The term orthomolecular, was first used by Linus Pauling (double Nobel laureate), in a paper he wrote in the journal Science, in 1968. The key idea in orthomolecular medicine is that genetic factors affect not only specific physical characteristics of the individual, but also impact on the whole of their biochemical story, including the brain and its associated functions. The term orthomolecular literally means identifying the ‘right’ (ortho) molecule to address those biological imbalances and by making the right biochemical corrections, the body is assisted in facilitating its own healing. This discipline has, over the last forty plus years, built a reputation for dealing with both mental and physical illnesses, such as: atherosclerosis, cancer, schizophrenia, various mood disorders, autoimmune diseases and clinical depression.
Orthomolecular medicine originally evolved in the context of treating and preventing psychiatric diseases, which is why some still refer to it as orthomolecular psychiatry. As stated, the primary goal of orthomolecular therapy is to provide the ‘optimal’ molecular environment for the brain and other tissues. To this end, diet, nutrition and the focused and sometimes intense use of supplementation are the essential tools employed to restore biological balance and health. So, by carefully altering the intake of nutrients such as vitamins (and their metabolites), minerals, trace elements, EFAs, macronutrients, as well as other naturally occurring metabolically active substances, a patient can sometimes enjoy a level of recovery where other medical interventions had failed.
This wonderful form of medicine is grounded in common sense and is founded on the obvious. If we are made up of food, water, air and light then any deficiency in one of these areas is bound to be reflected somewhere in the mind-body system.
The work of Hoffer and Pfeiffer (which began in the late 1950s and focused on schizophrenia) laid the foundation for the journey this science would take. Already acknowledged at this point were the obvious biological disadvantages that poor nutrition would inflict on the body – for example a lack of vitamin C: scurvy and soft tissue damage; a lack of vitamin D: rickets and bone recession etc. But this was a science that took nutrition from its fairly exclusive focus on the body and shed light on its relevance and importance to the mind.
It became overwhelmingly clear that particular deficiencies not only affected normal biological functioning they also affected mental health. For example, Abraham Hoffer found that a deficiency in niacin (vitamin B3) was critical in cases of schizophrenia. This significant vitamin from the vitamin B family was actually found to markedly affect the mental health of those who were deficient in it. Two other nutrients, vitamin B6 and zinc, were also found to be central characters in this story. In fact, the more you explore this subject the more you can see how pivotal vitamins and mineral deficiencies are to our mental health.
Orthomolecular medicine is still, in current scientific terms, quite young, but the great work of Linus Pauling, Carl Pfeiffer and Abraham Hoffer continues to be developed worldwide with countless research projects and papers relating diet and nutrition very specifically to conditions such as: anxiety, hormonal mood swings, addictions, attention deficit disorders, eating disorders, Parkinson’s Disease, autism, memory issues and much more. To find out more, see the excellent work of: the International Society for Orthomolecular Medicine, The Food for the Brain Foundation – The Brain Bio-Centre and The Mental Health Foundation, where some pioneering work continues to cross the mind-body divide. This research is beginning to show we cannot always fix psychological problems solely by talking, as some emotional problems are underpinned and even driven by our biology.
The role of water is also a key player in mental health. A small decrease (just 2%) in the percentage of water within the body makes a significant impact on cognitive functioning as well as on temperament and mood. This was originally mooted by Dr. Batmanghelidj and has subsequently gone on to be well researched by others (see the work of Armstrong, 2012 and Walsh, 2005). Now that the role of water is beginning to be better understood, it too is demonstrating that what have often been classified as mental health problems, are not always ‘just in the mind’. Some exist in and are perpetuated by the body as well. So again, we see how physical substances are pertinent to good mental health and water is arguably the most important of all the molecules we put into the body.
There is much more that can be said about the impact of orthomolecular medicine on conditions of the mind, such as: anxiety, depression, panic attacks, phobias, OCD and more severe mental health conditions. Should you want to explore this topic further, you might find it helpful to look at Patrick Holford’s work – Optimum Nutrition for the Mind.
Nutritional genomics – the future of medicine?
An interesting postscript to the innovative work happening in the field of orthomolecular medicine is what is taking place in the field of nutritional genomics. This even newer science, is actively studying the relationship between the human gene, nutrition and health. The increasing recognition that nutrients have the ability to interact, modify and influence molecular mechanisms, which in turn impact on an organism’s physiological functions, has prompted this most recent development in the field of nutrition. This field of exploration into human health has two primary branches – nutrigenomics and nutrigenetics – both of which promise much.
Nutrigenomics: This branch of nutritional genomics is the study of the effects of foods and their constituents on gene expression. This fascinating discipline has focused its research on the molecular interaction between nutrients, food and the genome. Using systems biology, a map is developing around how the body responds and reacts, at the genetic level, to food and specific nutrients – and how by varying food and nutrient intake, those genes which when ‘activated’, make the individual more vulnerable to specific diseases, can in fact be ‘switched off’. In other words our food and nutrient intake influences the biological expression of our cells. Our foods are said to have a ‘dietary signature’ and this dietary signature affects the metabolic pathways and also the body’s state of balance – homoeostasis.
Added to this it has been identified that there are particular genetic markers, which respond quite specifically to the dietary signature of the food we are eating making us more vulnerable to latent genetic predispositions. One of the primary aims of this field, is to identify the markers, which make the individual more susceptible to specific diseases, such as: obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s etc.
Running parallel to this field of research is nutrigenetics, which is looking at the ‘single gene/single food compound’ relationship. Basically, nutrigenetics is concerned with why one food, which may be beneficial for one person can cause harm to another.
One of the primary focuses of this discipline is to identify genetic susceptibility to diseases in order to offer what is in some quarters being called ‘personalised disease prevention advice’, which is offered based on the individual’s genetic make up. Due to the great advances in genetic research, nutrigeneticists, via cheek swab or blood analysis, acquire the necessary DNA and through careful study and analysis of the genetic data, possible ‘risk’ genes are identified. Essentially, the researchers are looking for either positive or negative correlations between the risk genes and the various nutritional factors, in order that appropriate ‘patient specific’ treatment strategies can be devised.
There are a number of other sophisticated genetic methods and applications being employed such as, looking at how individuals absorb and process food stuffs, as well as looking at the consumption and transportation of nutrients to try and help us better understand the precise relationship between food, nutrition and genetic expression.
For those of you interested in exploring this subject further look at the work of Dr. Raymond L. Rodriguez and Dr. Somen Nandi from The Centre of Excellence for Nutritional Genomics and also see the work of The New Zealand Institute of Plant & Food Research.
Both these disciplines are helping us to better understand the ‘personal’ nature of health and disease, and should be considered as front-runners in the field of preventative medicine. They remind us that although there are undoubtedly
things that are common to us all when it comes to health solutions, there is also a level of ‘biochemical individuality’ that needs to be understood and respected, if we are to find the best remedies and outcomes to match the genetic profile of the individual.
It should be stated for balance that nutrigenomics and nutrigenetics are still in their infancy but their contribution to human health is expected, over the next decade, to be substantial. What we do have though is enough data to illustrate that what we eat does in fact affect every system in the body, and food can be both medicine, or poison.
Nutrigenomics and nutrigenetics are arguably adding more texture and depth to the contribution orthomolecular medicine has made and are helping us to see how we can go even further in personalising dietary advice, through a better understanding of the genetic story of each individual.
I believe we are on the cusp of several revolutions, happening simultaneously across a number of disciplines. If we could just slow down, pay attention and observe, we would see that a host of things previously considered mysteries, are now in numerous ways revealing themselves. These revelations would serve us as individuals, and our planet wonderfully if we were only open to their message, that everything is indeed connected.
The more you provide the body with everything it needs, the more you will find it is capable of performing miracles that you didn’t even know it was capable of.
Science is rapidly beginning to understand that our bodies are arguably the greatest wonders in the known universe. Unfortunately we’ve seen medicine as something that ‘fixes’ the body rather than something that respects and supports the body’s amazing capacity to heal itself.
Both nutrigenomics and orthomolecular medicine are the body’s latest allies in helping it to perform miracles. Don’t be put off by the technical terms and the language that surround these subjects, because the message is simple – give the body what it needs and it will do the rest.
Wishing you peace and health always!