The Vitamin-Trojans: A Fairy Tale

The molecular structure of vitamin d (http://en.wikipedia.org)

We all know: Vitamins are important to keep well and fit. Therefore we are keen to supply ourselves with enough retinol (vitamin A), ascorbic acid (vitamin C), or calcitriol (vitamin D). While reading the news this morning, I stumbled across an article, dealing with the latter one. But as a matter of fact, it does not really matter which vitamin you think of. So, let’s just look at the vitamin D, bearing vitamins at all in mind.

In an article published by Süddeutsche Online, headlined The Fairy Tale of Lack , the journalist Christian Guth reports on a new study by Autier et al. published in Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology in January this year. The authors therein state, after having done a meta-analysis of 290 studies, that the additional intake of vitamin D does not improve a patients well being. Only very few treatments, as a vitamin therapy for elderly people, seem to yield significant positive results. But all in all, it rather does not matter whether we swallow some vitamin supplements, or not.

Read the abstract of Autier et al. here: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/landia/article/PIIS2213-8587%2813%2970165-7/fulltext#article_upsell

However, I am not concerned with the consequences of additional intake of any vitamin whatsoever. As Bones (the famous ship doctor of the Enterprise in Star Trek) in my place would say: I am a PR-researcher, not a physician (well, Bones is a physician, but that is what he would say, if he was a PR-researcher).

Every year, the pharmaceutical industry generates six billion Euros in turnover by selling dietary supplements. Naturally, Germany is one of the biggest markets for those products. And when it comes to the health issue, people become attentive. Why not “investing” some money into one’s own health by buying some vitamin pills, and therefore, maybe, dodge the next cold you surely will catch during winter?

And the argument becomes even more plausible, when physicians tell you, again and again, that vitamins are important for your health – which they are – and that it is therefore wise to look ahead to the dark winter months of northern Europe, and prepare. The status of the physician as an expert concerning health, and our knowledge, that vitamins are vital for the human body, sum up to a strong case. Nothing wrong with that? No, it is always wise to watch your steps. But here we see something very different than taking wise precautions. So, the chain of reason that occurred to me when thinking about the issue, was quite different than from a medical point of view.

In our case, the substance in question, vitamin D, is produced by the human body when being exposed to sunlight. And, I hate to break it to you, there is not much sun in northern Europe during the winter. So far, so good. But, even in the darkest winter days – south of the polar circle, I have to admit – the light level still reaches around 7.000 lux, compared to around 500 in a well illuminated room. On a sunny day, the influx reaches 100.000 lux. A walk outside every day, and the body is sufficiently provided with vitamin D. And I could bring forward comparable arguments concerning other vitamins, whatever their letter in the alphabet might be. Basically, a balanced nutrition provides the human body with everything he needs to stand the cold days of the year. And many physicians do say exactly the same thing. So why do we still bother?

Unfortunately, economic interests play their part in the game, since you can sell customers/patients healthy vegetables, fruit AND supplements simultaneously. The next counsellor is only a few clicks away, on websites as medicinenet.com, for example. Of course, there is no simple chain of cause and effect, but a long procedure of shifting towards the deficiency argument.

Have a look on an article concerning vitamin deficiency: http://www.medicinenet.com/vitamin_d_deficiency/article.htm

The Trojan Horse (http://en.wikipedia.org)

The general impression, and there we return to my chain of reasoning, is that it seems ill advised to listen to our own reason. We rather listen to the arguments of experts, who speak on behalf of the industry – knowingly or not – and tell us the story of the horse, first invented by Odysseus, the smartest among all Greek heroes who conquered Troja. Unlike in the Illias, however, the pharmaceutical companies do not want to slay the Trojans. They rather spread out during the night, when the precautious patient is enjoying his healthy sleep – of course after having had a few vitamin pills before going to bed – and just take some coins out of the wallets before returning into the horse. You can slaughter a cow only once, but you can enjoy the milk for many years! So, the Vitamin-Trojans live on healthily to believe, that the Greeks really have left the shores of their homes. If they still catch a cold, despite using dietary supplements, it must have either been bad luck, or simply a lack of preparation, meaning: not enough vitamins. And so the fairy tale goes on.

So, next time you read about an expert, telling you that it is absolutely necessary to support the body with additional vitamin, have Lord Salisbury’s words in mind: “No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by experience of life as that you should never trust experts.” In our case, just enjoy some regular walks outside. But of course, do not forget to put on some sun protection. You will find some in the supermarket around the corner – expert proven, of course. Just in case…

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