Monday, August 9, 2010

Heart Attacks, Supplements, Natural Vitamins and Minerals

Recently, the New York Times ran a piece about the correlation between heart attacks and supplemental calcium, based on this research posted in the British Medical Journal. The report concluded that calcium supplements increase the risk of myocardial infarctions (what we call heart attacks) by about 30% over five years. 

One of the problems I see with the report is that people believe what they read in reputable publications, whether it's the NYT or the BMJ. Actually, people tend to believe what the read in any publication, and if it is medical or nutritional research, that goes double. The average person has little training in medical research, and takes on faith what they read by someone with a degree, or in 'prestigious institution' publications.

My own in-depth look into medical and nutritional reports in general is what has brought me to the place where I now look closely at all research before I believe anything. Who paid for the research? Who benefits financially? What data did they choose to omit because it disproved their hypothesis?

In my opinion, the report above is in total alignment with the belief that we are too stupid to manage our own health. 

Even according to The Alliance for Natural Health, the report by the BMJ has some serious flaws. 

"It was another example of bad research, poorly constructed from a scientific point of view. But it does contain an element of truth that we all need to understand.

First, the research itself: Daniel Fabricant, PhD, vice president of scientific regulatory affairs for the Natural Products Association, said the results of this study go against years of research showing the benefits of calcium supplementation, and suggested that the authors of the research “cherry picked” the fifteen studies from hundreds of available research studies in the area.

Andrew Shao, PhD, senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), said that their conclusions are “dramatically overstated….Seven of the fifteen trials evaluated had no, or incomplete, data on cardiovascular outcomes…. Further, the researchers chose to exclude any trials administering calcium plus vitamin D—including the Women’s Health Initiative, which found calcium plus vitamin D had no effect on the risk of coronary heart disease or stroke.” 

This last point—about taking calcium with vitamin D—is vital but still incomplete.

Supplemental calcium should never be taken alone. It needs additional magnesium, vitamin D, omega–3 fatty acids, and vitamin K (in particular, vitamin K-2, which is especially important). Without these essential co-factors, the calcium may end up in our blood vessels or our heart, where it causes harm, rather than our bones, where it is needed. 

So long as these co-factors are taken as well, many studies have shown that added calcium plays an important role in building and maintaining bone mass—and also reduces the risk of colon cancer.

It is unarguably true that many people are taking calcium in the wrong way. The answer is NOT to stop taking it. There are enough cases of bone loss (osteoporosis) as it is. And the potential side effects of osteoporosis drugs are truly scary.

Here are some of my thoughts on supplements (and I do take some supplements):
Calcium occurring in a natural food form (lots of green leafy vegetables, dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt, almonds, fish...) was not considered in the research above, but only calcium in supplement pill form, maybe even without magnesium in the compound. So we have no idea if calcium in food form might increase heart attacks; I somehow doubt it.

I don't really know what is true in that research controversy, but maybe I don't need to know if I look to Real Foods for much of my calcium, other minerals, and vitamins.  (Vitamin D is one exception, which I posted here.)

What is true of calcium tends to be true of all vitamins and minerals... they are naturally occurring in our Real Food supply, and our bodies can absorb and use their natural forms appropriately. No one overdoses on vitamins and minerals found in Real Foods.

This assumes, of course, that we know what foods to eat for the vitamins we need. Fast Food does not supply the vitamins we need, and so-called 'vitamin-fortified' foods like breakfast cereals either do not contain the proper balance of vitamins, or they contain vitamins in a form our bodies cannot utilize.

The other thing that is true is that all vitamins and other supplement pills are not alike, and many of the least expensive ones are imported, mainly from China, or are synthetically derived from coal tar.

Now, BigPharma is working to get a bigger cut of the vitamin market, notably the B vitamins which protect against heart attack and stroke. I expect we will see B vitamins like B6, B9 and B12 available by prescription soon, perhaps in response to research like the report above on calcium and heart attacks.

Of course, we all know you can get all those same B vitamins from Real Foods like animal protein (red meat and eggs are best), and some fruits and vegetables, don't we?? 

ps... The B vitamins are water-soluble, which means your body doesn't store any extra B's; you have to replenish them daily.

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