Other common name(s):
megavitamin / megamineral therapy, nutritional medicine
Orthomolecular medicine is the use of high doses of vitamins,
minerals, or hormones to prevent and treat a wide variety of
conditions. The doses are well above the recommended daily allowance
(RDA) and may be used along with special diets and conventional
Available scientific evidence does not support use of
orthomolecular therapy for most of the conditions for which it is
promoted. However, vitamins, minerals, and other supplements have been
and continue to be studied to see if they can help or prevent many
types of illness. While some supplements have been shown to help
certain conditions, a few have unexpectedly proven to be harmful. At
this time, eating nutritious foods is the best proven strategy to get
the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that are needed for good
How is it promoted for use?
Orthomolecular medicine is promoted to help people with
depression, schizophrenia, and other psychiatric illness; Parkinson
disease; shingles; irritable bowel syndrome; alcoholism; colds; heart
disease; hay fever; pneumonia; bruises; acne; eczema; bug bites; cold
sores; chronic fatigue syndrome; and many other health problems.
Malnutrition and eating refined foods is considered be at the root of
many of these illnesses. Those promoting this therapy believe that
conventional medicine is "foreign" to the body and potentially harmful.
They believe that vitamins, minerals, enzymes and other substances that
they consider to be "natural" are the preferred methods of treatment.
What does it involve?
Based on the diagnosis, high doses of vitamin C, niacin, or
other vitamins and minerals may be recommended. These are usually taken
by mouth. The patient may be put on a diet free of refined sugar and
white flour. The diet may be tailored with other specific guidelines
for individuals. In some cases, a person may have hair analysis, blood
tests, or urine tests to learn the levels of certain minerals or
vitamins in the body.
What is the history behind it?
The concept of orthomolecular medicine dates back to the
early 1950s. Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling, PhD, coined the term in
1968. Proponents believe that taking large doses of vitamins or
nutrients could correct "biochemical abnormalities," and thereby
reverse a wide variety of conditions such as alcoholism, arthritis,
asthma, allergies, cancer, depression, epilepsy, heart disease, high
blood pressure, hyperactivity, migraine headaches, mental retardation,
What is the evidence?
So far, most studies of supplements have shown that they are
not as effective in cancer prevention as eating the foods that contain
the vitamins or minerals. This may be because foods have helpful
nutrients other than those being studied, or that combinations of
nutrients have different effects, or because of other factors.
It has long been known, for instance, that iron supplements
can help iron-deficiency anemia and vitamin C supplements can correct
scurvy. Both are examples of diseases that are caused by not getting
enough of the vitamin or mineral. A few vitamins and minerals have been
shown to have physical effects beyond correcting deficiencies. For
example, supplements of nicotinic acid (a form of niacin, or vitamin
B3) have been shown to help lower cholesterol levels in some people.
This has become a standard medical treatment. Research is still going
on to find out more about supplement use in treating or preventing
specific health conditions. Some of the findings are summarized below.
Several antioxidants have been tested alone or in
combinations to find out whether they can help prevent or treat cancer
and other diseases. Antioxidants are compounds that hold back chemical
reactions with oxygen (oxidation) and are thought to reduce the risk of
some cancers. Examples of antioxidants are vitamin C, vitamin E, and
beta-carotene (a precursor of Vitamin A). Certain trace minerals such
as selenium, copper, and zinc also act as antioxidants. Other studies
have looked at minerals in the body such as potassium, magnesium, and
calcium. (See Calcium
Carotene/Vitamin A, Vitamin
B Complex, Folic
Acid, Vitamin C,
The antioxidants vitamin E, vitamin C, beta-carotene,
selenium, and zinc were given to French men and women over a 7-year
period. Others were given a placebo (sugar pill or sham treatment) over
that same time. The men who got the supplement combination seemed to
have slightly lower cancer risk than those who got the placebo.
However, they tended to have low levels of these vitamins in their
bodies at the start of the study. The women who got the supplement had
the same cancer risk as those who got the placebo pills.
A large clinical trial looked at whether beta carotene and
retinol (a form of vitamin A) could help reduce cancer and deaths in
people who were at high risk of lung cancer due to smoking or asbestos
exposure. The researchers found in 1996 that the group receiving the
vitamins had a higher risk of lung cancer, heart disease, and death.
The study was stopped right away because of this surprising effect. The
researchers continued to follow the groups to find out if these effects
continued. The increased risk of heart disease dropped back to normal
risk very quickly, but the cancer risk stayed higher for several years.
One 2005 study looked at whether supplements might help
prevent side effects of cancer treatment. Canadian researchers gave
"natural" vitamin E and beta carotene to people who were getting
radiation therapy for head and neck cancers. They found that those who
received the vitamins had fewer side effects of treatment but later on
had more recurrences of their cancer. This supports older information
suggesting that antioxidant supplements taken during cancer treatment
may decrease its effectiveness.
Several studies looked at heart and blood vessel disease. One
study of women who ate folate-rich foods, some of whom took folic acid
supplements, found that they were at lower risk of high blood pressure
than those women who took in less. However, the women who ate at least
400 micrograms of folate per day (the Recommended Daily Allowance) did
not have this increased risk, whether or not they used supplements.
Supplements appeared to help only those who took in less than
recommended daily allowance of folate in foods.
The HOPE TOO study followed up on patients with diabetes or
vascular disease who had been studied in the 1990s. It found that those
who received vitamin E had no difference in cancer or blood vessel
disease in the heart when compared to placebo (sham or sugar pills.)
Unexpectedly, those who received vitamin E had more heart failure than
those who received the sham pills.
Clinical trials using high doses of vitamins have been done
for people with mental illnesses. Schizophrenic patients treated with
vitamin C or vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) showed no improvement over those
receiving sham treatments. Children with attention deficit disorder who
received high doses of vitamins C, B3, B5, and B6 proved no different
from those receiving placebo (sham treatment).
A 2007 review of 68 studies of vitamin supplements concluded
that people taking vitamin A and vitamin E supplements had a shorter
life expectancy than those who did not take these supplements, and that
vitamin C had no effect on longevity.
As studies continue, researchers are learning from these
surprises. One point is that supplement recommendations cannot be made
from studies observing large groups of people. For instance, nearly all
of the big studies done before the supplement research showed strong
links between low intake of beta carotene in foods and higher rates of
cancer. However, giving beta carotene supplements turned out to
apparently raise cancer risk—the opposite of what was expected. Also,
researchers noted that the effects of some supplements take years to
show up, and that some effects take years after the supplements are
wear off. Other findings from these studies will help in future
More nutrients are still being studied in controlled clinical
trials, for instance, giving trace minerals to seriously ill patients
to see if survival is improved. One preliminary study suggests that the
antioxidant lutein may help those with macular degeneration (loss of
vision in older people caused by poor circulation to the retina of the
eye). More research is needed to find out if this holds true in larger
It is well known that nutrition is important to overall
health. Poor nutrition may contribute to illness; for example, obesity
is linked to diabetes, heart disease, and it raises the risk of some
cancers. Healthy nutrition may contribute to good outcomes from
illness. In one study, for example, women who ate low-fat diets after
treatment for estrogen-receptor-negative breast cancer were less likely
to have recurrence of their cancer. However, vitamin or mineral
supplements have not proven to cure any type of cancer. Available
scientific studies have not shown that large does of vitamins or
minerals can help most of the conditions for which orthomolecular
medicine is recommended.
At this time, it is hard to say how each nutrient or nutrient
combination affects a person’s risk of cancer. On the other hand,
studies of large groups of people have shown that those whose diets are
high in vegetables and low in animal fat, meat, and/or calories have
lower risks for some of the most common types of cancer.
Until more is known about this, the American Cancer Society
recommends eating a variety of healthful foods--with most of them
coming from plant sources--rather than relying on supplements. Choose
whole grains over refined grains and sugars. Limit high-fat and
processed meats. Select foods that help maintain a healthy weight. It
is also important to engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity
for 30 to 60 minutes 5 or more days per week. For most people, this
will help keep weight under control, reduce risk of some cancers, and
reap many other health benefits. While it is best to get vitamins and
minerals from foods, supplements may be helpful for some people, such
as pregnant women, women of childbearing age, and people with
restricted food intakes. If a supplement is taken, the best choice for
most people is a balanced multivitamin/mineral supplement that contains
no more than 100% of the "Daily Value" of most nutrients.
Are there any possible problems
These products are sold as a dietary supplement in
the United States. Unlike drugs (which must be tested before being
allowed to be sold), the companies that make supplements are not
required to prove to the Food and Drug Administration that their
supplements are safe or effective, as long as they don't claim the
supplements can prevent, treat, or cure any specific disease.
Some such products may not contain the amount of the
herb or substance that is written on the label, and some may include
other substances (contaminants). Actual amounts per dose may vary
between brands or even between different batches of the same brand.
Most such supplements have not been tested to find
out if they interact with medicines, foods, or other herbs and
supplements. Even though some reports of interactions and harmful
effects may be published, full studies of interactions and effects are
not often available. Because of these limitations, any information on
ill effects and interactions below should be considered incomplete.
Vitamin A, vitamin D, selenium, iron, magnesium, zinc and
other supplements can cause complications if too much is taken.
Occasional deaths have been reported from iron or magnesium overdoses,
mostly in children. Overdoses of minerals may also cause vomiting,
diarrhea, hair loss, rashes, and diseases of the nails. Zinc and
molybdenum can cause the body’s copper levels to drop, which may
produce anemia and low white blood cell counts.
Reports of pain, numbness in the hands and legs, and trouble
walking due to high doses of pyridoxine (vitamin B6) have been noted.
Vitamin A overdoses can cause headache, drowsiness, irritability,
vomiting, loss of hair and eyebrows, and peeling of the skin. Too much
vitamin D can cause poor appetite, nausea, vomiting, weakness, itching,
and permanent kidney damage.
As noted above, some supplements can raise the risk of cancer
or heart disease. In addition, the potential interactions between
supplements and drugs and herbs should be considered. Some of these
combinations may be dangerous. Always tell your doctor and pharmacist
about any supplements and herbs you are taking.
Antioxidant supplements can interfere with the killing of
cancer cells if taken during chemotherapy or radiation treatment.
Patients who are in cancer treatment should consult with a
knowledgeable physician before taking vitamins, minerals, or other
More Information From Your
American Cancer Society
The following information on complementary and alternative
therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be ordered
from our toll-free number (1-800-ACS-2345).
Bairati I, Meyer F, Gelinas M, Fortin A, Nabid A, et al.
Randomized trial of antioxidant vitamins to prevent acute adverse
effects of radiation therapy in head and neck cancer patients. J
Clin Oncol. 2005 Aug 20;23(24):5805-13.
Bjelakovic, G, et al Mortality in Randomized Trials of
Antioxidant Supplements for Primary and Secondary Prevention:
Systematic Review and Meta-analysis JAMA 2007;
Kushi LH, Byers T, Doyle C, et al. American Cancer Society
guidelines on nutrition and physical activity for cancer prevention:
reducing the risk of cancer with healthy food choices and physical
activity. CA Cancer J
Galan P, Briancon S, Favier A, Bertrais S, Preziosi P, et al.
Antioxidant status and risk of cancer in the SU.VI.MAX study: is the
effect of supplementation dependent on baseline levels? Br J
Nutr. 2005 Jul;94(1):125-32.
Forman JP, Rimm EB, Stampfer MJ, Curhan GC. Folate intake and
the risk of incident hypertension among US women. JAMA.
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Haslam RH, Dalby JT, Rademaker AW. Effects of megavitamin
therapy on children with attention deficit disorders. Pediatrics.
Hercberg S, Galan P, Preziosi P, Bertrais S, et al. The
SU.VI.MAX Study: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial of the health
effects of antioxidant vitamins and minerals. Arch Intern Med.
2004 Nov 22;164(21):2335-42.
Goodman GE, Thornquist MD, Balmes J, Cullen MR, et al. The
Beta-Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial: incidence of lung cancer and
cardiovascular disease mortality during 6-year follow-up after stopping
beta-carotene and retinol supplements. J Natl Cancer Inst.
2004 Dec 1;96(23):1743-50.
Labriola, D., & Livingston, R. (1999). Possible
interactions between dietary antioxidants and chemotherapy. Oncology.
Lerner V, Miodownik C, Kaptsan A, Cohen H, Loewenthal U,
Kotler M. Vitamin B6 as add-on treatment in chronic schizophrenic and
schizoaffective patients: a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. J
Clin Psychiatry. 2002 Jan;63(1):54-8.
Lonn E, Bosch J, Yusuf S, Sheridan P, Pogue J, Arnold JM, et
al; HOPE and HOPE-TOO Trial Investigators. Effects of long-term vitamin
E supplementation on cardiovascular events and cancer: a randomized
controlled trial. JAMA. 2005 Mar
McGuire JK, Kulkarni MS, Baden HP. Fatal Hypermagnesemia in a
Child Treated with Megavitamin/Megamineral Therapy. Pediatrics.
Merck Manual. Available at: http://www.merck.com. Accessed April 24, 2007.
Morris CC. Pediatric iron poisonings in the United States. South
Med J. 2000 Apr;93(4):352-8.
Richer S, Stiles W, Statkute L, Pulido J, Frankowski J, Rudy
D, Pei K, Tsipursky M, Nyland J. Double-masked, placebo-controlled,
randomized trial of lutein and antioxidant supplementation in the
intervention of atrophic age-related macular degeneration: the Veterans
LAST study (Lutein Antioxidant Supplementation Trial). Optometry.
Taylor PR, Greewald P. Nutritional Interventions and Cancer
Prevention. J Clin Oncol. 2005 Jan;23:333-345.
Note: This information may not
cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or
interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be
relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is
familiar with your medical situation.