Vitamins Can Treat Disease, Not Just Prevent It

by Abram Hoffer, PhD, MD, FRCP (C), RNCP
Source: Health Action Magazine Fall 2007

During the late 19th century, the medical profession was buzzing with the latest discoveries that infectious diseases were caused by the invasion of the body by tiny organisms called bacteria, viruses, other parasites and more. The most famous pathologist of that time, Dr. RLK Virchow, declared that no disease was ever caused by the absence of anything. Little did he know at the time, that vitamins would be the answer to not only nutrient deficiency, but also to safe treatment of many modern diseases.

By 1900, the Japanese Navy knew that if it wanted to keep its sailors from developing beri beri, a terrible and fatal disease, that the sailors must eat brown rice, not white polished rice. A few years later the first water-soluble factor called B-1, later called thiamin, was identified. (Factor A had already been established as important in maintaining vision.) The B-1 factor was found in the outer portion of the grain. When removed during processing and polishing, valuable nutrients, including B-1, were lost.

A short time later, Dr. J Goldberger, a phenomenally brilliant and inquisitive research physician with the United States Department of Public Health, discovered why so many Americans suffered with pellagra, a disease resulting in extreme physical illness, followed by psychosis and finally death. It was caused by a diet of only corn. Only the poor got sick. When meat and vegetables were eaten with their corn people were alright. However, when only corn was eaten, a vitamin B-3 deficiency resulted, since B-3 is not available from corn.

Vitamins as prevention
With great guts and enthusiasm, doctors working with these newly discovered accessory factors, later called vitamins, isolated the rest of the vitamins, along with their chemical composition, how they worked, and what happened if they were not provided in the food. A deficiency of thiamin caused beri beri. A deficiency of B-3 caused pellagra, and a deficiency of vitamin C caused scurvy. Vitamins were defined as substances that could not be made in the body, but only were needed in very small amounts. As catalysts, vitamins were found to be used over and over again in the body, and were needed only to protect against classical deficiency diseases. It followed that they were not needed for conditions that were not recognized as deficiencies and were contraindicated for any other conditions.

This is when the vitamin-as-prevention paradigm began. It is enshrined in the holy daily recommended amounts (RDAs), and embraced by departments of health and governments all over the world. Unfortunately, this old way of thinking was based only crude guesses because so little was known about vitamins at the time. Yet for years the incomplete concept has bedeviled clinical nutrition. It has taken 50 years for the medical establishment to change from the old "vitamin-as-prevention" paradigm to the "vitamin-as-treatment" option. Even today, most doctors think about vitamin research and clinical use in terms of deficiency only. In my opinion, doctors know less about vitamins than their secretaries or spouses.

Vitamins as treatment
In the early 1950s, as this "vitamin-as-prevention" only concept was being established, Drs. Evan and Wilfred Shute, eminent Canadian specialists, found that vitamin E was very helpful for treating heart disease and burns. They used large doses for conditions not recognized as a vitamin deficiency disease. Around the same time, Dr. Humphrey Osmond and I found that niacin was the best way to treat psychosis. Dr. William Kaufman reported that vitamin B-3 was therapeutic for diseases of the aged, especially arthritis, and also used large doses for non-deficiency conditions. In 1955, Dr. Altschul, Dr. Stephen and I published research showing that niacin decreased cholesterol levels if they were too high. We used 3,000 to 6,000 milligrams daily, far more than the 20 milligrams needed to reverse classical pellagra. High blood cholesterol is not considered a vitamin deficiency disease, therefore we broke the rules of the old paradigm and started the new paradigm called "vitamin-as-treatment."

The new rules for vitamins are that they may have to be given in very large doses if they are to be therapeutic for many non-deficiency diseases or conditions, such as Huntington's Disease or arthritis. Though the evidence is old news, the "vitamin-as-treatment" paradigm is almost totally rejected by the medical and nutritional professions, except for a few isolated examples. For example, niacin was the first vitamin recognized by the FDA, United States, for decreasing cholesterol levels but they probably had not realized it was a vitamin and considered it a drug. As a vitamin, it cannot be patented; as a result there was no desire for companies to market it. Instead, they developed other substances, such as the statins, which do lower total cholesterol, but do very little else of value in prolonging life.

There is nothing as safe and as effective as niacin for lowering total cholesterol if it is too high, increasing HDL (the good cholesterol) if it is too low, lowering triglycerides, and lowering Lipo A. Niacin is also a remarkable anti-inflammatory substance; therefore, it protects against the damage of hardening of the arteries. Between a low RDA for vitamin D and continuous, erroneous warnings about the danger of sun exposure, many people are deficient. In the meantime, there has been increasing evidence of the vast importance of not only sufficient, but large doses of vitamin D in preventing multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis, cancer, seasonal affective disorder and more.

I feel the public is confused because of these two opposing paradigms. Old school calls for a very limited use of small doses of a few of the vitamins, and recommends that they be obtained from food, not pills. Many people, as a result, are opposed to supplements. However, as history has shown us, numerous diseases can be effectively treated with high doses of vitamins. Recognizing this difference may mean the difference between health and disease, and eventually living and dying.

Dr. Hoffer, in private practice as a consultant, was recently honoured by the International Schizophrenia Foundation with a Lifetime Achievement Gala Dinner in Toronto, Ontario, for his commitment to the mentally ill and their families. His career in practice and research laid the foundation for the Orthomolecular Medicine approach that is helping so many people today.
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