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Vitamin Euphoria

Nowadays, artificial vitamins are added to almost every processed food – not because they are so good for you, but because foods that are “enriched” sell better. Cereals, bread, milk, yoghurt, boiled sweets, even dog food with added vitamins leave the supermarket shelves much faster than do those without them. Smokers, meat eaters, sugar addicts, or people who drink too much alcohol can now continue enjoying their self-destructing habits without having to fear the dreaded vitamin deficiency, thanks to the blessed food industry. The magic food supplements have become an insurance policy against poor diet, and nobody has to feel guilty anymore over eating junk food. And on top of that, scientific research suggests that taking large doses of supplements may protect you against disease, even though there is no real evidence to support that claim. As seen in the sales figures, the public believes that the more vitamins you take, the healthier you get.

But are vitamins really so good for your health? Despite the massive amounts of vitamins consumed in modern societies, general health is declining everywhere, except in those countries that still rely mostly on fresh farmed foods. Could the mass consumption of vitamins be even co-responsible for this trend?

Sodium and water are essential to maintain sodium levels and hydrate the body, but too much of either can seriously upset the body’s electrolyte balance. Overconsumption of vitamin A, for example, can cause loss of hair, double vision, headaches, and vomiting in women, all indications of vitamin poisoning. If a woman is pregnant, the supplement can even harm her unborn baby. As we will see, vitamins can even endanger a person’s life.

In the beginning of the 17th century, Japan was afflicted with a disease, called beriberi, which killed many people. By the year 1860, over one third of Japan’s marines had fallen ill with symptoms of weight loss, frequent heart complaints, loss of appetite, irritability, burning sensations in the feet, lack of concentration, and depression. The symptoms quickly disappeared whenever rice, Japan’s most important staple food, was replaced with other foods.

Thirty years later the Dutch physician Christiaan Eijkman conducted an experiment feeding chicken with white rice. The chicken developed symptoms such as loss of weight, weakness, and signs of nerve infection, which Eijkman interpreted as being beriberi. The symptoms disappeared again when the chicken were fed with brown rice. Soon later Eijkman discovered a few, previously unknown substances within the bran of the whole rice; one of them was named B1. This initiated the era of vitamins.

But, as it turned out, beriberi wasn’t caused by vitamin B1 deficiency. People no longer suffered from beriberi once they discontinued eating rice altogether. It should have been noticed from the beginning that, with “no rice – no vitamin B1 – no beriberi,” the disease must have had other causes than vitamin deficiency. Japanese marine soldiers died within three days after consuming white rice, yet it takes much longer than that to get a B1 deficiency. The origin of this mysterious disease was revealed when in 1891 a Japanese researcher discovered that beriberi is caused by the poison citreoviridine. Citreoviridine is produced by mold in white rice that is stored in filthy and humid environments.

Yet until today, the vitamin B1-beriberi-hypothesis is still maintained in medical text books around the world. Although it has never been proved that a B1 deficiency causes such symptoms as fatigue, loss of appetite, exhaustion, depression, irritability, and nerve damage, many patients having these symptoms are told that they have a vitamin-B deficiency. During vitamin B1 trial studies, all the participants complained about the highly monotonous diet they were given; they suffered fatigue and loss of appetite, regardless of whether they received B1 in their diet or not. As soon as they returned to their normal diet, even without B1, the symptoms spontaneously disappeared.

Another B-vitamin is nicotinic acid or also known as niacin. It has become very popular and is now routinely added to many foods. Niacin is supposed to safeguard us against diarrhea, dementia, and the skin disease pellagra. Pellagra is more widespread among people who eat maize, though not everyone who eats maize gets pellagra. Pellagra was found to be caused by food poisoning through spoiled maize. The poison involved has been identified as T2-toxine and is known to disturb niacin metabolism, thus producing pellagra. Besides the great importance given to taking extra niacin today this substance is not really a vitamin at all since it can be produced by the body itself.