By Dr. Mercola
Over the past several of weeks, the media have gone wild over studies allegedly showing that vitamins have lethal consequences.
Again and again, journalists who are clueless about health have misled readers while catering to the interests of Big Pharma and their hired lackey, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Will 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, so Why Did they 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. 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.
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? Some Vitamin E on Market May be Genetically Modified
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:
- Soy beans
- Cotton seed
- 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.
"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:
"Dr. Robert Verkerk, our scientific director'[s]… analysis reveals, among many other interesting points, that all of the data was "adjusted" by the authors using methods of their own choice. If you look at the study itself, the first thing you see is an adjustment for "age and energy"… After this adjustment, vitamins C, B complex, E, D, as well as calcium, magnesium, selenium, and zinc all appear to add to years lived."
So, after that first adjustment, several supplements added to longevity. Next they "adjusted out" other lifestyle factors, which then resulted in most supplements contributing to earlier death. According to Robert Verkerk:
"It must be born in mind that this is an observational study where lifestyle factors, which are known to have a far greater influence on survival outcome than typical vitamin and mineral supplementation, have been 'adjusted out'. Before this data massage process has occurred, the findings are quite different, and appear to have been largely ignored by a mass media ever keen to find ways of damning supplements to appease their pharmaceutical industry advertisers...
This is what the study actually found before the data were adjusted... Supplement users were significantly (statistically) more likely than non-users to:
✓ Be non-smokers
✓ Be more educated (graduates)
✓ Have lower risk of diabetes mellitus
✓ Have a lower body mass index (BMI)
✓ Have a lower mean hip-to-waist ratio
✓ Be more physically active
✓ Ingest fewer calories
✓ Consume more protein
✓ Consume less total fat
✓ Consume more polyunsaturated fatty acids
✓ Consume more fruit
✓ Consume more vegetables
✓ Consume more whole grain products
Frustratingly, the authors don't tell us how these supplement users fared over the years. However, we can assume it's quite likely that they did rather better than the non-users, and that's why the researchers have left us only with adjusted data that's meant to have removed the influence of these all-important lifestyle factors."
Interestingly enough, and quite tellingly, the authors did NOT make any adjustments for drug use, despite the fact that many drugs are highly toxic and may contribute to premature death. And many who are sick take both drugs and supplements in an effort to maintain health and treat their disease. As stated by Life Extension:
"[T]he authors admit they did not factor in the increased intake of dietary supplements that occur in response to the development of symptoms or diagnosis of serious disease. Stated differently: If a woman was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer and began ingesting 40 supplements daily, but died six months later, she would have been counted as being a heavy supplement user who died prematurely."
Smells Like a Ruse to Justify New FDA Safety Regulations...
If you ask me, the timing of these studies hitting the news couldn't possibly be more convenient. Last month, I wrote a couple of articles 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."
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. 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).
Yet, Durbin and the FDA want 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 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?
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.
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 nutrition, per se.
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. 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."