In defense of nutrient supplements.
Subject: Dietary supplements (Health aspects)
Author: McCabe, Patrick Glen
Pub Date: 02/01/2012
Publication: Name: Townsend Letter Publisher: The Townsend Letter Group Audience: General; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 The Townsend Letter Group ISSN: 1940-5464
Issue: Date: Feb-March, 2012 Source Issue: 343-344
Product: Product Code: 2834730 Nutrient Preparations NAICS Code: 325412 Pharmaceutical Preparation Manufacturing SIC Code: 2833 Medicinals and botanicals; 2834 Pharmaceutical preparations
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 282825228
Full Text: A 2011 paper published in Archives of Internal Medicine, "Dietary supplements and mortality rate in older women. The Iowa Women's Health Study," concluded: "In older women several commonly used dietary vitamin & mineral supplements may be associated with increased total mortality." (2) In Australia, this paper generated popular press and radio interview discussion. Some academics were ready to applaud it as a good study and ridicule supplement use. Medical doctors proudly proclaimed that they did not take supplements. No balancing opinions were offered. No concerns were shown for the shattered confidence of millions of regular users of supplements and their anxious uncertainty. The aim of this study was "to assess the relationship between supplements & total mortality rate in older women in The Iowa Women's Health Study." The authors state: "Our hypothesis, based on a previous study by some of us was that the use of dietary supplements would not be associated with a reduced rate of total mortality."

The previous study referred to is "Trends in dietary supplement use in a Cohort of Postmenopausal Women from Iowa." (1) In this paper, the authors comment: "Use of dietary supplements by older individuals is of particular importance because of potential benefits of maintaining nutrient intake levels despite potentially declining food intake. However, possible risks from obtaining a large proportion of purified nutrients from dietary supplements rather than deriving them from foods should be studied."

This is a very scientific observation deserving to be stressed with appropriate alarm with the modified hypothesis that "neglecting a comprehensive whole food diet and relying on substituted purified nutrients will be associated with increased disease and mortality." Note that it is the absence of a quality diet that causes the increase in disease and mortality. The purified supplements are an insufficient substitute, not the cause of the problem.

Vibrant good health relies on sound physiological function - this is a product of complex chemical reactions in molecular biology. The complexity of these reactions has been relentlessly studied in piercing detail by researchers for centuries. It has become abundantly clear that, in any fundamental chemical reaction, multiple nutrients are essentially involved. If any nutrients are deficient, the molecular reaction will fail to occur. This will result in a physiological dysfunction, and if this is not corrected, multiple physiological dysfunctions will be a cascading result. (3)

Such is the way that diseases are generated and good health is eroded. Purified supplements are used to blend with a diet of whole foods, not to replace it, and in that role they can be essential. An analogy with the manufacture of concrete emphasizes my logic. Concrete is a complex mixture of multiple materials. Cement is an essential material in this mixture. You cannot make concrete without using cement. But try building a concrete wall using cement alone with none of the other essential materials and the wall will collapse. Do you conclude that:

1. cement is toxic to concrete (that is clearly nonsense); or

2. cement is essential but must be associated with a number of other essential materials?

Dietary supplements are like the cement in my logic: essential but not sufficient. So the correct sensible conclusion is that supplements can be essential to a fundamental complex mixture of multiple nutrients supplied by a whole-food diet.

Increased mortality due to nutrient supplement use is nonsense. This paper and the impulsive responses that it generated can be a negative setback to preventive health care and to functional medicine. (2), (4) The increasing clinical importance and practice of functional medicine needs to be nourished, not frustrated. Functional medicine is applied science. Functional medicine seeks to detect damage at the molecular level and to repair such damage by natural organic molecular means. Prevention of disease is the ultimate goal of clinical medicine.


(1.) ParkK, Harnack L, Jacobs DR. Trends in dietary supplement use in a cohort of postmenopausal women from Iowa. Am J Epidemiol. 2009 Apr 1; l69(7):887-892. Epub 2009 Feb 10.

(2.) Mursu J, Robien K, Harnack L, Park K, Jacobs DR. Dietary supplements and mortality rate in older women. The Iowa Women's Health Study. Arch Intern Med-2011; 171(18):1625-1633.

(3.) Textbook of Biochemistry. Harpers.

(4.) Textbook of Functional Medicine.

Dr. Patrick Glen McCabe

P.O. Box 569

Surfers Paradise, QLD 421 7


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