Wednesday, November 17, 2004

More on Vitamin E

Why am I bothering to belabor this point? Because of the way this sort of misinformation gets propagated and spread to pass into folklore as Truth and Gospel. Witness what happened to the herb Kava Kava. A few years ago it was splashed all over the news that Kava Kava caused liver damage according to studies done in Europe. What the news reports didn't tell you was that those who were found to have liver damage while using the herb were ALSO on drugs known to have a toxic effect on the liver!!! Now "everyone knows" it is a dangerous herb despite being used safely for millenia.

The following comes from a newsletter that I subscribe to from the Health Science Institute. You can get your own subscription if you like.

Vitamin E supplements will not kill you.

Write that down. If it's ever proven to be untrue, bring it back to me and I'll eat the paper it's written on. In fact, I'll also eat my house and my car. Because contrary to widespread reports, vitamin E supplements will NOT kill you.

Pity the mainstream media outlets. Every hour they strain to get our attention in an information environment that's become a 24-7-365 buzz of hyped up info-bites. To draw our eye amid all this chaos, they'll promote anything that's sensational, even if it's not actually sensational at all. This is what happened last week when the Annals of Internal Medicine released a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine meta-analysis of vitamin E supplementation. Researchers analyzed the results of 19 studies in which vitamin E supplements played a role. Their conclusion: Doses of vitamin E in excess of 400 IU per day may slightly increase the risk of (drum roll please) death! The media outlets immediately seized on this and sent out the sensational, detail-free message: Vitamin E supplements can kill you. Here are just three of the wildly generalized scare headlines: "Vitamin E's Fatal Flaw" "Vitamin E Can Be Deadly" "Vitamin E Dosages May Be Lethal" Run for your lives! The vitamin E sky is falling!

I knew that HSI Panelist Allan Spreen, M.D., would have some choice words for the Johns Hopkins results, and I was right.

Dr. Spreen: "Good Lord... what a joke. I can't believe such a moronic study even got published."

Dr. Spreen cites a major problem with the length of the individual studies. The 19 studies represent a total of 45 years of research. That averages to less than three years per study.

"First of all," writes Dr. Spreen, "three years when you're talking about long-term mortality studies means nothing. Second, the 'conclusions' certainly weren't definitively backed up by the study."This flies in the face of decades of research, using doses up to 2400 IU. The Shute brothers (both M.D.s) used even higher amounts and documented excellent results. (But I guess 'old' research somehow becomes untrue due to age or something.)" Dr. Spreen's take on the Hopkins conclusions run parallel to a response from the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN). A CRN representative pointed out to that it was inappropriate for the researchers to draw conclusions for the entire population based on studies of subjects who were "already at grave risk with existing diseases including cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and kidney failure." Funny... I didn't hear that detail pointed out on the evening news.

In short, the Hopkins conclusion is a stretch. And even the editors of the Annals of Internal Medicine seem to agree. In a note that accompanies the study, the editors state that, "these findings may not be generalizable to healthy adults." And they add this interesting detail (also missing from the evening news): "Some trials evaluated multivitamin combinations." In other words, some of these studies weren't even exclusive to vitamin E! And yet network news anchors had no qualms about delivering the sweeping generalization that vitamin E supplement intake may be fatal.

Which all leads to MY sweeping generalization: Vitamin E supplements will not kill you. But that's not to say that ANY vitamin E supplement will do. Dr. Spreen again: "There are a few caveats to vitamin E, of course. No one should be taking the synthetic form of the nutrient (dl-alpha tocopherol) - it should be d-alpha tocopherol at least. Even better is to take 'mixed' tocopherols (alpha, beta, delta, gamma). Also, vitamin E functions better when it's mixed with selenium (neither mentioned, nor, of course, used in the study)." Once again, we see how the major media outlets can be completely trusted to go to any lengths to grab our attention. But when it comes to accuracy and responsibility they get a failing grade.

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