Orthomolecular medicine involves providing the body with optimal amounts of substances that are natural to it in order to prevent and treat disease.
The term “orthomolecular” combines “ortho”, which is Greek for “correct” or “right”, with “molecule”, which describes the simplest structure of a compound. Therefore, “orthomolecular” literally means “the right molecule”.
The term was coined by American biochemist and two-time Nobel Prize winner Dr Linus Pauling, who came up with it to describe the supplementation of micronutrients targeting chronic illnesses, such as osteoarthritis, or during specific life stages, such as pregnancy.
He defined orthomolecular medicine in 1968 in the journal Science as involving “varying the concentrations of substances that are normally present in the body and necessary for health in order to preserve health and treat disease”.
The concept posits that diseases are caused by deficiencies in the body’s nutritional environment. Thus, the treatment for diseases involves using substances such as vitamins and minerals to correct imbalances or deficiencies based on individual biochemistry.
The practice has evolved to use doses of vitamins and minerals many times higher than those recommended by diet. In megavitamin therapy, for example, high dose intravenous vitamin C is used.
The theory is that a variety of diseases and conditions such as cancer can be prevented or treated with the appropriate micronutrients. This is as these nutrients play an important role in many processes in the body, including vitamins, trace elements, minerals, essential fatty acids, amino acids, phytonutrients, and pre- and probiotics.
For example, an oncology patient’s nutritional status is related to their response rate, survival rate, toxicity profile, compliance and psycho-social status.
Those in need
When a normal diet is unable to supply sufficient quantities of all the essential micronutrients, patients require supplementation to meet this need in their specific circumstance or when they are ill.
When looking for supplementation, it’s important to find reputable products made by companies with a deep understanding of nutritional medicine. The consumption of micronutrients should be tailored to specific needs using appropriate combinations of micronutrients. The following groups of people need to pay extra attention to their micronutrients supply:
- People with extremely one-sided eating habits, e.g. those who eat a lot of fast food, or those only eat a few different foods for ideological reasons, like fruitarians.
- People who suffer from digestive disorders.
- People who drink a lot of alcohol.
- People who rarely spend time in the sun and risk being vitamin D deficient.
- Patients who have to take medicine regularly (e.g. cortisone or certain antibiotics).
- People who are dieting to lose weight or who only eat small amounts for other reasons (e.g. elderly people with a poor appetite).
What we need
The following are some of the essential nutrients required by our bodies:
Many chemical reactions require water to occur. Water is also necessary to transport other nutrients, regulate body temperature and eliminate waste from our body. Approximately 60% of an adult’s weight is made up of water. We are able to meet our water needs in a variety of ways, such as drinking it or consuming fruit that is more than 90% water.
Animal fats such as meat, fish, poultry, milk and eggs are rich in protein. Protein is the body’s most abundant substance apart from water. Good plant sources of protein are beans, peas and nuts. Combining animal and plant sources of protein provides excellent sources of this nutrient.
Vitamins are essential nutrients for the growth and health of living things. The body cannot manufacture them in sufficient amounts, so they must be absorbed from food. Each vitamin has a specific role to perform in the body.
Fats and oils
Dietary fats are essential to good health. They make certain vitamins available to the body, cushion vital organs, make up a part of all body cells, and regulate body temperature. Fats also delay hunger, because food containing more fat stays longer in the stomach.
Two particular fats – polyunsaturated omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids – are needed to build regulatory substances called prostaglandins.
Minerals are inorganic. Almost all whole foods contribute to the intake of various essential minerals. Some minerals are easy to obtain in the quantities required by the body. Others are more difficult to obtain in sufficient quantities and may require supplementation.
An example is iron, which is needed in larger quantities by children under the age of four years, as well as females of child-bearing age. Other important minerals are sodium, potassium, iodine, magnesium, zinc and copper.
Complementing patient needs
A growing number of over-the-counter products, naturopathic medical textbooks and mainstream pharmaceuticals revolve around orthomolecular treatments.
Most medical professionals consider orthomolecular medicine a form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), and not a substitute for regular treatment.
In particular, the use of CAM is increasingly widespread in cancer patients. Many such patients use CAM to supplement conventional therapies like radiotherapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy and surgery.
When such therapies are used to complement medical and surgical treatment – rather than replacing them altogether – they are usually viewed positively by many healthcare professionals.
CAM has been found to contribute to improving the quality of life and overall well-being of cancer patients. Such therapies can be categorised in a variety of ways, and below is one way of doing so:
- Alternative medical systems
- Mind-body interventions
- Biologically-based therapies
- Manipulative and body-based methods
- Energy therapies.
It is important to note that many of these approaches are unproven and may be promoted as alternatives to conventional cancer treatment. Patients are encouraged to carefully review the claims made by such products and discuss them with their main healthcare provider.
Doctors should also listen to and discuss such therapies with their patients with an open mind. The promotion of many unproven alternatives is very persuasive and appealing.
Dismissing the subject or not taking the topic seriously may only encourage patients to explore these therapies more, possibly to the detriment of their health and life expectancy. It is better to educate patients about CAM that has been shown to work well.
Orthomolecular medicine is one such example, which has been found to help manage pain, nausea, fatigue, anxiety, depression and other symptoms. As a therapy based on diet and supplementation of nutrients, it can be easily integrated into the patient’s overall care.
CAM can help improve a patient’s quality of life, their satisfaction and give them a sense that they are in the driver’s seat, doing something to improve their overall well-being, and to achieve optimal health and healing.
By Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar
Published in Star Newspaper, 28 Nov 2022