How Do Vitamins Maintain Health?
For more than 100 years it has been known that one could not be well on food that provided only protein, carbohydrate and fats. It was known that if iodine was lacking in the diet it would cause exophthalmic goiter and for that reason iodide was added to salt. But even then there was a conflict between the views that these three major food components were not adequate and the view that they were. In the early 20th century the English Nobility paid a heavy price in loss of children, who died because they were fed formula that only provided these three constituents and wet nurses were no longer deemed essential. A famous pathologist, Dr. Virchow, declared, “No disease was ever caused by a deficiency of anything.” He believed that only infections caused disease. His view was a major factor in preventing the new concept that more nutrients than these three were essential.
By 1930 the vitamin concept was well established in medicine and over the next ten years major discoveries were made about how to synthesize these vitamins, why they were needed, and how to use them to prevent the known major deficiency diseases. This first paradigm of vitamin use enshrined the belief that vitamins, which were needed in very small amounts, were required merely to prevent these diseases from occurring. It is called the vitamins-as-prevention paradigm. These deficiency diseases were beriberi, pellagra, scurvy, rickets, and xerophthalmia, and they were prevented by making sure the food contained enough of the vitamins thiamin (B-1), niacin (B-3), ascorbic acid (vitamin C), vitamin D and vitamin A. It followed that these nutrients were never needed for any other conditions and never in amounts more than would be normally present in our food. By 1950 this paradigm was as well established as The Commandments written in stone. One result was that the medical profession fell for the hypothesis that anyone eating a good diet would never need to take any extra vitamins. This is still an article of faith in the healing professions and especially in the holy Recommended Daily Allowances pushed and enforced by governments worldwide.
However, there were major positive developments. Recognition of the role played by vitamins was the major public health measure that eradicated one of the major physical and mental health pandemics. At one time in southeast United States pellagra brought down as many as 200,000 patients each year, and some years, especially when the price of cotton was very low, up to one-third of admissions to mental hospitals were suffering from the pellagra psychosis, which is a form of schizophrenia. Dr. Joseph Goldberger, by his discovery that pellagra was caused by poor quality food which did not provide enough vitamin B-3, prevented more mental disease than the whole profession of psychiatry ever has. As a result of his findings the United States government made the brilliant decision to mandate the addition of niacinamide to white flour.
But the general public was many years ahead of the medical profession and still is. Even the negative attitudes of government and the profession did not prevent the gradual increase in the number of people who on their own initiative take these vitamins. Today in Canada they are available in almost every store: health food stores which led the field, supermarkets, and drugstores - which used to lag behind but do so no more. If the advertising budgets for vitamins were only ten percent of what it is for drugs almost everyone would be taking these essential nutrients.
At the same time, a very few dedicated physicians reported that some vitamins were very effective for a large number of patients: Drs. Evan and Wilfred Shute in Ontario described their excellent results when using vitamin E in large doses for cardiovascular disease and for burns; Dr. William Kaufman reported the amazing responses of patients with arthritis to vitamin B-3; Dr. Fred Klenner reported great success in giving enormous daily doses of vitamin C by mouth and intravenously for serious infections including poliomyelitis, and Dr. Irwin Stone did the same with his enormous review of the vitamin C literature. Their clinical findings were ignored by establishment medicine because vitamins cannot be given use patents.
The work my colleagues and I reported, that niacin lowered cholesterol levels could not be ignored1. In 1955 drug companies were looking for compounds they could patent that would lower cholesterol levels. Most important was the fact that Dr. William Parsons Jr.2, then senior resident at the Mayo Clinic, confirmed our findings. Yet in spite of the fact that there have been no negative studies and thousands of positive reports, even today niacin is not used as it has no advertising to promote it. Drugs today are made popular, not by the quality of their activity and freedom from side effects, but by the size of the advertising budget (think Vioxx).
These reports and ours initiated the new paradigm now called vitamins-as-treatment. With this paradigm we accept that there are many more conditions than the classical deficiency diseases that will respond when given vitamins, and that the doses may be much larger than are called for by the original vitamin concepts. For example, high blood cholesterol is not a deficiency disease, and yet it is lowered by large doses of niacin. All blood lipid constituents are normalized by niacin3.
Niacin is the gold standard; more effective than the statins, much safer, but much less prescribed even though it is much more affordable. Vitamin B-3 also is one of the most effective treatments for schizophrenia, but in psychiatry there has been no one equivalent to Dr. Parsons.
1 Altschul R, Hoffer A & Stephen JD: Influence of nicotinic acid on serum cholesterol in man. Arch Biochem Biophys 1955;54:558-559.
2 Parsons WB Jr: Cholesterol Control Without Diet. The Niacin Solution. Revised, Expanded, Second Edition, Lilac Press, Scottsdale Arizona 85252-1356, 2003.
3 Carlson LA: Nicotinic Acid: the Broad-spectrum Lipid Drug. A 50th Anniversary Review. J Internal Medicine 2005;258:940-114.