A Revolution in Health Care: Dietary Supplements

Your Health at Risk

Your health may be at risk if you believe the current medical and food industry myths that assert that you do not need extra vitamins and minerals if you eat properly (what is commonly called a balanced diet). For decades, this has also been the position of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which appears to have had an antagonism to dietary supplements since early in its history.

As of 1995, the FDA does not even allow supplement manufacturers to use in their sales literature quotes from other governmental agencies (such as the USDA[US Department of Agriculture]) or from medical research, even if the quotation accurately and favorably portrays the value of a dietary supplement. This is a political, not a scientific, position.

If you accept this inaccurate information, you will probably be left in an average state of poor health, or what most doctors call average good health. This is the condition in which the “average” person lives. You will have the “average” profile of frequent colds and other infections, headaches, fatigue, gum disease, menstrual disturbances, anxiety, poor sleep, obesity, and accelerated aging, leading to early heart disease or common cancers and premature death. You do not have to accept this situation.

Changes in Medicine

Significant changes are taking place in health care. Doctors are increasingly becoming interested in the use of high-dose dietary supplements in the treatment and prevention of disease. They are, in fact, taking supplements themselves, even though they may not yet be recommending them for their patients. A recent survey showed that eight out of 10 physicians report taking vitamin E. Researchers sometimes have a curious position-for example, one researcher’s studies show the value of vitamin E, but he says, “there is not enough research to recommend it to the general public, but I am taking it myself!” Why should you, as part of the general public, have to wait for scientists and doctors to give you the go-ahead for what they are already doing?

Recently a colleague asked me what dose of a particular nutrient I would use in a patient with heart failure. He had tried everything else and was now willing to try a dietary supplement in the face of failure of the medical treatment. I hope that in the future he will consider using supplements before the situation is dire, so it may not get that way. Unfortunately, many mainstream practitioners worry about the ridicule of their colleagues if they consider using dietary supplements instead of the usual medication.

Dietary supplements are an integral part of a comprehensive health program. I have been taking them myself since 1971 and recommending them as part of my medical practice since 1976. When I graduated from medical school in 1970, I knew virtually nothing about the field of nutrition. At that time, a common joke was that the average physician knew as much about nutrition as the average secretary, unless the secretary had a weight problem, in which case the secretary knew more than the doctor!

Unfortunately, things in medical school haven’t changed much. Most medical schools do not go into detail about nutrition during the entire 4 years of training. However, changes are just beginning in medical education, mainly due to public demand for more nutrition information and more choice of therapies. For the most part, this is not being initiated by the medical schools, but is coming primarily from physician self-education groups such as the American College for Advancement in Medicine, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine and the American Holistic Medical Association.

Only recently have medical schools introduced courses in “alternative medicine” or “complementary medicine.” There is a demand for this information, and, once they are exposed to it, medical students often have a strong interest. Therefore, this field is likely to grow. Because hospitals and medical schools have very little experience with these health practices, some of the courses leave out many of the best-documented and most effective treatments using dietary supplements, but they are getting their feet wet.

Opponents of Change

There are some antagonists to this development in medical education and health care. They are mired in the old way of thinking about nutrition and dietary supplements. They often make the erroneous claim that the therapeutic value of dietary supplementation is not supported by scientific literature or that it is dangerous. This is simply the last gasp of a cadre of status quo protectors. They often appear to have the ulterior motive of supporting drug companies and a medical care system that needs to change. Sometimes their motives are not clear.

At a 1995 conference on nutrition controversies, sponsored by the University of Vermont, three of my research colleagues and one medical colleague spoke about the value of dietary supplements in health care. Prior to the conference, the program director received a phone call from an antagonist who threatened to call every presenter cautioning them not to speak because he disagreed with the information that we were going to present. The director was not intimidated, but one speaker with a more traditional view did withdraw. These tactics, designed to suppress debate, should not be tolerated in America.

Sometimes, antagonists to the use of dietary supplements claim that the extra nutrients only lead to “expensive urine” because extra amounts of most vitamins are excreted by the kidneys. This is irrelevant, since the important issue is not the ultimate fate of the substances, but what they do while they are on their way through the body and how many tissues they heal-including the urinary tract. In fact, a recent study showed that large doses of vitamins and minerals markedly reduced tumor recurrence in patients with bladder cancer, compared to those who received just the Recommended Dietary Allowances. This was a reputable study, published in the Journal of Urology!

Luckily, I was introduced to nutrition after medical school and was able to pursue it with an open mind. I did not have to contend with as much opposition as I would have had during medical school. Since that time, I have had to learn (and unlearn) a lot. This knowledge of nutritionally oriented health care is available in the medical literature and at conferences, through numerous books, and, perhaps most important, from clinical experience and discussions with colleagues.

It is the clinical experience with patients taking dietary supplements that acts as a filter and helps me to understand what really works. Every day I am able to observe the therapeutic and preventive benefits of dietary supplements in both my medical practice and in everyday life.

Other Health Practices

Before you get the wrong impression, you should understand that supplements are a part of a comprehensive health program. A total approach includes a healthy diet. I recommend that this be mostly vegetarian, whole foods, without added sugars, white flour, white rice, artificial colors or flavors, preservatives, margarines or other hydrogenated oils, and very little of any added oil or fat (but enough of the right oils-more about this later).

Total health also requires that you be physically active. Since most people lead relatively sedentary lives, an exercise program is essential. Begin an aerobic fitness program, such as brisk walking, cycling or running, with some stretching or yoga. Try to participate in these activities for at least 30 to 40 minutes, no fewer than three or four times per week. It is a good idea to work up a mild sweat but not to get out of breath (if you get out of breath, the exercise is not aerobic).

Coping with stress is another essential part of total health. In addition to other problems of modern life (and, I suspect, life throughout history), most people are under some degree of stress. Stress is our level of reactivity to variations from a perfect environment, whether internal or external. Stressors are the environmental variables that lead us to experience stress. A stress management program of visualization, breathing or meditation, self-regulation, biofeedback or any of a number of relaxation methods will contribute to both disease prevention and treatment. (Preventive medicine is great, but if you haven’t managed to prevent everything bad, it is good to know that preventive medicine also works in the treatment of many medical conditions.)

Health and Life Extension

Both treatment and prevention of disease are the goals of these comprehensive health program recommendations. One of the side benefits of taking such good care of yourself is the likelihood of enhanced longevity. The desire for a long life is a sign of the love you have for the moment in which you are living and a sign of your love for yourself. Until you develop that self love, it is very difficult to start on the road to better health or implement the programs that will take you there.

Many people who seek health counseling come with the particular goal of extending their healthy years. There are many components to comprehensive life-extension programs, and stress reduction is a significant contributor to them. Proper diet and exercise are essential to enhanced longevity, and specific dietary supplements are also powerful contributors to achieving this goal. To be positively healthy into advanced years requires that you combine as many good health practices as possible into your personal action plan.

Having said all this, the purpose of this book is to give you the information you need to start your own dietary supplement program, usually using relatively large yet safe and effective doses, for preventing and treating both symptoms and diseases and enhancing longevity.

Diagnoses Versus Optimal Health

A diagnosis is just a name given to a recognized collection of symptoms. If your particular collection of symptoms does not fit a known pattern, they cannot be diagnosed (but that does not mean that you do not have health problems). Many doctors assume that if you do not have a clear diagnosis your symptoms are not real or that they are “all in your head.” Or they may think the situation is not serious enough to require treatment. (“Come back when it gets worse, and we’ll see what we can do.”) This was the case with Premenstrual Syndrome before it was a recognized pattern, and it is the case today with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which has only recently become accepted by physicians as a “legitimate” health problem. The lack of a diagnosis does not mean you are in optimal health.

If you look hard enough, most symptoms have an underlying cause rooted in altered biochemistry and physiology. Often, these causes are related to lifestyle choices that have metabolic consequences. There are many estimates that up to 85% of such problems are the result of these choices, and many of them are related to nutrients. Most of these symptoms can be relieved without drugs or surgery, but not all of them. Knowing the difference is an important part of holistic medicine.

Nutrients and Other Supplements

There are approximately 50 known essential nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids (oils), and amino acids. These nutrients must be acquired in relatively small amounts from the diet or from supplements in order to maintain minimal health and to prevent specific deficiency diseases such as pellagra, beriberi and scurvy. Deficiency diseases, however, are not the common health problems in America or the rest of the industrialized world. Marginal nutrition associated with marginal health is much more likely to be the problem for most people. You may, for example, have enough vitamin C to prevent scurvy, but not enough to have optimal health, a sense of vitality, and a vigorous immune defense.

There are also a number of “accessory food factors” that are found in food but are not essential because you can manufacture them in the body from other substances. The amount that you manufacture is sometimes inadequate for optimal health, and in these situations, supplementation is essential for treatment or prevention of illness. These accessory food factors include coenzyme Q10, l-carnitine, GLA (gamma-linolenic acid), some non-essential amino acids and other dietary supplements.

Besides all of these nutrients, there are other substances found in the food supply that are not considered essential but that, nonetheless, offer important health benefits. Many of these are bioflavonoids, or simply, flavonoids. They are plant pigments that may act as antioxidants or enhance the effects of other nutrients or physiological molecules. Some of them are also available as supplements, but there are many recently discovered ones that are not. (Let this serve as a reminder of how important it is to eat a healthy diet.)

Are Supplements Natural?

You may be thinking that it is not “natural” to take supplements. In some ways this is true, but our food supply is not as rich in nutrients as we have been led to believe, and dietary supplements are proven to be valuable for enhancing health, as well as treating and preventing illness. They are usually extra amounts of substances that we all need (except the herbs), and unlike drugs, they work by enhancing normal metabolic functions or protecting us from environmental stressors. We do not live in a natural environment. Also, everything natural is not necessarily healthy or beneficial to humans. For example, earthquakes, floods and syphilis are all “natural,” but they are not desirable. Supplements can help you resist unavoidable negative influences, both natural and unnatural.

The most common view of preventive medicine is that it involves things that you shouldn’t do-smoke, drink excessive alcohol, take drugs, overeat. These negatives are an essential but incomplete approach to prevention. A more positive view is that of being an active participant in your own health promotion program. Supplementing your diet is one way to actively promote your own wellness, create vitality and enhance longevity. Dietary supplements have worked for many people for many years. Take my word for it, they can work for you too.

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Written by Michael Janson MD

Explore Wellness in 2021