Supplements and Drugs: the Feud Redux

By Michael Jorrin, "Doc Gumshoe", October 3, 2016

[ed note: Michael Jorrin is longtime medical writer who has been sharing his thoughts with our readers as “Doc Gumshoe” for several years (he’s not a doctor, I gave him the name). He generally covers medical and health news and sometimes health promotions and hype, but he rarely opines about investments or specific stocks. All of his past commentaries can be seen here]

It never fails that when I write about drugs, a certain tribe out there in Gumshoe Nation patiently informs me about such matters as the inherent capacity of the human body to heal itself, if only we took the trouble to nourish it with the necessary healthful natural nutrients, and also, of course, about the inherent danger of ingesting the chemicals that drugs consist of, which, although they may convey some benefits, pose severe and indeed life-threatening risks that can be avoided simply by following the course of natural health.

That’s a mild and reasonable way of putting it, and many of the comments are couched in mild and reasonable language. But within that tribe there are those who go a wee bit further, and unmask the evil plot that links the pharmaceutical industry, the medical community, and the FDA – NIH axis, to suppress information about the near-miraculous benefits of natural supplements, in order to squeeze trillions of dollars, Euros, Yuan, bitcoin, Electrum, &c., from the duped and deluded masses who have not yet twigged to the truth revealed in my first paragraph.

(For the sake of simplicity, I’ll use the term “supplements” to cover the whole territory, including not only nutritional supplements but also those non-drug preparations that are meant to “support health,” whether heart-health, digestive health, or any other.)

They have certain arguments in their favor. It is certainly true that the pharmaceutical industry at least in part supports the FDA, in the form of fees paid to the FDA when drugs are submitted for approval. It is certainly true that the pharmaceutical industry pays large amounts to many physicians for their work as investigators in clinical trials and for participation in forums and presentations in connection with specific drugs. And it is also true that pharmaceutical companies are focused on the development of drugs that they anticipate will make money for them, which means that they spend their money working on molecules on which they have a patent, and which potentially treat diseases or conditions that affect large numbers of people. That means that they steer away from commonplace substances that they cannot patent, and also that they may need inducement to develop drugs for really rare diseases.

But this is far from amounting to a conspiracy to keep the lid on the supposedly life-saving benefits of supplements. Does the FDA attempt to suppress information about drug adverse effects? On the contrary: the FDA requires pharmaceutical companies to reveal all potential drug adverse effects in overwhelming detail, such that there is a strong view among many medical practitioners that direct-to-consumer advertising, with its litany of side effects, may discourage more people from using a drug rather than encourage them to use it.

And do pharmaceutical companies, or the FDA – NIH, or the medical community, attempt to suppress information or advertising about nutritional supplements or neutraceuticals? Even if they wanted to, there’s no way that they would be able to achieve this squirrely objective. Advertising and hyping of supplements and health cures of all types floods all media – internet, television, print, direct mail – it’s all over the place.

Before going much further down this path, I need to re-emphasize a point that I have made several times. I will resist the temptation to put this next statement in 96 point type all caps bold, but do please focus your keen minds on this: the assertion that drugs are chemicals and therefore artificial, whereas supplements are not chemicals but natural substances, is a distinction without any real difference. Yes, drugs are chemicals. But supplements are also chemicals. In fact, all the food we eat, and indeed all of nature – plants, animals, soil, rocks, air, water – all of nature consists of chemicals. It is the chemicals in the food we eat that nourish us. We convert carbohydrates into glucose, a simple chemical, and glucose provides us with the fuel that we require for all our bodily functions. When we consume protein-containing comestibles, we break down the protein into amino acids, also simple chemicals. And the same thing goes for fats. Vitamins are chemicals. The healthful components of everything we eat and drink are chemicals. And, by the same token, the harmful components of what we eat and drink, as well as the harmful components of drugs – and of supplements! – are chemicals as well.

Drugs as well as supplements are meant to affect our physiologic functioning. These effects are due to chemicals. There is no difference between the way aspirin relieves pain and the effect produced by consuming an infusion of willow bark. In both cases, the chemical responsible for the effect is a salicylate (salix is Latin for willow). A key difference – pointing it out is no doubt superfluous in this case, but it applies to the drugs vs. supplements issue in general – is that with aspirin you know exactly what you’re getting and, just as important, exactly how much.

A colossal difference between drugs and supplements is that while developing a drug and getting it to market is a long and exceedingly costly process, doing the same for a supplement is pretty easy.

For a supplement, the process frequently starts with information, whether reliable or not, that a particular food or plant extract or spice is being used by a group of people somewhere, and it has a valuable and beneficial effect.

Cancer, apricot seeds, and laetrile

Here’s a story which some Gumshoe denizens may remember. About 90 years ago, an isolated group called the Hunza people, living in a long, narrow valley in northern Pakistan, were visited by an eminent English physician named Sir Robert McCarrison. Conditions in the Hunza valley are harsh in the extreme. It is very elevated, exceedingly cold in winter, about as isolated as any region on the planet (the pass between Hunza territory and Pakistan is at more than 13,000 feet), food is the opposite of plentiful, and they did not have even the most essential “modern conveniences,” such as cook stoves or wheeled vehicles. Yet they appeared to be healthy, fit, and long-lived. McCarrison attributed this to their diet, and pointed to the consumption of apricot seeds as a key factor.

Another visitor to the Hunza valley, Renée Taylor, was similarly impressed, in particular by the assertion on the part of the Hunza leader that Hunza people routinely lived to the age of 140 year or older. She also singled out apricot seeds as the key to this magic, and wrote a book entitled Hunza Health Secrets for Long Life and Happiness in 1964.

What is it about apricot seeds that might conceivably convey a health benefit? Like some other seeds and nuts, apricot seeds contain a substance called amygdalin, which, when it interacts with some enzymes that are normally present in the human body, releases cyanide (HCN, prussic acid). This cyanide, so goes the theory, is preferentially taken up by cancer cells, which are thereby poisoned and killed.

This mechanism is precisely the one on which conventional cancer chemotherapy is based. Cancer cells are greedier than normal cells, therefore they absorb whatever is in our bloodstream more avidly than do normal cells, and therefore whatever harmful chemical the chemotherapy agent consists of will kill the cancer cells before it will do serious harm to the human host.

Cyanide, however, in the words of Dorothy Sayers, is Strong Poison.

The apricot seeds/amygdalin (also sometimes called, in my opinion fraudulently, “Vitamin B 17”) cancer-cure theory led to the development of a widely publicized cancer cure called laetrile, which had its moment of glory in the 1970s. Laetrile is a man-made form of amygdalin, and I am sorry to say that its efficacy in curing cancer is without any basis in fact. This has not prevented true believers from seeking out laetrile treatment centers outside the US, e.g., Steve McQueen, who was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a really tough from of lung cancer, went to Mexico to be treated with laetrile in 1980, proclaimed that he was cured, and died shortly thereafter.

This was shortly before a 1982 study in 175 cancer patients treated with laetrile. Only one patient in that group showed any evidence of a tumor shrinking.

Apricot seeds themselves have been demonstrated to be far from harmless. In Turkey, where eating apricot seeds is popular, there were 260 cases in one year of children hospitalized from cyanide poisoning due to eating apricot seeds. One of the children died from eating just ten apricot seeds. The European Food Safety Authority has issued a warning that apricot seeds are dangerous, and the FDA served an injunction against an apricot-seeds salesman named Jason Vale, prohibiting him from promoting apricot seeds as a cancer cure. Vale ignored the injunction and served three years in jail, during which he had a kidney removed likely due to cyanide toxicity

Nevertheless, as you can quickly learn by clicking around on the internet, the apricot-seed cancer cure is still alive and well, despite all evidence to the contrary, and despite legitimate efforts by the FDA to prevent the promoters to advertise apricot seeds as a cancer cure.

Does this constitute a conspiracy to conceal a “natural cure” from the public? Or is the FDA simply trying to protect the public from false and dangerous claims?

But do the Hunza people really have health advantages that we should know about?

The stuff about Hunza people living to a 140 years plus is pure guff. They don’t keep accurate track of their own ages. If a person is old and wise, they tag that person with an elevated year count as a way of describing that person’s wisdom. But there may be other characteristics worth noting. They do appear to be very physically active, and they subsist on an extremely limited diet, which does not include most of the harmful things that we routinely gobble. For example, sugar and sweet drinks have been virtually unknown, carbohydrates are very scarce, the animal proteins they consume are low in fat, and nothing is processed. And the water they drink is uncontaminated and high in minerals.