Orthomolecular medicine focuses on the individual nutritional needs of a person and uses both diet and nutrient supplements to restore and maintain the correct nutritional balance. “Ortho” means “correct.” Orthomolecular medicine corrects or normalizes the molecular balance of vitamins, minerals and amino acids in the body. Because this type of medicine involves quite large doses of certain nutrients, it has been referred to as “megadose” therapy
Though vitamins and mineral supplements have been used since the 1920s, orthomolecular medicine had its real beginnings in 1952, the year Abram Hoffer, a Canadian medical doctor, with partner Dr. Humphrey Osmond, discovered that large doses of vitamin B3 (niacin) helped to control schizophrenia. In their study, the number of recoveries from schizophrenia doubled in a one-year period in relation to conventional medical treatment alone.
Dr. Linus Pauling, professor of chemistry at Stanford University, and two-time recipient of the Nobel Prize, coined the term “orthomolecular” in a 1968 report called Orthomolecular Psychiatry. Pauling’s input denoted this type of medicine as one concerned with using natural substances that are normally present in the healthy body. Pauling went on to be famous for his research into and promotion of megadoses of vitamin C for colds and other ailments.
Hoffer, Osmond and Pauling suggested that taking certain nutrients could directly influence the onset, severity, treatment and prevention of disease. Their theories pointed to malnutrition as a cause of illness, and to the rise in the consumption of refined and processed foods, especially white flour and sugar. At the time, the connection between diet and disease was a new one, at least for Western medicine.
Like any new model or theory, orthomolecular medicine met with immediate reluctance and even harsh criticism from the established medical community, and continues to draw prejudice today. According to Hoffer, the doubt lodged against vitamin therapy is based on the question of how anything as simple as vitamins can be of value for treating a complicated disease. Hoffer characterizes this widespread sentiment as absurd. Nearly every serious disease remains complicated until a specific treatment is developed.
How Can It Help Me?
This nutritional approach helps maintain good health, improve health through proper diet, and cure and treat illness. Orthomolecular medicine has been used widely, though controversially, for both physiological and psychiatric conditions. Some commonly treated afflictions include colds, heart disease, cancer, depression and schizophrenia. It can provide dramatic recovery when nothing else has worked.
Using its broadest definition, people who take a daily multi-vitamin pill to supplement their diets are practicing orthomolecular medicine–they are trying to “correct” the nutritional deficiencies in the food they eat.
Proper orthomolecular therapy is an intense, directed and thorough approach to nutrient supplementation. It takes into account individual nutritional needs on the basis of age, sex, activity, stress and the presence of disease. In this respect, it aims to employ “custom-made” therapies which, unlike conventional pharmaceutical preparations, remedy the underlying causes of diseases to prevent further problems. In effect, orthomolecular medicine helps the body help itself out of an imbalanced or diseased state.
Did You Know?
Vitamin C Helps Coronary Artery Disease
A recent study at Boston University found that patients with coronary artery disease, given 2 grams of vitamin C per day (which is approximately thirty times the RDA), had clearer arteries by the end of the study.
How Does It Work?
Orthomolecular medicine defines itself by questioning two common medical assumptions: that a well-balanced diet will provide us all the required nutrients; and that we are all generally alike in the amount of nutrients we need, typified by the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) rating system.
These assumptions fail to recognize that our food is not as high in nutritional value as it once was. It is often grown on mineral-depleted soil with the aid of chemicals, and then refined or processed so that any bit of nutrient value left is stripped away. A good example of such “empty” food is bleached white flour.
Our nutrient requirements also vary throughout our lives according to activity levels, sex and genetic predisposition. The aim of orthomolecular medicine is to provide optimal nutrients to the body through a whole food diet, unhindered by junk foods, sugar, additives, and free of allergens. When necessary, nutrients are supplemented through pills or injections to ease symptoms as well as to correct and prevent deficiencies.
Orthomolecular therapy is not meant to be a replacement for standard medical treatment, but a complementary approach which is better suited to particular disorders. For orthomolecular physicians, nutrition, which has been largely ignored in medical training, is the main component of all treatment.
Inadequate nutrition from eating a diet of processed foods, sugar, junk foods and chemical additives leads to disease. A deficiency of even one nutrient affects the functioning of body processes. A deficiency of vitamin C, for example, is well known to have caused scurvy, especially common in English sailors of the nineteenth century. This was eventually remedied by providing citrus fruits and juices on the ships. Eating too much or too little proteins, fats or carbohydrates–that is, an unbalanced diet–also leads to impaired body function.
How Is It Done?
The orthomolecular physician’s goal is to discover the cause of a disorder and to devise a suitable treatment program to remedy it. Most often, the first area of patient analysis will be the diet, and determining if there are important nutrients which are low or missing in the daily dietary intake. In addition, food allergies, sensitivities and exposure to chemicals may be considered. A number of laboratory tests, such as those for glucose tolerance, thyroid function, insulin levels, and analyses of the hair, blood and urine, are used by orthomolecular physicians.
The main problem for the orthomolecular therapist is to discover the optimum levels of certain nutrients to relieve symptoms, and restore and maintain health. As noted above, these optimum levels may vary drastically for different people, and for a number of reasons. Simple trial and error is the most effective way to determine the optimum levels. Physicians and patients work together to find the level which restores health without causing either unpleasant or dangerous side-effects.
The first treatment option is always reformulating the diet to eliminate junk foods, refined foods, sugar and caffeine, as well as those foods high in chemical additives. Any food which the patient knows makes him or her sick should also be eliminated. A diet of whole, raw, live and unrefined foods, balanced in proteins, fats and carbohydrates, is basic to orthomolecular treatment.
In some cases, a patient’s nutrient needs cannot be supplied in the diet alone and must be supplemented. Vitamin or mineral injections are often used to provide an initial, quick response and are usually followed by nutrients orally. These dosages are quite high by modern medical standards. For example, in some cases the successful treatment of schizophrenia with vitamin B3 (niacin) took 3,000 mg per day, which is more than a thousand times the current RDA.
Physicians begin with dosages which long experience has shown to be most effective for a particular condition. Through patient consultation and examination, dosages may be slowly lowered or raised until the rate of improvement is satisfactory to both doctor and patient. For example, high doses of vitamin C can cause intestinal gas and diarrhea, an unpleasant side-effect for the patient. In administering vitamin C, orthomolecular physicians attempt to find the level of “bowel tolerance”-that level just shy of producing gas and diarrhea.
Once a patient has displayed improvement, the dosage is slowly lowered. If any symptoms return, the dosage is increased. This process determines the “maintenance dose”-that dosage which, for a particular patient, is adequate to maintain health and freedom from symptoms.
What Can I Do?
Avoid refined foods, chemical additives and any food you know makes you sick. Read up on nutrients and their deficiency symptoms and try supplementation with the recommended dosage. For more intense therapy, see a qualified orthomolecular physician
Where Do I Go Next?
Contact the International Society for Orthomolecular Medicine.