Q. What is orthomolecular nutrition?
In 1969 Linus Pauling coined the word “orthomolecular” for the use of naturally occurring substances, especially vitamins and minerals, to treat disease and promote health. The word is a combination of “ortho,” which is Greek for “correct,” and molecule. So literally speaking, it means the right molecule required for a particular biochemical pathway to function properly.
Orthomolecular nutrition is a little like nutritional detective work. It makes use of minor signs and symptoms of deficiencies to identify unmet nutritional needs, and then uses diet, vitamins and minerals and other food supplements as needed to stimulate and support the body’s own health and healing mechanisms wherever there appears to be a problem.
For instance, when we are concerned that our short-term memory is not as good as it used to be, one option might be to use Gingko biloba, a popular herbal supplement traditionally used in Chinese medicine for such problems. Gingko is an antioxidant and a small but growing number of research studies suggest that it can indeed enhance mental sharpness, probably by increasing blood flow to the brain and protecting against free radical damage.
However, another option might be to consider whether your diet is adequately providing you with the building blocks (precursor molecules) to make enough of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, sometimes called the brain’s memory manager. Dietary changes and supplements can be recommended to increase levels of actelycholine in the brain. If this approach works, then we assume the problem was related to dietary insufficiencies. This is the route taken by the orthomolecular nutritionist.
Q. I’ve also heard the term “biochemical nutrition” used. How does biochemical nutrition differ from orthomolecular nutrition?
There is no practical difference between the terms “biochemical” and “orthomolecular” nutrition. Another term sometimes used to describe how disease might be eradicated and health restored by giving the body the correct nutrients It requires for optimal health is “Functional Nutrition.” So all these three terms effectively mean the same thing.
Q. I know we can’t live without food and water, but how important are vitamins and minerals?
Vitamins and minerals cannot be made by the body and must be taken in on a regular basis. They act as catalysts, helping the many millions of biochemical reactions taking place at any one time to actually happen at all. If you imagine your body as a car, the carbohydrates, fats and proteins from food would be the fuel in the tank, while the vitamins and minerals would be the sparkplugs. You might have a full tank of gas, but without sparkplugs the car would not run. Therefore they are essential – necessary for the spark of life itself.
Q. What happens if we do not get enough vitamins and minerals?
If we are eating food at all, very few of us are completely deficient in vitamins and minerals. Otherwise, like the car that runs out of gas, we would simply stop functioning and die. However, a growing number of scientists and doctors now believe that what many of us may suffer from is nutritional insufficiencies. In other words, we are not getting optimal amounts of vitamins and minerals to make sure that all of the body’s metabolic needs are being met all the time – the sparkplugs are badly adjusted, and the car is just not running smoothly or efficiently.
In the short term, this may make us irritable, tired or unable to concentrate. In the long term, continued nutritional insufficiencies may lead to serious health problems.
Q. What exactly do you mean by “nutritional insufficiency”?
Let me give you some examples. If you are deficient in vitamin C you get scurvy. Scurvy is an “end stage disease;” that is, if someone with scurvy doesn’t get some vitamin C, they will die in a matter of weeks. However, at the present time we know of many biochemical reactions in the body that need vitamin C to work. If we have insufficient vitamin C, perhaps only 70% of those biochemical pathways are working at any one time.
Another example might be magnesium, a mineral most of us don’t get enough of, and which, like vitamin C, we use up in greater amounts when we are under stress. An astonishing 70% of enzymes in the body depend on magnesium to function. Many of the B vitamins, for instance, are of no benefit without magnesium to activate them.
And nutritional insufficiencies are not limited to vitamins and minerals. Our diet may have insufficient protein or the wrong type of fats for proper repair and maintenance. Therefore, if we suffer from nutritional insufficiencies, whether or not a particular biochemical pathway is working in the body at any one time becomes rather hit-and-miss. Supposing we get enough vitamin C to prevent scurvy, but not enough to properly fuel our immune system, we may end up with frequent colds or have bothersome allergies. This is what is meant by nutritional insufficiency.
Q. Does everyone need to take supplements? Can’t we get everything we need from a good diet?
Surveys show that very few people – less than 10% of North Americans, for instance – eat according to healthy eating guidelines, leaving the majority of us vulnerable to inadequate intakes of many vitamins or minerals. However, supplements can never replace healthy eating. If they are used they should be supplemental to, not instead of, a good diet.
Q. Do we really need 7-10 servings of vegetables and fruit every day?
Yes, if we want to be healthy. Vegetables, legumes (beans and lentils) and fruit should make up the bulk of our carbohydrate intake. Not only are these foods rich in vitamins, minerals and fibre, but recent research has shown that chemicals in plants, called phytochemicals, have truly remarkable disease-preventing properties. Phytochemicals can help us resist infection and protect us from many of the major disease which plague western society today – cancer, heart disease and stroke, and eye disease, to name a few.
In fact, so exciting is the disease prevention potential of vegetables and fruit that there is really no upper limit on the amount you can eat – the more you eat, the healthier you’ll be! But be sensible. Include plenty of variety to get the full range of benefits from all the millions of different phytochemicals present in vegetables and fruit. Don’t just chomp on carrots all day! And if you are diabetic or are watching your weight, you will probably want to limit your intake of fruit, and put the emphasis on the less starchy vegetables.