Vitamin use is ubiquitous in Canada. 50% of women and 35% of men take a daily vitamin or mineral supplement. They are so commonly used that few question their necessity.
James Lind was an 18th century Scottish physician tasked with finding a cure for scurvy, a greater threat to the Royal Navy than enemy arms. Instead of relying on anecdotes as his colleagues did, he conducted the first known clinical trial. Citrus fruit was so obviously effective that supply of lemon juice was made mandatory on all British ships.
It took 100 years to discover that vitamin C in citrus fruits is what cures scurvy, but Lind’s rational approach nonetheless identified the best treatment and saved lives.
Contrast this with the approach taken by Linus Pauling and his countless followers.
Pauling was an American scientist who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and the Nobel Peace Prize. Then he met Irwin Stone.
Stone convinced Pauling, just by saying so, that if he took 3000 mg of vitamin C daily, he would live a long life. Pauling was so excited about vitamin C he increased his daily dose to 200 times the daily limit and published a book about it. Shortly after, 50 million Americans were following along.
He eventually promoted other vitamins to prevent and treat every disease known to modern medicine, including cancer. His pronouncements became so outrageous that he lost his scientific credibility.
The public didn’t notice and the use of vitamin supplements grew unabated.
Pauling based his treatment on anecdote, Lind based his on evidence.
Who was right?
Vitamin C is useless in treating colds. It may slightly reduce the duration of colds if used daily, but not the number of colds.
As for multivitamins, there is no currently available evidence that daily use in the general population has any impact on reducing cancer, cardiovascular disease, or mortality.
Beta-carotene, selenium, and vitamins A, C and E warrant special mention. Not only do they have no impact in preventing disease but there is reasonable evidence that beta-carotene and vitamin E may actually increase risk of death.
“There is no scientific basis for recommending vitamin-mineral supplements to the healthy population.”-Dr. Benjamin Caballero, MD.
4. Offit PA. Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine. New York:HarperCollins; 2013.