VITAMIN C KILLS JANE BRODY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES
© Owen R. Fonorow
Recently, [Life Extension/Townsend Letter] published my thoughts in an article entitled How to Counter the Propaganda Campaign Aimed at Alternative Medicine. The premise of this article was that a string of "news" reports in the mainstream media were obviously planted. These anonymous articles heavily favored the orthodox medical viewpoint that vitamins, minerals and herbs have no therapeutic value over and above
the specific nutrient deficiency disease. This on-going, essentially one-sided story masquerades as news. It is particularly onerous because the favored interests can well afford to advertise.
There is today more proof that this propaganda campaign is alive and well. On April 8, 1998, New York Times columnist Jane Brody began a series of columns that got wide-spread attention because they called into question the safety of vitamin C.
Of course, if there was any danger to taking Vitamin C, that would be news. The same can be said for
many things that aren't true.
The problem caused by this particular salvo (a minor scientific finding, among 17,000 findings regarding vitamin C) is that many news organizations apparently trust the New York Times. Other newspaper and magazine editors assume that if the Times has sanctioned a story, it must have a solid basis in fact.
And of course, the Times story was woven around facts. Nobody is claiming Jane Brody made these vitamin C
articles up out of thin air.
The reported study was conducted by the people they say conducted it.
Too bad news editors didn't read the Associated Press version.
Here is the bottom Line: There isn't a single shred of hard evidence to back up the speculative health claims published by Jane Brody in the Times, i.e. that doses of Vitamin C above the RDA may be harmful in any way, shape or form. There is no epidemiological or other evidence that high vitamin C plays a role in the formation of chronic disease. If fact, the totality of evidence supports the opposite conclusion. The less you take, the worse your health will be. Even if the known "pro-oxidant" property of Vitamin C was measured, it does not follow by logic that Vitamin C is harmful, nor would the serious postulated consequences necessarily follow. These fears are pure speculation.
Of course, this won't stop the story from being repeated in various health magazines and journals.
Almost out of habit, when reports of the possible health benefits of taking vitamin supplements appear in the mainstream media, responsible sounding conservative doctors and medical researchers are quoted who always say that we must be careful not to jump to conclusions.
They always seem to need more studies.
In this case, on the basis of a single questionable 6 week study of 30 people in 1995, Jane Brody and the New York Times was prepared to scare Americans from taking a substance that Linus Pauling, of all people,
has tied a lack of to Heart Disease? A substance so important almost all animals (save humans) make their own bodies in amounts that exceed the RDA by orders of magnitude!
So where did this story come from?
In 1995, a group of British scientists (Ian Podmore, et. al.) gave a group of 30 people 500 mg of vitamin C for 6 weeks.
That's right, 1995.
They then extracted and measured "markers" that are thought to indicate DNA damage caused by oxidation and free radicals. One of these measurements indicated more DNA damage during a 6 week period the subjects were on vitamin C than when they were on a placebo. Their letter about this three year old
study was published in the April 9, 1998 issue of NATURE.
What is not mentioned in the NATURE paper, that we subsequently learned from the internet, is that these researchers also gave vitamin E supplements, and the purpose of the study was not to investigate supplements.
They were investigating a new DNA extraction method. The vitamin C and vitamin E measurements were taken to validate their new method. (NATURE readers are unaware of this point.)
And the new method showed that both vitamin C and vitamin E reduced oxidation damage by 50%! It was the "old" method used for comparison purposes that seemed to indicate DNA damage after vitamin C supplementation.
The following quote, from another paper by the study authors, illustrates a problem with the reliability of measurements of this sort:
"The extraction of DNA [by these methods] is an area of much controversy as several workers have suggested that cell lysis and/or extraction with organic solvents can cause artefactual generation of 8-OHdC. One must therefore be careful in interpreting the results of such measurements on the grounds of suitable method of extraction which does not generate in vitro artefact" [Abstract: European Standards Committee on Oxidative DNA Damage, J. Lunec, Q. Zheng, M. Evans, K. Herbert]
On the basis of the comparison measurement, the British scientists reported in NATURE, to their surprise, that in certain cases vitamin C seems to act as a "pro oxidant." Jane Brody's article implies from this that taking vitamin C in amounts greater than 500 mg may cause grave long-term damage. Arthritis and cancer were specifically mentioned.
The fact that vitamin C has pro-oxidant as well as anti-oxidant properties is well known and not news. More than a decade ago, Linus Pauling told us:
"The ways in which ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) functions in the human body relate first to the fact that it engages on both sides of the universal oxidation-reduction reaction that subtracts or adds hydrogen atoms to a molecule. (Vitamin C) is readily oxidized to dehydroascorbic acid by the surrender, to oxidizing agents, of the two hydrogen atoms... [shown in the figure]
This action is readily reversible, for dehydroascorbic acid acts as a strong oxidizing agent, and by picking up two hydrogen atoms is reduced to ascorbic acid. It is likely that the reducing power of ascorbic acid and the oxidizing power of dehydroascorbic acid are responsible for some of the physiological properties of the substance." [PAULING, HOW TO LIVE LONGER AND FEEL BETTER, 1986]
All readers concerned about the safety of vitamin C should read Pauling's book.
We asked the physician with the most clinical experience with large doses of vitamin C (more than 20,000 patients) to comment on the incidence of cancer and arthritis in his practice. According to Dr. Robert Cathcart, III, MD:
"Clinically, I have seen no evidence of DNA damage. I have seen a few
cancer patients who have taken vitamin C fairly regularly for a number
of years but there are not many and in the large number of patients I
have put on large doses of C there seems to be a smaller than normal
number who have developed cancer.
I know that follow-up in a private practice is not perfect but I have not
seen a single autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis
develop while the patient was on large doses of ascorbic acid.
What is very remarkable is that I cannot recall a single patient who had
a good heart before starting large doses of ascorbic acid who ever
developed a heart attack after being on ascorbic acid. This would seem
to be true of all of the arteriosclerotic problems. I actually find this
hard to believe but a least in my limited experience, it is true.
On the subject of cancer: there is a remarkable lack of new cancer
developing in AIDS patients after they have been on the large doses of
ascorbic acid in combination with my whole nutritional program for
AIDS. [Robert Cathcart, III, MD, April 10, 1998]
We should also recognize fair reporting. People who were lucky enough to get this news from Malcolm Ritter of the Associate Press learned of skeptical comments made by other scientists.
Dr. Steven Zeisel of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill told the AP that the mixed result is puzzling. The study ``is not a definitive help in our understanding about whether vitamin C is protective or not'' at high doses, he said.
Bruce N. Ames of the University of California at Berkeley, said he suspects the result may have been influenced by the study's lab procedures.
Dr. Mark Levine of the National Institutes of Health said the volunteers' white cells may have been saturated with vitamin C before they took supplements. If so, it's hard to see how supplements could make any difference, he said.
Another point escaped all major news outlets except Jack Challem's Nutrition Reporter. According to Challem, recognized authority Bruce N. Ames, Ph.D., points out that about half of all chemicals, natural and
synthetic, cause DNA damage. He notes that naturally occurring compounds in alfalfa sprouts (canavanine), broccoli (isothiocyanate), potato (solanine), celery (psoralne), and onion (quercetin), and most fruits and vegetables cause (single-strand) DNA damage.
Conspicuous by its absence in the Brody article was still another important point Dr. Ames makes: "The body's DNA repair enzymes - which are largely dependent on the B vitamins - fix nearly all of the damage."
In other words, Brody's article could have been titled TAKE MORE B VITAMINS WHEN TAKING HELPFUL VITAMIN C SUPPLEMENTS.
The more sensational Brody story got more play. Yet her article, one that might affect the health of millions, quoted a single "scientist." Victor "Darth Vader" Herbert , MD, JD, of the Sinai Medical School. The world's foremost avowed enemy of vitamin C.
In 1974 Dr. Herbert successfully co-authored and published a paper about one of his experiments in
the Journal of the American Medical Association . [Herbert,V:Jacob E.(1974) JAMA 230:241-242] Herbert claimed that his result showed that vitamin C destroys vitamin B12. Everyone makes mistakes, but this result could not be reproduced, and according to Linus Pauling [How to Live Longer, 1986] and others, the scientific community now believes that Dr. Herbert's methods were faulty, and his conclusion false. Yet, to this day, Dr. Herbert's views enjoy national press coverage.
According to Balz Frei, Ph.D., director of the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, Covallis, other studies directly contradict the findings of the "new" NATURE study. A balanced New York Times article would have included the fact that the findings are old and questionable. That any damage is usually repaired quickly. That other scientists do not necessarily agree that this study has any importance what-so-ever.
As Frie, Ames and others quickly went on record as criticizing the NATURE study's methodology, why didn't Jane Brody ask any other American scientists to comment? Instead, she relied on the avowed enemy of vitamin C for a completely one sided, highly speculative, and yes a JUNK SCIENCE report. Why?
These stories don't just "happen."
It is a fact that vitamin C competes with a wide range of pharmaceuticals. We continue to believe that the New York Times, either wittingly or unwillingly, is being used as a tool by interests who can well afford to advertise. These interests are willing to put the nation's health at risk. They are pleased if the public becomes confused about the human need for vitamin C, but this was not the primary objective of the New York Times article.
These well publicized, but largely unfounded "negative" studies serve a purpose that can hardly be unintended. The wide-spread publicity keeps mainstream medical doctors away from trying alternative techniques in their practice, and it gives those doctors who don't want to use alternative therapies an excuse not to.
According to a recent letter from 80 year old Stephen Sheffrey, D. D. S., a strong pro-Vitamin C advocate:
"The ongoing effort to discredit vitamin C began in the 1940s after it was shown to have antiviral and antitoxic properties. Certain members of the pharmaceutical-medical complex, after first promoting vitamin C as a treatment for fevers and infections, realized that widespread use of this non prescription substance would cancel the need for developing a lucrative prescription antiviral drug market.
For this reason, all the scientific trials which have not shown vitamin C to be of any benefit against viral attacks either shorted the recommended dose or altered the recommended treatment procedure. Anyone who knows the vitamin C has been blatantly discredited in this manner should be ashamed to speak of ethics in order to forestall a proper evaluation of the vitamin's therapeutic potential.
I wonder if [the British] can point to an increase in heart trouble along with an increase in vitamin C. I believe that just the opposite has occurred."
For the record, here are my personal concerns about the NATURE report.
1. The study was published as a letter to the editor to NATURE. According to this letter, the study was run in 1995, or earlier, so the first question is, why did a study run three years ago suddenly become major news, especially since they couldn't get their findings published in a peer-reviewed journal? And when were these measurements actually made?
2. The result was a secondary finding. According to the study abstract we found on the internet:
The aim of this study was to investigate the effect of vitamin C mg/day) and vitamin E (400 i.u./day) supplementation in normal individuals in terms of lymphocyte levels of the base-lesion 7, 8-di hydro 8-oxo-2-deoxyguanosine (8-oxoG)which is recognized as a specific marker of ROS induced damage,
However, their conclusion states:
Levels of 8-oxodG were unaffected by placebo, but were significantly reduced by approximately 50% by both vitamin C and vitamin E.
3. The extraction methods the team employed that seemed to show damage are unknown, but since a new method was the purpose of the study (and the new method showed great benefit to vitamin C) we must assume the older method was measured for comparison. Only the comparison measurements showed damage. According to the author's earlier research, the newer methods are needed because the old methods may not be reliable.
4. It is uncertain how accurate any of these arcane "damage" measurements are. In other words, there may in-fact be no RNA/DNA damage what-so-ever. (As in all science, these results will have to be replicated by other researchers before they can be taken seriously.)
5. The researchers mention a strong "anti oxidant" affect of Vitamin C at the same time coupled with a profound "pro oxidant" affect. (Vitamin C is already known to have both these properties. Since this property was unknown to the authors, this property may have affected the experiment.)
6. It does not make sense that a "6 week" study of low dose ascorbate in humans (several weeks on placebo) could isolate DNA/RNA damage to the vitamin C supplement. (Especially if turns out that the same "damage" could be caused by an extra onion or two on a hamburger...)
7. Any theory of "Vitamin C causes DNA damage" must explain that lack of any clinical or epidemiological evidence in the great many people taking far greater amounts of vitamin C than the RDA. In fact, these study results, if born out, may call into question the value of these so-called "8-oxodA markers" that are "recognized as specific for free radical induced damage."
8. One would hope that preliminary work in guinea pigs, one of the few species that does not make its own vitamin C, had been done before a story like this gets publicity. (Brody mentioned mice.
Mice make their own vitamin C so any research with mice is useless.)
9. There is nothing in the study that indicates 500 mg has any special significance -- other than that is the amount they chose to investigate. Yet, the Brody article makes 500 mg into a significant "finding."
10. If a theory is postulated that vitamin C in large amounts causes "arthritis and cancer" then it would have to explain why this process does not appear to be present in animals.
Most animals must obtain the various vitamins and minerals in their diet to survive. Vitamin C is an exception. Unlike humans, most animals make their own vitamin C in their bodies in very large amounts. This vitamin C, adjusted for body weight, averages 9,000 to 12,000 mg and goes directly into the blood stream. (We humans would have to ingest some 18,000 to 24,000 mg by mouth to get this much in our blood stream and tissues.)
Jane Brody of the New York times even quoted British researcher Joseph Lunec as saying on the basis of their findings it "would be unethical to test higher levels" of vitamin C on people. Coincidentally, the Vitamin C Foundation resubmitted its proposal on April 6, 1998 to the NIH to study high doses of vitamin C on heart disease. Maybe it isn't a coincidence.
Rusty Houge of the C For Yourself web site has an idea. If ethics are the problem, why not study
people who have taken large amounts of vitamin C for years? Rusty who has taken 15,000 mg per
day for seven years volunteered. I take between 15,000 and 20,000 mg of vitamin C every day. I too would be glad to volunteer my blood for such a study.
Owen R. Fonorow
PO Box 73172
Houston, TX 77273