There seems to be a study on everything. And for every study that says X, there’s another one that says Y. A little alcohol is good for you. Red wine is even better. All alcohol is bad. A vegan diet prevents cancer. Vegan diets lack vitamins and minerals which can lead to cancer.

Who knows what to believe?

It reminds me of the part in Woody Allen’s Sleeper when,  after being awakened from 200 years of cryopreservation, he is told that everything he believed about health is wrong. He requests wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk for breakfast. They give him a cigarette. “One of the best things for you.”

I read an article this week about “the vitamin myth”. Vitamins are necessary to our health and survival. We don’t eat the foods we should eat, therefore we don’t get the vitamins we need. Correct? Well, in this study, women who took supplemental multivitamins died at rates higher than those who didn’t. Another study, published two days later, found that men who took vitamin E had an increased risk of prostate cancer.

There had been a number of earlier studies that found that vitamins increased the risk of cancer and heart disease and shortened lives. But another study in 2012 showed that half of all Americans took some form of vitamin supplements.

Why? Partially because many of us grew up being constantly told by our parents and the media that vitamins could make us stronger, healthier and lead to longer lives.

The article noted above points a big finger at Linus Pauling, a man who was “so spectacularly right that he won two Nobel Prizes and so spectacularly wrong that he was arguably the world’s greatest quack.

Pauling’s research merged quantum physics with chemistry. His 1931 paper, “The Nature of the Chemical Bond,” posited that electron sharing was somewhere between the two known types of bonds of ionic and covalent.

It was an idea so revolutionary that when Albert Einstein was asked what he thought of Pauling’s work, he shrugged his shoulders and said “It was too complicated for me.”

CIn 1970, Pauling published the books that gave him much wider fame than winning two Nobel prizes. The books said that taking 3,000 milligrams of vitamin C every day (about 50 times the recommended daily allowance) would eliminate the common cold and flu and increase lifespans. Drugstores sold a lot of vitamin C and 50 million Americans were part of “the Linus Pauling effect.”

Many studies showed that the effect was imaginary and possibly even dangerous for health. Did Pauling back down? No, in fact, he later claimed that vitamin C could also cure cancer.

Studies showed that it did work against cancer – and that it did not have any impact on cancer cells.

Another study about free radicals showed that they can damage DNA and disrupt cell membranes. Sounds dreadful. But we also need free radicals to kill bacteria and eliminate new cancer cells.

Still, the study led to people taking large doses of antioxidants (such as vitamins A, C & E)  to combat free radicals. Later studies showed that if that balance between free radical production and destruction tips too far from the antioxidant supplements it causes an unnatural state in which the immune system is less able to kill harmful invaders.

This “antioxidant paradox” means that high doses of vitamins and supplements increase the risk of heart disease and cancer. Currently, no national or international organization responsible for the public’s health recommends them.

Linus Pauling was asked in 1980 if he now believed that vitamin C had any harmful long-term side effects. “No,” he replied. Seven months later, his wife was dead of stomach cancer and in 1994, Linus Pauling died of prostate cancer.

And what does his death prove? Nothing. He and his followers would probably say he had started too late on his vitamin C regimen and that they allowed him to live to 93.

Studies are inconclusive.
Clip from Sleeper