Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Miracle cures

Over the years I’ve gobbled more than my share of supposedly health-promoting pills that could, from a cynical viewpoint, be seen as a fairly pathetic attempt to boost my flagging health in the face of aging, near-legendary sloth and a persistent overindulgence in red wine.

I’ve eaten vitamins A, C, bioflavonoids, B-complex, inositol, beta-carotene, E, D and minerals such as calcium, selenium, chromium, magnesium and zinc. I’ve also eaten echinacea, garlic, ginger, carnitine, co-enzyme Q10 and ginkgo biloba. Finally, not to forget the fatty-acids, I have religiously taken fish, flaxseed and, when I visit the US and can buy it cheap, borage oils. If I cannot sleep I take valerian and, to boost the sex drive – fortunately a seldom needed affliction in my case, boron seemed reasonable – the name alone should be enough to drag you up to attention.

Finally, when (as a decorated S.N.A.G.) I go off to do the weekend shopping I’ve been known to grab a shot of wheat grass to bolster my health credentials – anything that tastes this utterly disgusting and foul has just got to be good for you.

What have I learnt from this obvious consumption folly? Probably not a lot. I have found that vitamin A in large once-off doses of about 100,000 units coupled with stacks of vitamin C (up to 4 grams per day) plus zinc and echinacea will thwart the impact of the common cold if you hit the symptoms early. It has worked for me for more than a decade. I suffered from colds, flu and bronchitis for years and this concoction of chemicals ended problems whenever I took it at the first sign of a sore throat or the symptoms of a viral infection – I have had only a single cold infection in the past 10 years and that was when I did not have access to this amazing chemical mix. But a sample of one, namely myself, is inconclusive. I am happy to experiment on myself but cannot in confidence recommend you follow me!

I have also learned that consuming a batch of minerals, vitamins and oils is expensive. Probably $40-$50 per month and much more than that if you consume carnitine or co-enzyme Q10 regularly.

So I always get very irritated when a scientific publication suggests that all this cerebrally-inspired pill-popping is wasteful. And NewScientist does just that – right here – for a large slab of the chemicals I have so religiously consumed, namely the antioxidants. These include many of the vitamins mentioned above (A, C, bioflavonoid, beta-carotene, and E) and minerals such as selenium.

Antioxidants are a component of green plants. Many diseases are caused by destructive chemicals called free radicals which cause oxidative damage. Antioxidants can neutralize free radicals by donating electrons to them. Therefore (almost as if we are getting to the punch-line of a great theorem) eating pills or foods rich in antioxidants should provide sponges which mop up free radicals and make us live longer.

The New Scientist – and a number of other sources – are suggesting this focus on antioxidants, at least as supplements, is wrong. The suggestion is that you should stick to food high in anti-oxidants (red wine, tea, fruits and vegetables) but lay of the pills until we know a lot more.

On the specific chemicals:

Beta-carotene. This is a carotenoid that the body converts into vitamin A. Unlike vitamin A itself this is not toxic in larger doses. It is claimed to prevent heart and artery disease and to strengthen the immune system. A major claim is that it can reduce the risk of cancer – a claim now disputed at least among cigarette smokers where it is shown to increase lung cancer risks. If you are foolish enough to smoke cigarettes and hence are at risk of lung cancer you probably shouldn’t touch this stuff.

Vitamin C. Among the most discussed of all substances it is claimed to be the nutriment that helps with almost anything. In fact the empirical evidence has proved mixed. Consumed in large quantities it does reduce the duration of the common cold a bit but might worsen atherosclerosis in some people with diabetes. My general assessment is that generally it seems harmless if not obviously beneficial.

Vitamin E. The world’s most popular anti-oxidant achieved its fame on the basis of claims that high consumption of Vitamin E among 87,245 nurses produced a 41% reduction in cardio-vascular disease. Subsequent studies give mixed results with a few suggesting high consumption of Vitamin E may very marginally worsen mortality.

Zinc. Claimed to be useful for colds, skin problems and even sexual healthg and eating disorders. Mot much evidence although it is an important mineral. At issue is whether deficiencies do occur and whether the best way of dealing with them is via supplements or just by eating a balanced diet.

Selenium. This is a toxin in large enough quantities but at low levels has been claimed to reduce the incidence of various cancers. There is some evidence in support of this claim.

One of the reasons people seek these types of expensive ineffectual alternative medicine solutions is the poor service we get from the medical profession. Doctors these days often seem to exist largely to prescribe antibiotics for illnesses they know in advance they don’t work for. There are good doctors but many seem to exist to maximize their Medicare-generated incomes not to provide useful health advice.

Are you gullible enough to gulp down this stuff? What a waste! How hypocritical of me to use this stuff when I give religious beliefs, in general, no time at all.


Phil said...

I don't bother with any of this stuff any longer Harry.

I used to do heaps of training and racing (cycling/triathlon) and took a lot of this stuff. But over the years I've learned that sleep, exercise and good whole foods do the trick as far as performance and energy is concerned. And I never eat diet stuff or Maccas.

But what about the longevity thing? Well I exercise every day and stick to the aforementioned diet plus a moderate amount of wine (1-2 small glasses) each evening, hopefully that'll keep me in good nick until the grim reaper decides it's time to go.

As for the flu thing, I take the shot each season and that seems to work and I just don't get colds in any serious way that affects my ability to ride.

Today's intake. No supplements.

2 cups of coffee, two slices of toast with honey, no butter. A regular ham/cheese sandwich. 2.5 litres of water. Dinner was a chicken liver risotto with salad and a glass of Shiraz.

All of this was bracketed with two bike rides to work and back totalling 35k.

BTW, I'm a big fan of modern medicine. I'll have all the drugs and interventions necessary to solve an illness if that comes. But if modern medicine can't provide the solution in a terminal case I'll take all the morphine thank you.

observa said...

I figure mother nature stuck all the nutrients in the right digestible quantities in all sorts of plants and animals so I stick to that. Took some vitamins once and they just coloured my pee so I figured they were an expensive waste for neurotics, which of course includes the other half of the population. Looking around I reckon our problem's too much vitamins and every other bloody form of animal, vegetable and mineral sustenance, but that's just a wild guess. There is one form of health kick I absolutely swear by over the long term and that's Blackmores shares, particularly after the demise of Pan Pharmaceuticals.

hc said...

Observa, I bought a few shares in Pan a week or so before they went pear-shaped and lost the lot - a couple of thousand dollars. I complained until one of the postgrads I taught told me he had done $50,000. Blackmores a good buy - I had them but sold out too early.

Phil, I stopped having flu injections a few years ago and avoid antibiotics whenever possible. I have found the cold-flu mix I mention works - I used to get bronchitis.

conrad said...

I think you are being too negative on the effect of some herbal remedies (not that I take any myself..). I think you will find a fair few of them are not well tested, since of course the trials cost huge amounts and you can't get a patent. Thus some may in fact have some small effect.

I seem to remember ephedera (?) is a good example of one of these. Some form of extract of it is common in Chinese medicine (you can find it in any Chinese medicine store), but it is illegal in the US due to "side effects" which were only found after clinical testing.

FXH said...

I remember an analysis of Chinese Natural Medicines from those Chinese shops with the draws and mysterious ingredients. It showed that the most common (identifiable)ingredient was good old speed (amphetamine). No wonder everyone gets a boost from them.

harry you should stick with a low dose asprin each day.

tin239 said...

Honestly, I no longer believe in some pills or even some herbal remedies. I would rely most on spirtitual happiness' healing abilities. And the power of love too.