Identifying the hallmarks of manufactured anti-vitamin hype
Last Sunday, TheSunday Times newspaper launched an unfounded, misinformed and callous attack on sellers of high dose vitamin and mineral supplements suggesting they’re damaging people’s health. At the heart of its attack were high dose vitamin D supplements. The attack appeared timed to ‘perfection’, at the end of winter when circulating levels of the inactive precursor 25-hydroxyvitamin D (often abbreviated to 25(OH)D) of many in northern climes are at their lowest given the long absence of sunlight exposure of the skin (see figure below). Reaching out for high dose vitamin D is therefore an entirely rational behaviour – yet a newspaper that has had a long history of attacking natural health and its protagonists decided it was time to put the boot in.
For anyone who might have been swayed by the article, following are a four pointers as to why it appears to be the work of uninformed journalists or pro-pharma shills. Or both.
No new scientific studies. Nowhere in the article is there any reference to any new scientific studies suggesting harms from vitamin or mineral supplements. That’s because there aren’t any new studies to report on. The piece alludes to past research, but does not reference any of it. The research it appears to hint at are high dose vitamin D studies that have not yielded benefits for bone mineral density. These likely include a meta-analysis (a study of studies) published in 2018 and a randomised controlled trial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) last year. These and other studies consider high dose vitamin D supplementation in isolation, and not in context with the other nutrients and cofactors associated with proper supplemental protocols for improving bone density and countering osteopenia and osteoporosis. Such protocols would typically include co-supplementation of vitamin D with vitamin K2, magnesium, trace minerals (e.g. strontium, boron) and Omega-3 intake.
An accurate, more objective, credible and journalistically balanced approach would have been to describe the results from studies of high dose vitamins at least as ‘conflicting’. It would also have made mention of studies that show positive findings, such as dose-related benefits of magnesium in reducing the risk of cardiovascular events. Many of the classic studies used to criticise vitamin supplementation to which The Sunday Times article also alludes appear to have been designed to fail using high doses of synthetic, isolated nutrients, such as beta-carotene (not the multiple different forms of pro-vitamin A carotenoids found in brightly coloured vegetables and fruit), alpha-tocopherol (one isomer of vitamin E, not the 8 isomers found in natural vitamin E sources), and folic acid (not the bioactive form, 5-methyltetrahydrofolate or 5-MTHF).
Quoting the wrong experts in the wrong contexts.The Sunday Times piece uses quotes from genetic epidemiologist and gut microbiome expert, Professor Tim Spector, to can high dose supplements. Prof Spector was quoted as follows: “I regularly see patients who have taken far too high levels of vitamin D. They are consuming amounts from everyday supplements that should only be used in extraordinary cases….There are lots of published studies on the link between taking these large supplement doses and the fracture and fall risk. The government is not doing enough to police this situation and proper action is needed.”
Firstly, is Tim Spector, a geneticist and microbiome expert, really measuring circulating levels of vitamin D or calcitriol (the most potent active form) and determining these are too high? Or is he, as someone who isn’t a vitamin D expert, deciding that the intake levels are too high in relation to the very low 10 mcg (400 IU) recommended daily intake? Secondly, he fails to say, at least in the piece, that vitamin D deficiency is one of the most significant nutritional deficiencies out there. Those views are based on the national nutritional surveys, such as the UK’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS). In this regard, neither Prof Spector nor The Sunday Times quoted the results of the latest NDNS report which stated in its summary: “There was evidence of low vitamin D status (as indicated by low plasma 25- hydroxy vitamin D (25-OHD) concentrations in blood) in all age groups. 17% of adults aged 19 to 64 years, 13% of adults aged 65 years and over and 26% of children aged 11-18 years had low vitamin D status over the year as a whole.” Whatever happened to journalistic balance?
No justification given for consumer use of high dose supplements. The implication given by The Sunday Times is that companies which sell high dose supplements are unethical and consumers who buy and use the high dose supplements are stupid. In the main, this is just wrong. When it comes to optimising serum levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels, it is common to find that consumption of high doses of vitamin D is the only way to do it in the absence of adequate sunlight exposure. This might require anywhere between 50 mcg (2,000 IU) and over 250 mcg (10,000 IU) of vitamin D3 daily. On the condition that levels are monitored routinely via lab tests and circulating levels don’t become excessive (e.g. 25(OH)D >200 nmol/L), harm will not be done assuming other nutrients are in balance, including especially calcium and magnesium. High dose supplementation may need to be maintained for 3 months until a plateau in circulating 25(OH)D occurs at which point a lower maintenance dosage can be consumed. Further complications are caused because different experts and authorities use different reference ranges. Examples in discrepancies between different ranges are reflected in the table below.
Misleading assertions. Something that really irks us is when journalists choose to make sweeping assertions suggesting that there is scientific consensus in areas over which this couldn’t be further from the truth. What intakes are required to achieve optimal circulating 25(OH)D status is one such area, hence the world’s leading vitamin D researchers having come together in various experts groups such as Grassroots Health to counter medical establishment viewpoints which typically propose significantly lower intakes. In The Sunday Times piece, calcium supplements were fingered especially, alongside vitamin D. While “stomach pains” and “diarrhoea” were noted as potential side effects of excessive calcium supplementation, no mention was made of the much more serious risks of increased heart attack and stroke. This is especially interesting given that calcium supplements continue to be widely prescribed by medical doctors despite ample evidence that calcium intake from the normal diet is not generally limiting.
Different reference ranges for serum 25(OH)D (nmol/L)
At ANH-Intl, we favour a ‘food first’ approach. But given consistent evidence that many people are unable to consistently maintain optimum nutrient status from the diet alone, food supplementation is often deemed beneficial or even necessary. Despite ongoing, often fabricated negative publicity around the use of food supplements, their use continues to rise alongside evidence that food supplements are far safer even than conventional foods and indeed are the safest commodity we regularly consume.
Health aware citizens are becoming ever more skeptical of poorly construed newspaper articles such as the latest effort from The Sunday Times that appear to be falling on increasingly deaf and distrusting ears.
Fortunately, not all newspapers take this view. By way of example, just last week, the Express published a story suggesting that vitamin D supplements were one of two supplements “proven to boost your immunity”.