Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Science vs. Medicine on Vitamin D

The worlds of commercial medicine and science haven’t always seen eye to eye, but at one time it would have been unthinkable to see such a public spat as we have seen in the controversy over vitamin D this month. Both sides agree that most people are not getting enough vitamin D, at least in the colder months of colder climates. But while science sees enormous benefit and slight risk in people getting a small amount of vitamin D (such as one capsule per day), medicine sees only theoretical benefit in this and imagines considerable risks (without any scientific evidence to support the supposed risks), and is suggesting a much lower level of vitamin D (such as one capsule per week).

It’s a controversy that scarcely matters to the ordinary person. If you get one vitamin D capsule per week (in winter), you’ll do better than most people, who aren’t taking any. If you take one per day, you may do better, and if there are any risks in this, they have yet to be medically or scientifically demonstrated. Most of the people who take vitamin D in winter fall somewhere in this range anyway, so it’s not one of those medical disputes that people have to keep their eyes on.

The more interesting point about the controversy is that it shows commercial medicine willing to completely ignore science when doing so serves its purposes. The new medical recommendations on vitamin D are based strictly on the role of vitamin D in bone growth, sweeping aside a century of science about the many functions of vitamin D, such as its role in deterring cancer.

Medicine is dismissive of vitamin D partly because there is no money in it. Supplying the entire United States with vitamin D for the winter, at the levels that scientists are talking about, would cost perhaps $1 billion. Compare that to the $100 billion spent annually on cancer treatment alone, and you can see why medical people don’t spend much time on vitamin D.

The objectives of commercial medicine and scientific research are so much at odds that I predict we will see more and larger splits between science and medicine in 2011 and the years to come. By 2018, “scientific medicine” may become the name of a new branch of alternative medicine, as commercial medicine charts its own course increasingly independent of scientific knowledge.