Orthomolecular medicine is the prevention and treatment of disease by administering nutritional supplements. The patient's state of health, external or environmental factors and quality of diet are taken into account. The architect of orthomolecular medicine, Nobel Prize laureate Linus Pauling, coined the term in 1968. The aim of orthomolecular medicine is not merely to eliminate disease, but to aim for "optimum health."
Linus Carl Pauling was born in 1901 in Portland, Oregon. He published his first scientific paper at the age of 22. In 1925, he graduated summa cum laude from the California Institute of Technology with a Ph.D. in chemistry. He was to remain at this institute for the next 38 years.
Though by no means the first to investigate the properties of the nutrients contained in foods, or the first to consider the medical application of nutritional supplements, his contribution to our understanding of how nutrients work in our bodies and how supplements can affect our health, has not been matched, either before or since. It was not until 1966, after a long and distinguished career, that he changed direction in response to a letter from Irwin Stone and began to research the properties of micronutrients.
In 1970, Pauling published Vitamin C and the Common Cold, which established vitamin C as a favorite and effective remedy for colds and flu. In 1973, he founded the Institute of Orthomolecular Medicine, a non-profit research organization, with Arthur B. Robinson and Keene Dimick. The institute later became the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine. In the years that followed, Pauling published many research papers and books detailing his findings in the field of orthomolecular medicine until his death in 1994.
As a result of Pauling's research, orthomolecular medicine has become a specialized branch of alternative medicine, and its realm of application has widened to include not only cancer and other diseases, but many mental illnesses, including schizophrenia .
In summarizing their philosophy, practitioners of orthomolecular medicine cite Hippocrates's watchword which was "First, do no harm." With their policy of rectifying nutrition first and then administering supplements in treating disease, they feel that they already have an advantage over allopathic methods such as chemotherapy, drug therapy, surgery and radiotherapy, which orthomolecular practitioners believe have potentially disastrous effects on the human organism. Despite the fact that when taken in "mega-doses" nutritional supplements have been known to cause harm, they can have a significantly lower potential for toxicity than allopathic drugs.
Orthomolecular practitioners recommend that patients improve their lifestyle and eating habits to consolidate benefits felt from the supplements themselves. Many of their "discoveries" have now become more or less common knowledge, for example the fact that a combination of vitamin C and zinc can speed the departure of a virus—particularly a cold—by many days.
Orthomolecular medicine can be of benefit to anyone for a wide range of illnesses and symptoms.
Some illnesses which have been treated with orthomolecular medicine are:
- depression, anxiety , and schizophrenia
- Raynaud's disease, heart problems, and therosclerosis
- digestive disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease, diverticulitis , obeisity, and endometriosis
- chronic fatigue syndrome
- heavy metal toxicity and radiation sickness
- osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis
- infertility and other reproductive disorders
- high blood pressure
- asthma and other respiratory problems
- eczema and other skin disorders
- cancer, AIDS , and other immune system problems
- neural tube defects in the fetus.
The basic concept of orthomolecular medicine is that according to their genetic makeup, and other factors such as environment, stress levels, and levels of nutrition, individuals will have nutritional needs that are peculiar to themselves alone; no two people will be alike in this respect. Consequently, what will cause illness for one person, will produce good health in another.
Many degenerative diseases and even mental abnormalities are quite possibly the result of biochemical imbalances. Linus Pauling's research demonstrated that all illness and disease can be treated to some extent with nutritional supplements, such as vitamins, amino acids , trace minerals, electrolytes, and fatty acids.
Theoretically, fresh food that is of high quality should provide all the nutrients necessary for good health. However, the depletion of nutrients in soil result from over-use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers and intensive farming practices also means a gradual decline in the levels of nutrients in produce. Orthomolecular practitioners, therefore, recommend that laboratory tests should be conducted to assess nutritional status so that possible areas of insufficiency may be addressed with the use of supplements.
Orthomolecular psychiatric therapy
This is the treatment of diseases of the mind by providing optimum nutrients, thus enhancing the "chemistry of the brain." It has been found to be very effective in the treatment of mental illness, even schizophrenia.
For those in the allopathic medical profession who are sceptical, practitioners remind them that when nicotinic acid was introduced, it cured hundreds of thousands of pellagra patients of psychoses in addition to the physical symptoms of this disease. Vitamin C has been used successfully to treat some mental symptoms, in particular depression.
Many other micronutrients have been found to influence brain function, among them:
- folic acid
- L(+)-glutamic acid
Nutritional supplements are a growing business and can be obtained almost anywhere, even in the supermarket. It is advisable to obtain supplements from an establishment that specializes in this area, and to ensure that products are fresh and potent.
A reputable health store will have staff on hand to advise customers about what is suitable for them and how supplements should be taken.
If taken incorrectly nutritional supplements can have a detrimental effect on the health. Some supplements can produce adverse effects when taken in combination with certain medications. Certain supplements also cause unwanted effects during pregnancy . Instructions should always be followed, and if in doubt, a nutritionally-oriented practitioner or a physician should be consulted. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has drawn up maximum and minimum recommended doses for the guidance of the public. However, orthomolecular practitioners point out that these levels are intended for normal healthy individuals and sometimes doses far in excess of the RDA (recommended daily allowance) are required to bring a sick person back to health.
In early 2002, the U.S. Pharmacopeial (USP) Convention announced that it would launch a voluntary dietary supplement verification program. Manufacturers of supplements can supply the USP with documentation that shows they have a quality standard system in place to address label accuracy, safety and efficacy of products. The USP then arranges for a quality audit to verify that good quality and safety practices are in place.
Patient should not try to prescribe their own supplements, but should instead consult a qualified practitioner for safer and more beneficial results. It should be noted that blood tests do not always give an accurate picture of nutritional status and most orthomolecular practitioners recommend titration of doses to suit the patient.
Orthomolecular medicine, while generally harmless, can be dangerous if safe doses of nutritional supplements are not observed. Some supplements, notably the oilbased ones such as vitamins A, D, and E, can build up and cause undesirable consequences. Too much vitamin A , for example can cause very dry skin, among other things. Vitamin D can cause calcification of soft tissue if taken in excessive amounts, and all these items can cause liver damage if taken in excess.
Research & general acceptance
Since the beginning of this century, both nutrition and its "offshoot," orthomolecular medicine, have been extensively researched. Both the United States and British governments have special departments which determine safe doses of all supplements.
Orthomolecular medicine is possibly the branch of alternative therapies that has been the subject of most scientific research, and has certainly been validated by that research. Therefore, it is the one branch of alternative medicine that it is very difficult for allopathic medicine to call into question.
Linus Pauling was undoubtedly one of the most distinguished scientists of the twentieth century, and left over 400,000 research papers and other scientific documents to record his findings. Orthomolecular medicine research is based strongly on such other scientific fields as biochemistry, physiology, immunology, endocrinology, pharmacology, and toxicology.
Training & certification
Among those qualified to advise on treatment with nutritional supplements are board certified physicians, licensed nutritionists, and naturopaths. Although specialists in orthomolecular medicine tend to be highly qualified, it is advisable to check the credentials of any therapist or physician before consultation.
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Teresa G. Odle
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