Carla Carlisle on vitamins

My father, scholarly, sceptical and High Church, did not succumb easily to fads. We were the last family for miles around to have a television. He was even dubious about digital watches. Still, in 1970, he began taking a fat vitamin C pill at breakfast. He’d read a small book by Linus Pauling called Vitamin C and the Common Cold. Pauling was not your common quack, but the distinguished winner of two Nobel Prizes, one for chemistry and one for peace, and his research convinced him that very large doses of vitamin C-1,000 milligrams (1g)-would prevent or cure the common cold.

For years, at the first sign of a cold, I’ve reached for vitamin C, with no way of knowing if it made any difference. Then, about 10 years ago, articles appeared about vitamin C’s ability to protect heart health. The claim was that vitamin C lowered blood levels of something called CRP, a protein related to the inflammation that increases the risk of heart disease.

The University of California did studies with 160 healthy adults that showed a 24% drop in CRP levels in those who were given vitamin C versus no drop for those on a placebo. Epidemiologists around the world cheered. Until one recent study showed that, actually, it lowered good, heart-healthy cholesterol or HDL. Bad news.

For a time, however, vitamin C competed with vitamin E in the heart-disease wars. Medical experts claimed that vitamin E would prevent cancer and heart disease. I found it useful to apply to burns to prevent scarring (it worked) and, occasionally, I’d gulp one down (400 IU) just for luck. Then, in 2005, clinical trials involving 136,000 people who took vitamin E for one reason or another found that the risk of dying was greater in those who took higher doses than in those who took lower doses or none.

All this was on my mind as I stood in Waitrose reading the Daily Mail, whose front-page headline, in 1½in letters, read: ‘Give statins to all over-50s.’ According to Oxford University professor Sir Rory Collins, there is ‘clear evidence’ that everyone, regardless of their health, could benefit from the drug, which cuts levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL). I might have been convinced if I didn’t have a book on my desk written by my old friend Barbara Roberts. A distinguished cardiologist, she is also an associate clinical professor at the Alpert Medical School of Brown Uni-versity and director of the Women’s Cardiac Center at the Miriam Hospital in Rhode Island. Her new book is called The Truth About Statins. For months, it has languished on my desk.

Almost everyone I know is on statins, the vitamin C of our age. Last year, there were 61 million prescriptions for them in England alone. Not only are they supposed to prevent your arteries from clogging up, there are now claims that statins protect against Alzheimer’s. In America, there’s a campaign to add them to the drinking water.

But according to my friend, nearly all the drug trials on statins have been done on men. When Harvard researchers re-analysed major studies, they found no evidence that statins were useful as primary prevention for women. Worse still, women taking them suffer far more side effects-muscle aches, memory loss, difficulty concentrating-than men, with no proof of benefits.

All this in a week in which studies appeared claiming that gingko biloba doesn’t prevent memory loss, egg yolks clog arteries almost as severely as cigarettes, organic food is not more nutritious, and dark chocolate and red wine are not life-savers. Damn, damn, damn.

And the good news? Coffee, long accused of raising levels of cortisol (a bad chemical that makes you fat) actually lowers the risk of dying from diabetes, heart disease and bowel cancer. These words were written with the help of a cup of organic, Arabica coffee and I approve this message.

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