Lately I’ve seen a lot of people commenting on the fact that Big Pharma is a multi billion dollar industry, hungry for money and that they cannot be trusted. This claim needs to be looked at critically, with the same standard that we hold all big companies that are out to make money. You don’t throw away your computer just because the company that made it is out to make money, do you? So the fact that Big Pharma companies want to make money shouldn’t be enough of a reason to distrust them. At the end of the day, the best way to make money is to provide a service or product that actually does something good to benefit the customer. What better way for a pharmaceutical company to make money than find the cure for cancer? Whoever succeeds will be a multi-billionaire at least!
For a reasons that are not completely clear, we seem to hold supplement and vitamin companies to a different standard, with the thought that due to the fact that their products are ‘natural’ they are better. In fact this is true for all ‘natural’ medicine, or alternative medicine as others call it. The word ‘natural’ is probably the greatest marketing scheme in the world, and it’s a word that needs reviewing. What is natural? Is natural the time when people roamed the earth as hunters or gatherers, without medication, GMOs or other chemicals that we have in our food today? The life expectancy around that time period was somewhere in the 30s. Technology has constantly been advancing to protect humans against nature. For example, one of the biggest reductions in newborn mortality came when doctors realised the importance of washing their hands before delivering babies. Soap is an unnatural chemical that kills bacteria (bacteria are natural), should we refrain from using it? Not if we want a large percentage of our babies to live. Malaria is part of nature, as is Ebola, and I can name a few other deadly diseases which are ‘natural’ as well.
It is true however that the human body is an absolutely phenomenal creation, and that’s true wether you believe in a creator or not. Our bodies know how to heal themselves, and have incredible mechanisms to support us as we navigate our way through this world. You should respect your body and treat it properly, because as well as you take care of your body your body will take care of you. The world has changed immensely in the past few hundred years, providing us with opportunities that we’ve never had before, like fresh produce from all over the world in abundance year round. This is phenomenal, though of course it’s important to note that it’s not completely natural. Evolution has not had time to catch up with the rapid changes and opportunities that technology has produced, and so we need to think critically about the things that we consider healthy, and pay careful attention to what we put into our body (or put through our body), and how we act if we want to treat our body properly of course.
Much of the medication that we take suppresses natural reactions that our body has. An example of this is anti-inflammatory drugs like Aspirin, Ibuprofen and Acetaminophen to name a few. Inflammation is a physiological response that our body has to damage caused either by trauma, an unwanted intruder like a virus or bacteria, or other damage that requires repair. Anti-inflammatory medication suppresses those processes, hindering the body’s ability to repair or react to certain intruders. Is this a bad thing? We have to look at it case by case. Let’s say you have a viral infection, you’re all stuffed up with a headache and a runny nose, maybe a low fever too. Anti-inflammatory medication can help reduce the pain of the headache, and lower your fever. Of course the fever and headache are part of the body’s natural ways of creating an unfriendly environment for the virus causing the infection. By fighting the fever and headache you are fighting yourself, and helping the virus! But it’s important to ask… so what? Will the virus win? Probably not. What’s the damage if you take an anti-inflammatory drug? You might have the infection for a few hours more (a week and a few hours instead of a week). But you might be much more comfortable that week and suffer a lot less. So take that into account, and make a decision that’s right for you.
The main point that I want to make, is that we need to use critical thinking to make decisions, and we need to hold the same standard for everything wether it’s called natural, chemical, toxic, alternative medicine, big pharma, and also vitamins. The fact that big companies want to make money is nothing new, and although it IS reason to be skeptical it is not reason to decide that they cannot benefit you.
As I was growing up, I was taught that vitamin C is good for your immune system, and that a multivitamin pill is part of a good healthy diet, along with my fruits and vegetables of course. Some people have taken the claims about vitamins way too far, using them in extremely high doses to treat cancer for example, and of course these doses are toxic. They do harm both by preventing other treatments which may benefit them backed by evidence, and they also create harm actively with the toxic doses, but this is for a different article. I want to mention a study that was recently published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. This study checked the benefits of taking daily vitamins, and wanted to see if there was any benefit in the long term with respect to cardiovascular disease, or all cause mortality. Do vitamins really have a benefit? Now if you know anything about data, you know that as more of it gets collected the proof is usually stronger. This study is a meta-analysis, meaning that it combined information from hundreds of other studies to provide the strongest amount of proof that it can.
What is the verdict?
There are two main points which are important to take away from this study. The first was that daily vitamins including vitamin C, vitamin D, multivitamins or calcium did not have any positive effect on all-cause mortality, nor did it have any effect on cardiovascular disease. There was no difference in the group of people who took them daily, and the group of people that didn’t take them at all. This is heavily due to the fact that a decent western diet contains enough vitamins for our needs, and probably much more. The second point pertains to antioxidants or niacin. There is so much talk about how we need antioxidants to take away many of the poisons in our body, but this study found that people who took an antioxidant daily were associated with increased risk of all-cause mortality. An INCREASED risk.
One of the findings however found that folic acid supplements taken in China caused a decreased risk for cardiovascular disease. This is not true in the west however, where the FDA is there to make sure that folic acid is added to enriched grain products. However this does not relate to pregnancy, where folic acid should definitely be taken from 3 months before pregnancy until term. In addition, this study looked at healthy individuals who took the vitamins routinely, not people who have specific deficiencies like osteoporosis or other deficiencies requiring treatment.
What’s important to keep in mind:
The strength of this proof is moderate. Some of the trials were not ideally designed, but that being said there is enough data here to make a pretty convincing case against the need to take routine vitamins or supplements if you have a healthy diet. And although this data isn’t perfect, it’s the best that exists today.
In the developed world our problems come from overeating, not malnutrition or other deficiencies. It is probably more beneficial to cut down on the unhealthy parts of your diet than to overload the parts that you think are healthy. Almost everything is healthy in moderation (ALMOST everything), but moderation is the key. We get the modest amount of the vitamins that we need from our diet. Alcohol is also healthy in moderation, small amounts are found to lower cardiovascular disease but large amounts are found to have some serious negative effects. Coffee has also been found to be healthy in moderation. Moderation is the key.
If there is nothing else that you take away from your post it is this: think critically about everything, even if it’s called ‘natural’. This is a marketing scheme, which is fine as long as you think critically about it. The fact that companies want to make money is not a reason for you to stay away from them, that is what they are there for. That being said you should do your research as unbiasedly as possible, holding everyone to the same standard when making decisions.
If you feel that you personally have a deficiency, wether you think you’re anaemic because you feel general weakness, or something else you should get checked out to see if there is something specific that you are lacking. As a general rule there is no need to take routine supplements or vitamins if you have a healthy diet.
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