A Natural Revolution (2006)
Steven Carter, managing editor of the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine, and orthomolecular pioneer Dr. Abram Hoffer.
"Hot peppers torch cancer cells," notes a recent newspaper headline. According to researchers, the active ingredient that gives peppers their sting, capsaicin, also nukes prostrate cancer cells.
It seems you can't get through the 24-hour news cycle without hearing again about the life-affirming properties of beta carotene, omega 3 fatty acids, or any of the alchemical wonders found in your refrigerator. Yet these scientific discoveries are hardly earthshaking. Human beings have coevolved with the plants, which they consume, for tens of thousands of years. We are biologically engineered to desire the natural substances that keep us healthy. The planet itself has supplied the fieldwork for our dietary experiments, and the research fellows have included countless generations of farmers, fieldhands, cooks and seed breeders.
Within seven years, every atom of our body has been replaced. Like any other living creature, a human being isn't a fixed entity, but rather an electrochemical whirlpool, through which the world flows. We truly are what we eat, drink and breathe.
"Orthomolecular medicine" formalizes this ageless insight into a biological paradigm. According to Orthomolecluar Medicine Online (www.orthomed.org), this mouthful of a term "describes the practice of preventing and treating disease by providing the body with optimal amounts of substances, which are natural to the body." The prefix ortho means to correct or straighten, in this case using the right molecule in the right amount in individual cases.
Chemist Linus Pauling first used the term "orthomolecular" in a paper he wrote in the journal Science in 1968, to describe what Canadian physician Abram Hoffer had pioneered in his practice for years. According to the website, "The key idea... is that genetic factors affect not only the physical characteristics of individuals, but also their biochemical milieu. Biochemical pathways of the body have significant genetic variability and diseases such as atherosclerosis, cancer, schizophrenia or depression are associated with specific biochemical abnormalities, which are causal or contributing factors of the illness."
From April 27 to 30, Vancouver hosts the 35th International Nutritional Medicine Conference. Internationally-known physicians and researchers will gather from around the world for three days to discuss current orthomolecular approaches to optimize immunological, neurological, cardiovascular and endocrine function.
The primary vehicle for research in this field is the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine. As the journal's managing editor, Steven Carter organizes the annual, international Nutritional Medicine Today conference. Along with other colleagues, Carter founded the International Society for Orthomolecular Medicine (ISOM) to serve as an umbrella group to unify the various organizations. I meet with Carter at -- where else -- the Naam, to discuss the current state of the field. Orthomolecular medicine offers a complementary, and sometimes alternative, approach to the standard pharmaceutical approach to mental disorders. According to Carter, in the case of schizophrenia, nutrients "...do the job a lot better, as long as there hasn't been years of drug therapy." With early intervention, orthomolecular practitioners claim a recovery rate of 75 to 80 percent in cases of schizophrenia. It is a dramatic claim, which the orthomolecular community backs its gold standard for recovery. Carter tells me they define it as "living independently, getting along with family and community, being employable and paying taxes."
The word "recovery" is never mentioned in mainstream psychiatry, Carter observes, cradling a cup of green tea. "It's very unusual for a person to be able to function enough to work and hold a job if they are on drugs alone. The drugs succeed in altering behaviour and masking symptoms, but they don't correct biochemistry; they don't correct whatever imbalances are there. They flatten the affect." In 2003, the International Schizophrenia Foundation's newsletter Nutrition & Mental Health noted that mainstream antidepressants perform only at slightly higher levels than placebos. With some of these drugs showing only minimal benefit, and even outright health risks after being released to the public, how did they ever clear the scientific peer review process?
"It's hard to figure a ready-made reason other than economic," says Carter, shaking his head. "Orthomolecular came to the forefront of treatment in the late '50s and early '60s. It was slated to be the main treatment for mental disorders, and it had natural ramifications for all other illnesses that involve chemical imbalances." But at the same time that neuroleptic drugs were developed, the first generation of Haldol and other drugs for mental illness entered the market. Those drugs were much more dramatic in their effect and obviously more lucrative.
Today, doctors can take a quick look at a patient's symptoms and look up the diagnosis in the DSM IV, the diagnostic bible in the psychiatric community. "You say, 'here are the various treatments and these are the dosages,' and plug it in. It takes 10 minutes. But to actually assess a person's biochemical individuality takes time," Carter explains.
The orthomolecular approach doesn't rule out the use of drugs in treatment of mental illness, especially in cases of full-blown psychosis. But it does seek to limit and reduce their use over time, if the patient's condition improves through management of diet and treatment with nutrients. "There isn't a shunt at the neck that dissociates the brain from the body," Carter says with a smile. "The brain functions better in a healthy body. The whole idea of eat your vegetables, the Adelle Davis you are what you eat thing has been around for a generation. But it hasn't quite translated into mental health. You wouldn't believe how many psychiatrists ask, 'What's diet got to do with it?'"
"We're talking about the brain here," Carter says with emphasis. "Well, where do you think the brain is? It's really remarkable, these are people who've been to university for 10 to 12 years." He laughingly notes that these intuitively obvious notions should be "no-brainers" to the medical community. With doctors receiving no more than eight hours of instruction on nutrition, the institutionalized ignorance, while understandable, is hardly justifiable.
It's a commonplace observation that general practitioners rarely ask patients about their dietary habits until it's too late, as in the cases of Type 2 diabetes. (Ironically, Dr. Abram Hoffer in Victoria, BC, has been practising orthomolecular medicine for 50 years, yet his approach still lies outside full mainstream clinical and scientific acceptance. He is the true giant in the field, Carter and others tell me.)
This leads to the question of a whole spectrum of behavioural abnormalities. Are some of them fed -- literally -- by today's poor dietary practices? Several years ago, a high school in Appleton, Wisconsin, replaced its cafeteria's processed foods with wholesome, nutritious food. Prior to implementing the change, the school experienced massive disruption from students. The acting-up included expulsions, dropouts and violations involving weapons and drugs. There was a security officer on duty full-time.
After the meals were changed, staff saw immediate improvements in the students. They were more stable and able to concentrate in class, with a considerable decrease in impulsive behaviours, such as talking out, fidgeting and foul language. The health complaints also diminished substantially. The new diet and improved behaviour have continued for seven years, and across the US, schools are changing their meal programs with claims of similar results.
Most of us wouldn't argue with such findings linking behaviour to foods. Any parent knows how their child can be transformed simply by giving them sugar. But is there solid, scientifically verifiable evidence for the more dramatic claims of orthomolecular medicine? Carter responds with a September 2005 report from the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers Mark Levine and his colleagues found that vitamin C may be an effective cancer fighter when taken intravenously in high doses. "It didn't hit the front page of The New York Times, but if it was a negative study, it sure would have. It wasn't even reported."
In orthomolecular medicine, the official recommended daily allowance (RDA) for natural substances is considered next to meaningless. If you are under stress, and living in an urban environment eating denatured foods, you will likely require more than the officially stated RDA for a spectrum of vitamins and other natural substances.
"The whole paradigm saw vitamins in terms of deficiency," Carter says. "Just give enough so you're not deficient, so you don't get scurvy or pellagra. That was the old paradigm. The new paradigm is vitamin as treatment. So you use considerably different amounts, sometimes way beyond an amount used to prevent deficiency disease. Sometimes, with intravenous vitamin C in cancer, it's as much as 100 grams."
Carter insists that the best approach for avoiding biochemical-related ailments is a healthy diet and lifestyle. Supplements are not replacements, he insists. People can, and do, go overboard with their enthusiasm for alternative medicine, with their opposition to mainstream medicine translating to an over-dependence on supplements, rather than healthy foods.
Yet mainstream resistance to orthomolecular medicine is real. Medline, the respected, Internet medical database, carries electronic versions of medical journals, but has rejected The Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine several times, according to Carter. Why should a journal written by qualified health professionals be rejected, when Medline offers health-related material from Newsweek, Time and even Playboy?
Perhaps a clue is offered in the fact that the DSM IV, the psychiatric diagnostic manual mentioned earlier, has quadrupled in size over the past few decades. In a medical market dominated by the pharmaceutical industry -- a global Goliath second only to the international arms industry in profits -- every quirk of human nature can be spun and sold as pathology. "Sitting there slouching like that, they have a pill for it," Carter says to me with a laugh.
As I call for the bill, I make a mental note to sit up straight during interviews, and to drink more green tea.