‘Common Vitamins do not extend Life - and may even cause premature death‘
So said the TV news and most of the UK’s newspapers, often on the front page (w/c 14th April 2008).
As always I would like to look at this in a little more depth, so that our readers are not confused.
Let me quote from the Daily Mail and The Telegraph, which seemed to sum up the content and tone of the UK media:
‘VITAMINS taken by around a third of the population do not extend life and may even cause premature death, according to a respected group of International Scientists.
After reviewing 67 studies involving more than 230,000 men and women, the experts say there is no convincing evidence that taking supplements A,C and E can make you healthier.
The alarming findings, published today, will shock Britons who spend over £333 million a year on supplements. Forty per cent of women and 30 per cent of men take a vitamin pill each day.
The review involved trials on beta-carotene, vitamin A, vitamin C, Vitamin E and selenium.
The report says in-depth analysis of the different trials does not support the idea that vitamins extend lifespan. Even more, beta-carotene, vitamin A and vitamin E seem to increase mortality. Vitamin A was linked to a 16 per cent increase in mortality, beta-carotene - the pigment found in carrots, tomatoes and broccoli which the body converts into vitamin A - to a 7 per cent increase and vitamin E to a 4 per cent increase.
Where people were eating a full and healthy diet, supplementing with these antioxidants gave no increase in life expectancy“.
Let me see if I can help our readers with this study:
This review is not research – it is a review, a report, of past research studies.
The report was prepared by Goran Bjelakovic, a Serbian scientist who is currently a visiting researcher at Copenhagen University Hospital. It is actually a repeat of an almost identical review he presented about a year ago (Feb 28th 2007). In the previous one he used 68 studies, this time 67. The previous report was covered in JAMA and said (obviously) much the same things. It too was covered extensively by the media – and we commented on it then.
To report on 67 research studies may seem impressive but actually it is not. There are over 800 published research studies on vitamin E alone.
Worse, the report actually states that 472 research studies were considered. But Goran dismissed 405 studies.
In the mega-study by Goran a year ago we saw the same pattern - the choice of 14 studies or so, out of the 800 available. A similar US mega-study around the same time followed beta-carotene and antioxidants and was equally ‘selective’, drawing criticism from Cancer Research UK. Such mega-studies using but 14 out of 800 studies available - or here 67 out of 2000 or more - lay themselves open to attack right from the outset; not due to the studies they cover, but for the ones they omit, and why?
This ‘latest’ report’s aims were to look solely at longevity and antioxidants. You may feel it odd, then, that Goran took the 67 studies where someone had died, and left out the 405 studies where everybody continued to live.
The detail of the research further adds questions over the scientific rigour of those studies chosen. Whilst ‘over 230,000 men and women’ may have been reported on, some research studies included worryingly few people; one just 28.
Our interest is in cancer and helping our readers beat the disease. But the detail of the research tells us: ‘The present review does not assess antioxidant supplements for treatment of specific diseases’. The authors add, ‘Or patients with demonstrated specific needs for antioxidants’.
So, Goran also left out all the studies where antioxidants were actually needed. Brilliant! Worse, he then went on to conclude that patients who had a full and balanced diet didn’t derive any benefit from such supplements. It’s rather like saying ‘people who don’t need antioxidants, don’t need antioxidants’. Brilliant again!
To highlight another typical media comment – implying that beta-carotene in the research was ‘the pigment found in carrots, tomatoes and broccoli’ – the report is quite clear: ‘The Report does NOT include the effects of antioxidants contained in fruit and vegetables’. To paraphrase this – the report has nothing whatsoever to do with natural compounds.
Indeed, the report only selected research studies where Pharmaceutical-grade synthetic vitamins were used. And I think this is the most telling fact, and should immediately be acted upon by those people in the EU who have been responsible for some of the daft decisions made on vitamins in recent times, like limiting many of the natural ones and approving the synthetic ones.
For our readers interested in cancer, then, be clear: Goran’s choice of studies missed out serious research like the US study on beta-carotene, vitamin E, vitamin C and selenium in China (1993) and this followed 170,000 people. And it ignored the French SuVi.Max study which followed 17,000 adults in real life for 7 years. Both these studies made significant claims for the benefits of these antioxidants with cancer. Indeed, Goran’s Report didn’t concern itself at all with cancer – and did not include any of the antioxidant and cancer research studies.
I am not alone in being dismayed that the Cochrane Library has damaged its good name in the scientific community by publishing this report.
Regular readers know our consistent stance on antioxidant vitamins well - you can read it fully on our web site.
A) We are not surprised that people eating a full and healthy diet derived no benefit from supplementing extra vitamins.
a. In our opinion the best way to get your vitamins is in food - we covered the latest research on vitamin C supplements performing less well than oranges in Cancer Watch two issues ago.
b. Why would you need to supplement if you already have an adequate intake from your diet?
c. Many are water soluble – add a supplement to an already adequate diet and you are wasting your money every time you urinate.
B) Where people do ’top up’ with supplements (for example recently diagnosed cancer patients who have consumed a poor diet and want to correct) we advise that they obtain them always in natural format. This study just adds to the previous evidence from research that synthetic vitamins may do more harm than good.
C) Vitamin E is naturally available in 8 forms. (4 Tocopherols and 4 tocotrienols). We have repeatedly told readers that the EU in their wisdom have approved just one of the vitamin E forms - synthetic alpha Tocopherol. It is the only one now supposedly available on your High Street. The Goran Report considered research on exactly that form of vitamin E before concluding possible dangers. In all the latest US and Japanese research Tocotrienols are the form being found to be hugely protective against breast and other cancers. Unfortunately, alpha Tocopherol is known to block their action. (Again, see the past three issues of Cancer Watch for the studies). For this reason we recommend people who may be short of vitamin E supplement with a natural product containing ALL 4 Tocopherols and ALL 4 Tocotrienols.
D) Similarly, beta-carotene as found in the High Street and these research studies is not ‘the pigment found in carrots, tomatoes, broccoli’. The natural state is available as two molecules – 9-cis beta-carotene, and all trans beta-carotene - the synthetic usually just the latter (all trans). For this reason we recommend that those people who need to top up their beta-carotene levels do so by consuming Chlorella - an all-natural food stuff that has 30 times the beta-carotene content of carrots and in both forms.
E) We rarely recommend Vitamin C supplementation as it is in plentiful supply (Red Peppers are the best source). Some cancer therapies use Vitamin C mega doses and that is quite a different issue.
F) Anyone reading our Nutritional reviews will know that the case for vitamin A and cancer is the weakest of the anti-oxidants and I’m even surprised it is a focus in a longevity study. Vitamin A is primarily of benefit to the eyes; the best Natural Source of Vitamin A is in Fish oils.
G) We note that the detail of the research did not ‘attack’ selenium at all. In terms of cancer it was a positive benefit in both the above China and French studies. It has an enhancing effect with antioxidants and can help remove heavy metals from tissues according to several studies. Research suggests that people do not use supplementation above 200 micrograms per day.
H) Where people need to strengthen their immune systems there are a number of natural ways they might also consider. For example, other Natural Compounds like Resveratrol, Grape Seed Extract, Curcumin and Lycopene (in tomatoes) are especially active, as are the Herbs Astragalus, Echinacea, Cat’s Claw and the tincture of 8 natural compounds, Essiac, which all boost NK cells, cytokines, T-cells and B-cells. D-Mannose, Noni Juice and Aloe Vera can supply natural Polysaccharides to help communication and recognition between immune cells and rogue cells.
We are trying to track the best natural suppliers for our Products of Choice selection on our web site at the moment. We are having the herb products made for us as fresh tinctures from natural sources. We hope to have them all within a month so you can buy them secure in the knowledge that you are taking the best Natural Compounds available.
I hope this note proves helpful to all our readers.
Please see the separate articles under Nutritionals for