Overweening Generalist

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Taking Vitamins: A Quasi-Drug Report

Do you use vitamins? I do, but one part of my brain - the part that's read about what a waste of money they are, that I only need to eat a balanced diet, etc - knows I ought not; another part says, "Hey they're so cheap and you really don't take all that much, what can it hurt? Might even...'help'...err...something do some thing better than it...was optimized to do?"

I do drink zinfandel and massive, hoppy beers. Ethyl alcohol in your gut can kill B vitamins, which we need to help convert our food to energy. Or so some possible quacks have written.

Then again, I like taking pills. It's fun. Somewhat related to my previous post (<------), I like to think, "This pill can do some amazing, magickal things for me! I might even live to the ripe old age of 55 if I keep up this regimen!"

But sometimes I just feel like a damned fool. And, although I assume the readers of OG are at least as smart as me, probably smarter, I also assume there are a few who will stumble in, look around, and maybe happen upon something they ain't nevah hoidda. That eating "antioxidants" in order to get a leg up healthwise, or even live longer... is quite likely a load of crap. Have you heard that one?

Anyone who follows the MSM will hear "experts" talk about how terrific antioxidants are for your health, and they are!, but only in theory. The free radical theory of aging and disease gave rise to eating supplements - vitamins - because they're antioxidating; they fight the tendency of our bodies to "rust" from the inside.

But a few years ago I looked at the Science that was supposed to bolster these omnipresent claims, and ended by taking the bull by the tail and looking the facts in the face...or however that goes. Two bigtime studies did a lot to convince me that, if I'm taking supplements it ought not be for the "antioxidating" qualities of vitamins.


Two Studies On Antioxidants
One study took 30,000 Finlanders who had a high risk for lung cancer (male smokers aged 50-69), and the study was randomized: you got Vitamin E, beta-carotene, both, or nothing. When the trial was over and the researchers looked to see who got what and how they did, the ones who got beta-carotene did worse than everyone else, and had significantly higher rates of not only lung cancer, but heart disease. Beta-carotene was thought by some to prevent lung cancer, but people who took it (not knowing; they may have been taking a placebo for all they knew) died at a higher rate. See "Alpha-Tocopherol, Beta-Carotene Cancer Prevention Study Group."

The second study was the Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial (CARET, a pun! get it?), and 18,000 smokers who'd been exposed to asbestos were given beta-carotene and Vitamin A or a placebo in a study that was supposed to go on for a long time, but was terminated early because those who were getting the antioxidants were dying at a far faster clip than anyone would have expected. If you turned out to have gotten the Vitamin A and beta-carotene, you were in the group that was 46% more likely to die from lung cancer, and - oddly? - 17% more likely to die from any cause.

These are very hardcore studies: randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled. Why have so few of us heard of these studies? The short answer: the vitamin industry uses the same tactics that the tobacco and (now) the anti-climate change people have used: the creation of doubt. "It's controversial!" That's their main way of keeping their show on the road. And it's relatively easy to muddy the waters and claim over and over, "Experts still disagree."

The thing that had many experts believing antioxidants might help stave off disease was the free radical theory. It seemed like a good idea on paper, but we're more complex beings; lots can happen between the swallow of a pill and...results compared to other at-risk people and some placebos, and some time. We also found out that we lose bone mass as we age, so calcium supplements seemed like a natural remedy. But calcium turned out to not really help. In fact, calcium supplementation seemed to raise the heart-attack risk for older women. Women's hormones cause them all sorts of woe after a certain age, so hormone-replacement therapy seemed like a cracking good idea, on paper. Theoretically. But the actual story was quite unimpressive, even scary. Have you heard of the calcium and hormone studies but not the Vitamin A studies? If so, why? Could it have to do with $$$$?

One thing I've learned from reading guys like Ioannidis and a few others (including, Alfred Korzybski) is that reductionist claims are seductive: they play to our rational sense of cause-effect. But when it comes to health and the human body, I am very suspicious of blood tests (with some exceptions that have proven to be statistical winners/slam dunks), animal studies, flow charts of molecules and interactions, and even aye: "theory."

Let us see many more massive randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled long-range studies done, with lots of sunlight on who was paying for the study.

Do I still take the concoction of "Men's Formula" from Trader Joe's? Yes. Why? Because I'm sorta lame, and besides, I'm scaling back! I can kick, if I just have the Will.


Dave said...

There is a section related to this on the excellent PBS special on the Amish. They are interviewing an Amish man and ask him what is different about him and the non-amish. He says that if you ask ten non-amish whether their family would be better off with or without a TV, nine would say that they would be better off without a TV. The Amish man agrees with them, but the difference is that he actually doesn't have a TV.

Anonymous said...

I've noticed a drastic drop in peoples enthusiasm for pills right after a TV ad listing the side effects.

I take a bunch now and then because my diet while healthier than most is still not varied enough to suit me. My days as a neolithic scrounger ended when I moved to the city. I hear that starving yourself works wonders if you want to live a long time. Avoiding Quackery might be equally efficatious.

Too bad nobody wanted to start a religious argument, in the goode olde dayes it was lots of fun for the spectators. TV was actually a good idea until people got hold of it.

I'm continually amazed at the sappy academic view of "primitives". The same people are still scrawling graffiti on walls but every educated loon who finds a pictograph starts swooning about it being religious in nature. The
people I knew lived a lot closer to
the bone and that meant they were less likely to crap in their nest but it didn't translate into the
paeons of "spirituality" attributed by academics.

One woman who visited from the East asked to be shown how to make buckskin. She was told first you have to have brains. She immediately left in a huff, being told she lacked brains by a scrufty savage was too much for her.

Spreading brains on the inside of a hide is the first step in softening it in the process of
turning a raw hide into usable leather.

michael said...

@Dave: I missed the Amish doc on PBS. That's a pretty funny anecdote. Do that many Amish really own TVs?

If so, it makes me feel a little less egg-faced about taking (a small amt) vitamin supplements, all the while knowing the main thing they're probably doing for me is making my next pee a tad more vibrant.

@Anonymous: Your comment seems more interesting than my blog post you're responding to, and it's good to hear about buckskin and brains after so many boring, cancer-causing vitamins. Thanks.