer risk but only when gamma tocopherol levels were high. Confirmatory studies document higher levels of gamma tocopherol to be strongly associated with reduced cancer risks.
While both alpha and gamma tocopherol are potent antioxidants, gamma tocopherol has a unique function. Because of its different chemical structure, gamma tocopherol scavenges reactive nitrogen species, which can damage proteins, lipids, and DNA.
… The fact that supplementation with isolated, synthetic alpha tocopherol depletes plasma gamma tocopherol levels means that the researchers who designed the SELECT trial created a biological catastrophe… The fact that higher prostate cancer rates were observed in the group overloaded with synthetic alpha tocopherol in the SELECT trial was predictable and expected based upon fundamental facts Life Extension understood more than a decade ago."
I believe Life Extension is correct in their evaluation of this study: it was designed to fail in order to protect the financial interests of the cancer industry, which thrives by providing very expensive toxic drugs, radiation, and surgery.
Did You Know? Most Vitamin E on market is genetically modified and or synthetic (cancer causing DNA mutations)
Another risk factor of vitamin E supplements and foods fortified with vitamin E relates to the fact that it may be derived from genetically modified (GM) plants. The chemical name for vitamin E is "tocopherol." Tocopherol, which is the generic term for at least seven different types of vitamin E, are naturally formed in a variety of plants.
Tocopherol can be produced either by chemical synthesis, or by extraction from
Wheat germ oil
The problem is that a large majority of these plants are now genetically modified—at least in the U.S. In Europe, foods and supplements containing GM-derived vitamin E must be labeled as such. The U.S. however, does not require genetically modified foods and products to be labeled, so there's no telling what you're getting. Unfortunately, verifying the non-GM status of tocopherols is particularly challenging as many companies that control the supply of vitamin E collect plant oils from commingled sources.
Are Dietary Supplements Risky for Older Women?
Another recent study is being reported as having found that dietary supplements are associated with an increased mortality in older women. However, this is yet another example of a flawed study being further misrepresented by poor journalism. First of all, this was an observational study based on self-reported use of supplements over a 22-year period—it was not a rigorous trial. Supplement use was reported three times, six years apart. Now, ask yourself, how accurately would your own recollection be of what supplements you've used over the past six years? Furthermore, the data collected was rather generic—there's no telling whether the supplements used were high- or low quality; synthetic or whole-food based, for example.
According to the Los Angeles Times:
"The research did not explore whether supplements contributed to the causes of death among the women ... [I]t could reflect the possibility that the women who took ... supplements were more likely to be sick from other causes and died from their underlying disease."
And there, in a nutshell, is the problem with the way this study is being reported in many places. That same Los Angeles Times article, for example, quotes a dietician arguing that the research "bolstered arguments against using supplements". Other articles have made similar claims.
But the study does no such thing.
It's quite possible that the people studied who were sick were trying to help themselves by taking supplements, and hence this group was biased towards being sicker. An almost identical study could be done associating frequency of visits to the doctor with increased risk of death. But you can bet that few in the media would jump the conclusion that doctor visits are deadly ... even though such a statement would not be entirely untrue.
Was the Data Manipulated with Preconceived Bias?
But there's more… Upon closer review, it seems the researchers went to great lengths massaging the data to reach their own preconceived conclusions. As explained in a recent article by Alliance for Natural Health
A ploy to Justify New FDA Safety Regulations
If you ask me, the timing of these studies hitting the news couldn't possibly be more convenient. During consultations I usually talk about about the FDA's latest plan to effectively eliminate many commonly used supplements by amending the definitions for new dietary ingredients (NDI's) and retroactively applying them to products already on the market. You can read the FDA Draft Guidance on New Dietary Ingredients (NDI's) here. (A detailed analysis of the FDA Draft Guidance is also available.)
This proposed mandate goes hand-in-hand with S.1310: Dietary Supplement Labeling Act of 2011, introduced at the end of June by U.S. Senator Richard Durbin (D-Illinois). This legislation is, using the words of Byron J. Richards, "an alarming regulatory nightmare that is trying to treat vitamins as if they are drugs." We live in a an alarming world where our regulatory commissions are fed by monetary game rather than looking out for you and me.
The open comment period on the FDA's proposed guidelines will expire on December 2nd, and I for one would not be the least surprised if the studies discussed above will be used as justification for driving through Durbin's legislation and the FDA's amended NDI definitions. After all, if they can sway public opinion once again into thinking that supplements can KILL you, then people will support the idea that we need to treat supplements like drugs and require them to undergo the same detailed and costly kind of testing.
This is ridiculous, as vitamins, minerals and herbal supplements have a tremendously safe track record and synthetics along with drugs repeatedly prove harmful.
Meanwhile, drugs are known to cause well over 100,000 deaths per year when taken as prescribed, and two million more suffer serious side effects. For comparison, look at:
Statistics available from the U.S. National Poison Data System, which covers acute poisonings: In 2007, 1,597 people reportedly died from drugs. Meanwhile there was not one single fatality caused by a vitamin or dietary mineral supplement that year
CDC mortality data for 2005: Prescription drugs killed more than 33,500 people that year, second only to car accidents. That same year, the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 27 deaths that were associated with dietary supplements (one of which was reportedly due to Ephedra; the herbal supplement banned the year before for being too dangerous. In 2005, low-dose Ephedra was also subsequently banned).
The FDA wants you to think that they're just acting in your best interest. Nothing could be further from the truth!
Up to this point, the FDA has had to prove a supplement unsafe in order to take action against it, but now they want the supplement industry to prove the safety of what in many cases amount to food, before they can reach the market. Now, since dietary supplements are not patented drugs with outrageous profit margins, very few supplement makers will be able to afford the required safety studies, which could run in the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars per ingredient. Furthermore, the manufacturer is not the only one that would have to seek approval—every distributor that wants to use the NDI would have to file a separate NDI application.
By adding this extremely costly testing and approval process, small and medium or even large sized whole food supplement companies will be eliminated, which in turn will drive up costs while at the same time reduce your access to historically safe nutritional products all the whle synthetic drug companies will continue to up their production of chemicals to sell to the vitamin shoppes.
The end result is that fewer people will use benificial supplements to improve their health; driving them back into the extremely profitable fold of conventional medicine and drugs. And now they want the supplement industry to prove the safety of what in many cases amount to food, before they can reach the market.
Now, since dietary supplements are not patented drugs (can't patent a carrot or fish) with outrageous profit margins, very few supplement makers will be able to afford the required safety studies, which could run in the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars per ingredient. Furthermore, the manufacturer is not the only one that would have to seek approval—every distributor that wants to use the NDI would have to file a separate NDI application.
Is the plan is to take over Whole Food Supplements and only allow chemical synthetic nutracuiticals be sold on the market?
By adding this extremely costly testing and approval process, small and medium sized supplement companies will be eliminated, which in turn will drive up costs while at the same time reduce your access to historically safe nutritional products. The end result is that fewer people will use supplements to improve their health; driving them back into the extremely profitable fold of conventional medicine and drugs.
So, Will Your Supplements Kill You? Answer: Yes potentially.
Vitamins and minerals are essential for life. However, never in the history of man has the human body ever needed synthetic chemicals. And therein lies the crux of the matter. Most studies evaluating the health effects of vitamins investigate the synthetic versions, which in many cases are more similar to drugs than they are to food. And secondly, studies can be manipulated in any number of ways to come up with an end result that serves a particular agenda. The two studies discussed above are perfect examples of both of these problems.
Should you be concerned?
Making matters worse, the media conveniently and consistently fails to report on rebuttals explaining the technical and statistical reasons why a study is invalid.
Common sense however will tell you that you cannot kill yourself with pure nutrition.
That said, it's certainly possible to go overboard with supplements and push your health in the wrong direction by creating nutritional imbalances. It's important to understand that taking mega-doses of vitamins or minerals over extended periods of time, especially synthetic ones, can have serious health consequences.
Ideally, you'll want to get the majority of the nutrients you need from your food, which means you have to eat whole, preferably organic foods—not processed foods fortified with synthetic vitamins and minerals! Depending on your health status, you would then evaluate whether or not you might need to take a supplement to help address a particular health problem or counter any particular deficiency in your diet.
Examples of supplements I believe most people can benefit from, simply because it's very difficult to get enough of them from your diet, include high-quality omega-3 and probiotics. If you cannot get sufficient amounts of sunshine and don't have access to a safe tanning bed then an oral vitamin D3 supplement would also be in order.
In conclusion, Michael Long, ND sums this whole issue up rather nicely:
"Even with totally irresponsible use, you would be hard pressed to be killed by your vitamins… In truth, studies are published every day showing the safety and health promoting effects of vitamins, especially when used responsibly (i.e. used for a specific purpose, after objective testing showed a deficiency), and according to the evidence.
If you want to focus on something that will actually kill you, open your medicine cabinet and look at the drugs that stare back at you. Safe with a carrot.
Bottom Line: Stay away from Synthetics and only take Whole Food Supplements.
Close to 1 million people die in North America every year as a direct result of adverse effects from prescription drugs. The safety record of pharmaceutical drugs is not even comparable to vitamins and herbs."
[-]Sources and References
The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) 2011;306(14):1549-1556
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