The food most of us consume today is not as rich in nutritional value as it once was due to the significant industrial processing it must undergo to be preserved, packaged and shipped and to the significant effects of pollution in the air, water and soil. Therefore, the human body, especially in heavily industrialized societies, ends up receiving far fewer of the vitamins and minerals that are necessary for optimal health. Moreover, additional energy expenditures and therefore caloric consumption are often required to cope with the stress caused by environmental, situational, and psychological agents.
Thus, the use of nutritional supplements, especially vitamins and herbal extracts, has blossomed into a significant industry and constitutes an increasingly large share of how we obtain these essential nutrients. Generic symptoms such as fatigue, headache, and mood changes are now being treated not only with prescribed or over the counter chemical preparations but also through the consumption of mostly unregulated food supplements.
As far back as 1968, two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling pioneered scientific research on the beneficial effects of vitamin supplements and coined the term orthomolecular to describe a nutrition-focused therapy that included large doses of food supplements. His research built on the previous work of two Canadian psychiatrists, Abram Hoffer and Humphrey Osmond, who in 1952 had begun to use very large doses of vitamins, in particular those of the B group, for the treatment of psychiatric disorders. Pauling went one step further by attempting to demonstrate the effectiveness of taking very large doses of vitamins in prevention and in therapy. His studies focused on the antiradical effects of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and of the liposoluble vitamins A and E in the stimulation of the immune system. Pauling’s view of the benefits of orthomolecularity launched the modern production and distribution of vitamins, minerals, herbs, or products made from plants, animal parts, algae, seafood, or yeasts.
The Bad and the Ugly
Lately, attention is also being paid to the increasingly worrisome phenomenon of self-medication with unregulated nutritional supplements, such as caffeine-laden energy drinks. A 16-ounce can of an energy drink may contain 13 teaspoons of sugar and the amount of caffeine found in four or more colas. Moreover, this potent mixture of sugars and stimulants is often mixed with alcohol. These products, whose catchy names are Red Bull, Rockstar, Monster and Full Throttle, are increasingly popular among teenagers and young adults, even as young as 10-12 years of age. Unfortunately, these concoctions of uppers and downers have dangerous, even life-threatening, effects on blood pressure, heart rate and brain function, according to a recently released report by the Mayo Clinic’s Foundation for Medical Education and Research.