Who funds NHS vitamin propaganda?

Last week NHSDirect published a glossy 34 page booklet entitled ‘Supplements -who needs them?’ It is one of the most ill-informed booklets I’ve read. Who funds this kind of pro-drug, anti-vitamin propaganda?

It is written by an organisation called Bazian, but funded by whom? I hope not my taxes. One has to be suspicious when you read the section on weight loss supplements and bump into an advertisement for Alli ‘It’s worth pointing out the difference between slimming supplements and a licenced medicine…Alli available over the counter.’ That’s the drug that stops you absorbing fat, causes anal leakage, and recommends you wear dark pants and take a spare set to work! See my blog on Alli. The essential message is supplements don’t really work. They are probably dangerous and simply not worth the money. If you are sick what you need is drugs. To quote a few classics: Vitamin C – “There is no conclusive evidence that regular vitamin C supplementation has any effect on reducing risk of getting a cold.”

Omega 3 – “The current evidence does not support the use of supplements to prevent cardiovascular disease. There is no compelling evidence that fish oils boost brainpower.” Glucosamine- “There is insufficient evidence to recommend it’s use in osteoarthritis.” “Most of us can get all the vitamins we need from a well balanced diet.” “You are likely to experience some harms if you take vitamins in large amounts over time.” All this, apparently, is evidence based. Really? There has not been a single death from taking high dose vitamin supplements anywhere in the world. In the 35 years I’ve been in this field I haven’t encountered one serious adverse reaction to a vitamin, mineral or essential fat supplement.

In America deaths from medical related activities (eg drugs, operations) has become the third leading cause of death! It refers to the wonderful government agency that protect us. If a supplement has an ‘active’ ingredient (meaning it works) it’s referred to the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Authority, and classified as a medicine, and banned for over the counter sale. Of course, it fails to mention that the MHRA is a government trading fund, not an independent agency, funded almost entirely by the pharmaceutical industry. But why is the NHS spending money persuading people not to take supplements? Perhaps they should issue a booklet called ‘Drugs-who needs them?’ with statements like: “Statins – insufficient evidence to recommend them if you haven’t already had a heart attack.” “NSAID painkillers – insufficient evidence of any long-term benefit, and considerable harm.” “The more drugs you take the more you are likely to suffer significant side-effects.” “Most people do not need drugs because no disease is caused by a deficiency of drugs.” “Consult your local nutritional therapist before you take a drug. You might not need to if you get your nutrition and lifestyle right.

” I thought I’d look up three key nutrients we all need to know about. B12, vitamin D and vitamin C. In the section on ‘The Ageing Population’ there is no mention of B12, despite evidence that two in five have insufficient level to prevent accelerated brain shrinkage! B12 deficiency is widespread in the UK, not only among the elderly. The vitamin C section quotes the usual Cochrane systematic review (2007) co-authored by Professor Harri Hemila, showing that there is no evidence of reduced number of colds in those taking 200mg or more of vitamin C a day. But it ignores Hemila’s earlier review showing that the protective effect of vitamin C was apparent only for daily doses of 1,000mg or more. It downplays the front page summary that states that “A consistent benefit was observed, representing a reduction in cold duration”.

It fails to mention it’s reference to a placebo controlled trial studying the effect for immediate high doses which found that if 8 grams were taken 46% of subjects have a cold for no more than a day. In another study involving 700 students, those taking hourly doses of 1000mg of Vitamin C for the first six hours and then 1 gram three times daily thereafter reported an 85% decrease in cold symptoms, compared to those receiving conventional cold and flu treatment. There’s a big difference between taking 200mg on vitamin C a day and 1,000mg an hour. Just think how much the NHS could save if people just took 1 gram an hour at the onset of cold or flu, instead of waiting for hours, infecting others, and wasting money on ineffective cold medicine. Vitamin D get a modest thumbs up. ‘All pregnant and breastfeeding women, people over 65, and people with darker skin not exposed to much sun should take vitamin D supplements.’ How much? It doesn’t tell you. Remarkably uninformative for a 34 page booklet on supplements.

Who else needs supplements? ‘Pregnant women need folic acid. Children up to 5 years should be given a supplement containing A, C and D.’ That’s it! No-one else. All the thousands of beneficial studies of supplemental nutrients published over the past thirty years – forget it. “If you fall outside of these groups and buy vitamin pills then the chances are you will be wasting your money on surplus amounts of vitamins you’ve already gained through your diet.” declares NHS direct. Not that you’ll need any advice on supplements because they are all worthless but if you do the NHS direct say “Before you buy a product you should consult your GP.” Get real.

Most GPs know next to nothing about nutrition. And why should they? Anyone who trained more than 5 years ago got less than 12 hours of basic nutrition in medical school. In the US there are now 40 medical schools with a module on ‘functional medicine’ akin to optimum nutrition, but none here. Oxford University’s medical school doesn’t even have a professor of nutrition in it’s teaching staff! I don’t know about you but I am getting pretty fed up with the money that’s being spent on propaganda to keep the pharmaceutical and medical industry in power while we, the public, get sicker and broker. If you see one of these leaflets in your GP surgery my advice is to put it in the recycle bin. If you read it is likely to be bad for your health and raise your blood pressure.