The Long, Arduous Path to Truth in Medicine

Ego, Ethics, and Evolution

MegaZEN Vol. 2

Why is it that the simplest truths are always the most difficult to grasp? Why do we prefer to complicate things, searching for convoluted explanations when simple common sense would do? Maybe we seek complex answers to simple questions because arriving at them makes us feel intelligent, or perhaps we just can’t trust the fact that life is simple and it is we who complicate it…usually, unnecessarily.

I asked myself these questions recently after many friends and colleagues sent me news reports of a recent research study claiming nutritional supplements were useless, and some, even dangerous. Vitamin supplements useless? Vitamin E dangerous? It sounded preposterous.

How could such a simple, time-tested and definite medical truth be so categorically denied? It was tantamount to someone saying the sky isn’t blue.

There are many simple truths in life that are so intertwined with the understanding of our world and the human experience, that we assume they’ve always been part of our accepted, collective knowledge — concepts that are so apparent and intuitively obvious, that there was never a time we didn’t know these things.

Even if we lacked that knowledge at some point in time, we immediately accepted the truth once it was simply and irrefutably presented to us, especially when to do so would progress the human race in a profound way.

Sadly, accepting simple truths hasn’t been the hallmark of human history. In fact, most of the time, they’re vehemently denied. The earth is round. The planet revolves around the sun.

Today we say, “Of course, that’s true,” but there was a time when even such basic knowledge was violently opposed by the establishment and inventors or scientists had to go into hiding to save their lives.

It seems to me that the larger an establishment is, the more its authority is threatened by the revelation of a new truth and as such, the pushback is more violent.

This is usually the case when a simple truth comes up against one of the largest and most complex establishments in society: institutionalized medicine. When egos and ethics collide with human evolution, truth faces a long, arduous road to acceptance.

After all, it was German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer who famously said, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is finally accepted as being self-evident.”

Truer words were never spoken, and it’s usually those who oppose truth with the greatest resistance that are often the first to end up saying, “Of course it’s true. I knew it all along.”

For an example of the campaign against vitamin supplements today, we need look no further than the unfortunate fate of Hungarian physician, Ignaz Semmelweis. In the 1840s, Semmelweis was working in the obstetrics clinic of Vienna General Hospital. At the time, the mortality rate from puerperal fever, (more commonly known as childbed fever), among women giving birth fluctuated wildly across Europe—usually between 10% and 35%.

Semmelweis worked in the first of two obstetric clinics at the hospital. Strangely, each had widely differing death rates from childbed fever, even though they functioned side by side. The first clinic averaged a high of 15.8% and a low of 6.9%, while the second clinic had a high of 7.6% and a low of 2.0%.

The large difference in the survival rates for each clinic was widely known among expectant mothers across Vienna. The first clinic was notorious as a “death chamber” and women begged to be admitted to the second clinic, instead. Many even preferred to give birth in the street than take their chances in the first clinic.

Semmelweis was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. The differences between the two clinics seemed miniscule. Doctors and medical students were performing most of the procedures in the first clinic, while midwives did so in the second.

Since everyone was well-trained and performing the exact same procedure, Semmelweis eliminated incompetence as a cause, as well as overcrowding. The only significant difference between the two clinics was that the first was connected to an autopsy room where deceased babies, killed for being illegitimate or unwanted, were brought for study purposes by the students. It was standard procedure for the doctors and students in the first clinic to move between the autopsy room and birthing clinic throughout the day.

It was only when a friend died, after being accidentally poked with a scalpel during an autopsy that Semmelweis suspected the real cause. His friend had died suddenly with symptoms very similar to childbed fever. Because of that, Semmelweis concluded that somehow, doctors and students were transferring “cadaverous particles” between the bodies in the autopsy room and the birthing mothers in the adjoining first clinic. The midwives never entered the autopsy room. It was strictly for academic purposes.

At this time, germ theory hadn’t been discovered, but on a hunch, Semmelweis instituted the practice of washing hands with a chlorinated lime solution before all deliveries were performed.

The results were dramatic.

In April of 1847, the mortality rate in the first clinic was 18.3%. Hand washing was instituted in mid-May and by June, the mortality rate dropped to 2.2%. In July, it was 1.2% and for two months that year, the mortality rate was zero.

Naturally, Semmelweis wanted to share this groundbreaking discovery that was saving lives and reducing mortality rates by 90%. After presenting his findings to the medical community throughout Vienna, he was ridiculed. Doctors were insulted by the assumption anything they were doing could contribute to childbed fever and saw no connection in how cleanliness could save lives.

Semmelweis was eventually dismissed from the hospital through workplace politics and years later died in an asylum. While he is considered a pioneer in antiseptic procedures today, hand-washing prior to medical procedures would not be widely accepted until after the work of Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister, years later.

Hand-washing in a medical setting seems obvious, but there was a time when we didn’t know this was important. Even after irrefutable evidence was presented that hand-washing was necessary, the medical establishment allowed ego to get in the way of professional evolution. To Dr. Semmelweis’ credit, not only do doctors wash their hands today, they scrub them for a pre-set amount of time, and wear scrubs, head gear and booties in a delivery suite that’s equipped with a special antimicrobial air filtration system.

How could such a simple solution that’s saved so many lives be dismissed out of hand when the evidence was so clear? It seems the medical establishment, like humanity, has much difficulty in learning from the past and is determined to continue to repeat its mistakes, no matter how high the cost.

The latest refusal to acknowledge common truths backed by convincing evidence comes in a report titled: “Enough is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements” and was published in Annals of Internal Medicine by the American College of Physicians in December 2013.

The study is said to examine the “efficacy” of vitamin and mineral supplements in preventing or slowing the progression of chronic disease. The first trial involved 400,000 people with no nutritional deficiencies and focused on heart disease and cancer.

The second study looked at the effect a daily multivitamin had on the cognitive decline in 5,947 men aged 65 and older.

The third study evaluated the benefit of a 28-component multivitamin on 1,708 men and women who’d had a previous myocardial infarction. With classic predictability, the researchers concluded in each study that:

“The message is simple. Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death. Their use is not justified and they should be avoided. This is especially true for the general population with no clear evidence of micronutrient deficiencies, who represent most supplement users in the United States and other countries.”

The report goes on to address other subjects that the study did not specifically examine, instead citing secondary reports calling antioxidants, B vitamins and folic acid “harmful.” This conclusion is so definitive in their minds that “further long prevention trials are no longer justified.” Case closed.

If antioxidants are so harmful, why does the human body produce them for protection against free radicals? The nervous system would collapse without B vitamins and folic acid.

In fact, a near 15-year battle raged within the medical community as to whether folic acid supplementation prevented neural tube defects like spina bifida in fetuses, even after definitive evidence from multiple sources had existed for years that it did. A 1983 study conducted by the British Medical Research Council Vitamin Study Group sought to prevent neural tube defects in babies born to mothers who’d already had one child with the condition. The study was halted in 1991 when it was determined that the mid-term results were so conclusive, that every woman in the trials should be given 4mg of folic acid daily, either as a single supplement or as part of a multivitamin.

The result was a 71% decrease in neural tube birth defects. Because neural tube defects occur in the first 3–4 weeks of gestation, before most women even know they’re pregnant, the U.S. government decided to fortify all cereal grain food products with folic acid, although it would take an additional five years and more irrefutable evidence for that to happen.

As if that isn’t enough evidence that vitamin supplements are absolutely essential for good health, the researchers involved in the “Enough is Enough” study clearly haven’t heard the incredible story of Norman Cousins, the former adjunct professor of medical humanities for the School of Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, an incurable and rapidly progressive degeneration of the connective tissue of the spine, Cousins left his hospital bed in 1964 because in his words, “…a hospital is no place for someone who is seriously ill.” He returned home and with the assistanceof a physician friend, took very large doses of vitamin C intravenously, up to 25g, through long, slow, four-hour drips.

In addition, he often watched very funny films because laughter provided relief from the excruciating pain and allowed him to sleep better. The result was a complete recovery from an incurable illness.

In fact, Cousins’ recovery was so dramatic that he published his story in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1976. It’s one of only a handful of times that an article by a layman has been published in the journal’s 203 year history. Cousins later expanded the article into his landmark book, Anatomy of an Illness in 1979.

Perhaps the most famous work with vitamin C came from Linus Pauling, the American biochemist who founded the fields of quantum chemistry and molecular biology. He was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize. He is one of only four people to ever win more than one Nobel Prize and is one of only two to earn them in different fields. The other is Marie Curie.

It was Pauling who discovered that vitamin C could prevent the common cold and was a strong advocate of nutritional supplements and mega vitamin therapy. In fact, he took 3g of vitamin C every day for the latter part of his life. It was in 1971 that Pauling conducted his landmark study on terminally ill cancer patients with vitamin C therapy. Pauling’s results showed that treatment with high doses of vitamin C increased survival rates for patients up to four times that of untreated patients. He detailed the study in his renowned book, Cancer and Vitamin C.

In 1982, the Mayo Clinic attempted to reproduce Pauling’s results and came to the conclusion that vitamin C was ineffective in treatingcancer. Like Ignaz Semmelweis, Pauling was immediately labeled a quack. Calling the results from the Mayo Clinic study “fraud and deliberate misrepresentation,” Pauling pointed out the many gross errors in the trial that claimed to be an exact replication of his study.

The Mayo Clinic trial used oral vitamin C, while Pauling used high dose intravenous treatment.

Astonishingly, participants in the control group of the Mayo Clinic study were also taking vitamin C, and patients were treated for a much shorter time period.

In spite of the attempts to bury his discoveries in obscurity, Pauling would be vindicated 27 years later and 15 years after his death. In 2009, the medical journal, Anticancer Research stated that Pauling’s theory of high dose vitamin C in cancer treatment did, in fact, have merit when the vitamin was administered intravenously, as he had done in his original study and the Mayo Clinic neglected to do.

It was groundbreaking discoveries such as these, and other mega vitamin / nutritional supplement treatments that Pauling included under the third field of medicine he would establish, orthomolecular medicine. I am proud to say that I am a fellow with the Linus Pauling Institute and incorporate his philosophy throughout my practice.

In addition to the work of Cousins and Pauling, countless medical studies covering decades of research exist that clearly show vitamin supplements are essential to preventing and healing from illness. If this is so, then why didn’t the results in the “Enough is Enough” study verify that fact?

The answer is obvious when we consider what happened with Pauling’s study at the Mayo Clinic and take a closer look at how this most recent study was conducted. In all three trials, the only thing the participants did was take a multivitamin.

That’s it.

I don’t know any physician who would tell a cancer patient, “Take a multivitamin and call me in the morning,” expecting the disease process to halt or cure itself. The same goes for heart disease or the prevention of any other condition. Still, this approach seems typical of the “a-pill-for-every-problem” philosophy of the allopathic medical establishment that fails to understand healing is an integrative process that involves many things. There is no magic bullet.

Dr. Bernie Siegel showed decades ago that “exceptional patients,” as he called them, can completely reverse and recover from cancer and other serious conditions by making a list of changes that include nutritional, as well as lifestyle choices.

I can tell you from my own healing experience that good nutrition is essential, but it’s only part of the equation. To give someone a multivitamin with absolutely no other interventions and expect to prevent or reverse a major disease process is naive.

To do so is to set nutritional supplements up for failure, which may have been the intention with this study.

It’s also important to note that with over 406,000 people involved across the trials, there is no mention of any of the myriad lifestyle choices among the participants that could easily and drastically alter outcomes. What was the quality of their diets, personal relationships, emotional well-being, stress levels, exercise and sleep patterns? What about depression, especially in the elderly? What were their co-morbidities or additional health problems besides heart disease, cancer or cognitive difficulty? What was the quality of their digestion? Could they even absorb enough of the vitamins they were given to make a real difference, especially the older participants?

With a sample size so large, it’s virtually impossible to create an effective control group because scientists can’t realistically track every factor that goes into building good health. Instead, they applied the review process that’s used to evaluate drug therapy that only looks at one factor at a time. The human body is synergistic, and health involves many elements working together at the same time. That’s why isolated vitamin therapy rarely works. Even Norman Cousins used laughter, which released powerful endorphins into his system, and dietary changes to aid in his healing.

Let’s not forget that one vitamin may require the presence of another for absorption into the cell or to activate it, and so on. Unfortunately, physicians have absolutely no idea how nutrition heals or how nutrients work inside the body.

This is because physicians only get about eight hours of training on nutrition during an 8–10 year education. I speak from experience. All my nutritional education is self-acquired. So even though 99% of practicing physicians have no educational background or practical experience in nutritional medicine, it never seems to stop them from claiming to be experts in it.

While nutritional supplements aren’t a magic bullet, they are an essential part of rebuilding or maintaining good health. The researchers of “Enough is Enough” would have you believe that nutritional supplements are completely unnecessary for those who show “no clear evidence of micronutrient deficiencies.” Unfortunately, they fail to define what “evidence” is. In my experience, the vast majority of the population is nutritionally deficient, largely because of the denatured and processed foods, and genetically modified organisms (GMO) that flood the American diet. Even the nutrient content of organic produce is not what it used to be decades ago because of over-farming. If the nutrients aren’t in the soil, they’re not in the food.

Nutritional supplements are essential to fill in the gaps in a food system that’s struggling to stay biologically viable. By the time someone is actually exhibiting a physical problem due to a nutritional deficiency, it’s been going on for quite some time. So, the “evidence” of a micronutrient deficiency isn’t physical symptoms, but the proper diagnostic data before a physical problem even begins. It seems that the campaign against vitamin and herbal supplements goes in cycles. For years, there will be no media attention on nutritional medicine and then suddenly, a new “study” will proclaim supplements to be useless or harmful.

Why the periodic bashing of supplements with questionable “research”? I believe it’s an attempt to convince the American public to stop using them, because the FDA can’t regulate them.

In the early 1990’s, an attempt was made by the U.S. government to make all nutritional and herbal supplements available only with a prescription. Can you imagine not being able to walk into a health food store and buy a bottle of vitamin D? It seems downright Orwellian, but it was very close to becoming reality just 20 years ago.

In a cry of outrage over the proposed legislation, alternative healthcare practitioners, supplement manufacturers and patients flooded the U.S. Congress with over 1 million phone calls in a single day. It remains one of the largest and most successful Calls to Action of any grassroots effort involving alternative healthcare. As a result, the regulations were not made into law but instead, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) was passed in 1994. This new legislation protected consumer access to dietary supplements by classifying them as foods and not food additives or drugs. This landmark victory put supplements far out of the regulatory reach of the FDA. Now, the only recourse of the anti-supplement crowd is to try and get Americans to voluntarily stop using them with “official” reports like “Enough is Enough.”

Luckily, Americans aren’t listening. Even the report itself states: “In contrast, the sale of multivitamins and other supplements have not been affected by major studies with null results, and the U.S. supplement industry continues to grow, reaching $28 billion in annual sales in 2010.”

Even with the DSHEA to safeguard access to nutritional supplements, Americans would be gravely mistaken to assume this freedom will always be available to them. Freedom must be protected and there is a high price for inaction, as was recently seen in Europe.

In 2011, the European Union (EU) placed the most severe restrictions on access to nutritional supplements in any developed nation(s), anywhere in the free world. Known as the Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products Directive (THMPD), the legislation requires that all herbs be “licensed” before they can be sold.

The licensing requirements are virtually impossible to meet and when they are, the price per license easily runs over $100,000 for a single herb. Imagine the cost to an Ayurveda or Traditional Chinese Medicine clinic that uses hundreds of different herbs and supplements. Many of them are going out of business.

As if that weren’t bad enough, through the THMPD, the EU government has placed itself in charge of determining “safe upper limits” for all vitamin and mineral supplements. The dosages of any active ingredient in supplements are determined by the government for “safety” reasons and whittled down to nearly inert levels… and a prescription is required to obtain some of them. Can you imagine not being able to walk into a store and buy a bottle of bilberry extract? What doesn’t require a prescription or carry a licensing fee has simply been banned. Many herbal supplements for which medical tests did not exist to prove “safety or efficacy” were simply made illegal. Some of these include cat’s claw, pau d’arco, ashwaghanda, skull cap, hawthorn, and more.

The force behind this movement against herbal and nutritional supplements on both sides of the Atlantic stems from an organization known as the Codex Alimentarius. Codex, as it’s known, was created when two divisions of the United Nations, the Food & Agricultural Organization and the World Health Organization paired up in 1963. The original goals for Codex were to provide nutritious food for developing nations and shape guidelines for dangerous industrial chemicals in the food supply.

By the 1990s, the agenda for Codex had shifted drastically. The focus was now on bringing nutritional supplements under their authority, as well as GMO food. For more information on Codex, I recommend Kevin Miller’s short documentary, We Become Silent narrated by Dame Judi Dench. While filmed back in 2005, it retains much relevance, particularly some hidden camera footage from inside a Codex committee meeting when proposals were being drafted and the subject of access to nutritional supplements came up.

As attempts to label nutritional supplements as useless fall on deaf ears, the new focus seems to be to label them as dangerous. Are they really harmful? Do we need protection from vitamins?

Let’s take a quick look at the substances most involved in human poisonings and deaths. According to the 2010 Annual Report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers National Poison Data System, of the Top 10 substances most involved in human poisoning, 6 are pharmaceuticals, either prescribed or over the counter (OTC). Analgesics are number one, followed by sedatives, antipsychotics, antidepressants, cardiovascular drugs and antihistamines. Interestingly, street drugs and stimulants are much further down the list.

Of the substances involved in poisoning in adults over age 20, none are vitamins, supplements or minerals. Five of the Top 10 and 9 of the Top 25 are prescription or OTC drugs, for an overall total of 46.99%. Analgesics are again in the top spot.

For children under age 5, 5 of the Top 10 are prescription or OTC drugs, which make up 42.85% of the complete list of 25 substances. It is here where we see the first mention of “dietary supplements/herbals/homeopathics” as a potential for poisoning. There was just a single incident reported and ranked at 1.43%.

Not surprisingly, the largest number of deaths by poisoning came from pharmaceuticals or OTC drugs, making up a huge 74.26% of the Top 25 substances.

They also made up 8 of the Top 10. The number of deaths caused by nutritional or herbal supplements: zero. The category didn’t even make the list.

Regardless of antihistamines. Interestingly, street drugs and stimulants are much further down the list. Of the substances involved in poisoning in adults over age 20, none are vitamins, supplements or minerals. Five of the Top 10 and 9 of the Top 25 are prescription or OTC drugs, for an overall total of 46.99%. Analgesics are again in the top spot.

For children under age 5, 5 of the Top 10 are prescription or OTC drugs, which make up 42.85% of the complete list of 25 substances. It is here where we see the first mention of “dietary supplements/herbals/homeopathics” as a potential for poisoning. There was just a single incident reported and ranked at 1.43%.

Not surprisingly, the largest number of deaths by poisoning came from pharmaceuticals or OTC drugs, making up a huge 74.26% of the Top 25 substances.

They also made up 8 of the Top 10. The number of deaths caused by nutritional or herbal supplements: zero. The category didn’t even make the list.

Regardless of mass misinformation, the reputation and efficacy of nutritional supplements in health and healing remains unchanged in the eyes of Americans. Why? It’s because they work. When administered properly, in the highest quality and most effective dosages, nutritional supplements offer a broader spectrum of health benefits with virtually no side effects when compared to pharmaceutical drugs. One doesn’t need a research study to know the healing power of a quality supplement when its power is felt in his or her own body. That’s proof positive enough, even though countless studies will verify it.

The body contains infinite wisdom and it will tell us what it needs, if we take the time to listen to it. We can’t do that if we’re afraid, listening to reports about how an essential and innocent vitamin might harm us. When we’re afraid, we can’t make logical choices because we’re in fight-or-flight mode. We react instead of act. Remember too, that anytime someone is trying to make you afraid, they’re attempting to control you by making a reactionary choice instead of an intuitive one, that always serve them in some way.

I would suggest that while we all disregard reports like “Enough is Enough,” we should never let our guard down when it comes to even the slightest infringement on access to nutritional supplements. Join a grassroots group and talk to people at your local health food store. Know what’s going on and stay informed. Finally, let us always remember that like Ignaz Semmelweis, the truest guide to good health, with or without evidence, is always our intuition.

Dr. Sadeghi is the founder of Be Hive of Healing, an integrative medical center, publisher of MegaZEN Wellbeing Journal, and the author of The Clarity Cleanse.

Dr. Habib Sadeghi

Written by

Dr. Habib Sadeghi is the founder of Be Hive of Healing, an integrative medical center based in Los Angeles, and author of The Clarity Cleanse.

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