“The First Time I Took Vitamin E”
By John Diamond, M.D.
I remember very distinctly the occasion on which I took my first vitamin E capsule. I was staying at the house of a friend and I went into his bathroom. There on the shelf before my eyes was a bottle of vitamin E capsules. This was the first time I had ever seen it. I had recently read some papers in the medical literature scoffing at the claims of Dr. Shute that it could help in cases of heart disease. The only other thing that I knew about vitamin E, apart from my long-buried biochemistry studies, was that it seemed to have something to do with sexuality. Hadn’t I read or heard that it would improve your sex life?
I looked at the bottle but did not touch it. I had never seen capsules like them before. I could see through the gelatin to the actual substance which was golden and in some way seemed magical and enticing. I made a sudden decision. I picked up the bottle and took one – just one – and I swallowed it. I felt as if I had done something naughty. I hadn’t felt like this since my teens, when it seemed that everything I did was somehow sexual and naughty. I felt very mischievous, strange and almost elated. I thought of it in my stomach, of the hydrochloric acid starting to eat through the gelatin capsule and I wondered how long it would be before it would enter my bloodstream. I had this certain knowledge that any minute I was going to have a most powerful erection. Should I stay in the bathroom until the erection had arrived and then subsided? Or should I rejoin the company in the living room, in which case the erection might come upon me then, in front of everybody? Being at heart a social scientist, I rejoined the company and awaited the results.
Well, nothing happened in the fifteen minutes or so before we all retired to bed. I attributed the delay to the fact that the capsule was still being digested. I lay back on the bed with my wife, who knew nothing of my secret, waiting for the sexual upsurge to engulf me. I was going to make love like never before! I fell asleep in this state of expectancy and when I awoke in the morning I was somewhat surprised to find that I was the same person. I had not been turned into a satyr. Well, I decided, I know medical science has said that vitamin E does nothing for the heart, and I know now for myself that it does nothing for sex. Obviously vitamin E is a hoax!
This is not the recollection of a thirteen-year old school boy, nor of an unskilled laborer who has never studied science. I was a mid-thirties doctor with over twelve years of practice behind me and before that I had six years of medical studies, including five years of biochemistry and pharmacology. And yet this was my reaction to seeing and taking my first vitamin E capsule. I was no more sophisticated, no more scientific, no more rational than a so-called primitive man seeing for the first time the white man’s mirrors and beads.
A widespread primitive fear
Was my response idiosyncratic? Was I crazy? I don’t think so. What I had learned from my years in psychiatry was not to be afraid of my thoughts and feelings but to have the courage to welcome them and to examine them. Reflecting on this for many years since, I feel that my reaction was not abnormal, although it may have been exaggerated because I was thus concentrating on my feelings as a good psychiatrist must. Furthermore, I am sure that nearly every doctor who has not been educated from the beginning to understand vitamin E clinically (as none of us has) would have a similar response. Perhaps it would not reach his consciousness, and if it did he would probably dismiss it as being childish. It is childish and for that very reason it should not be dismissed but examined.
It must be examined because my reaction may help to explain why most doctors scoff at placing any importance on the role of nutrition and correct supplementation as part of a therapeutic program. We are taught in medical school a great deal about the biochemistry of vitamins and minerals, and we are even taught some of this clinically in extreme cases – for example, pellagra and scurvy. But we are not taught anything about nutrition in the life and health of the average person, which means ourselves. Hence, doctors eat as much junk food as anyone else.
If anything can be learned from my reaction, it is that doctors don’t understand vitamins and supplements. They may understand the biochemistry, but in clinical terms that is nothing. They approach them with primitive fear and awe. They know that these substances have some sort of power, at least in the public mind, which they do not understand. And rather than wishing to learn, they either approach with awe or run away with fear. Either way, they do a disservice to their patients and to the health goals of mankind.
Times have changed since I took my first vitamin E, and now it and many other substances are held less in awe. But deep inside these primitive beliefs will still be found operating. I see this in my practice frequently when I recommend supplements to a doctor who has never taken them previously. The next time you try to discuss nutrition with your doctor, and he scoffs at you, remember you are dealing not with a rational, learned man but with a child threatened by a primitive belief.
Not long after the first vitamin E capsule, I entered a health food store for the first time. I had now realized that I could benefit from good nutrition. (At this stage I was not yet thinking of this for my patients.) I entered the store and was completely overwhelmed and confused. I was used to supermarkets and I was of course used to pharmacies. But I could not cope with this new experience. There on the floor in front of me were sacks of various grains, most of whose names I at least knew, but some I didn’t. What was millet? And couscous? All around me were products which meant nothing to me. What was kefir? What was acidophilus? What was lacto-bacillus? I knew about ginseng because I had heard that it also had something to do with sex, like vitamin E, and I knew that it was probably just as much a hoax!
On the shelves there were hundreds of bottles of vitamins and other supplements. They looked like medicine bottles in a pharmacy, but in the pharmacy I knew what the contents of every bottle did. Here I had no idea. I knew a little about the biochemistry of some, but I never thought that people actually used them. A lady in front of me purchased some PABA. I vaguely remembered that substance from medical school, but how did she know so much more about it than I? And why were they buying garlic perles? I knew garlic was good in cooking, but as some form of medicine? I couldn’t understand it.
I looked at what seemed like hundreds of books on the shelves. What was I to do with them? What was fasting? I had never heard of that except as religious observance. And the anti-fluoridation books were obviously nonsense. And what of the books on treating hypertension and colitis with natural methods? What was this world that I had entered?
Deep down I knew somehow it couldn’t be wrong. I knew there had to be some truth in this, otherwise these simple substances would not have survived the crushing power of technology. A reassuring vision came to me at that moment. I remembered when I was a child going into a country grocery store where there also were sacks of grain opened in the middle of the floor from which the customer served himself with what seemed like the very same tin scoop as the one I now saw. I thought to myself, “This must be the old-fashioned way. This must be the way it was always meant to be.” It required a considerable amount of courage to go to the woman behind the counter and ask her advice as to what foods she would recommend that I could eat to start on a nutritional program.
It was only after I had returned to the store two or three times and had been treated with respect each time by the lady and was not made to feel foolish or ignorant that I was brave enough to confess to her that I was a Doctor of Medicine. It is a strange, deep and at times forbidding river to cross for a doctor to have to admit that he knows nothing whatsoever about nutrition, that he knows nothing at all about what he or anyone else in this world should eat. It can also be a humbling experience to realize that these lay, “uneducated”, often counterculture types know so much more than we. I decided to eat humble pie and learn. It has been a wonderful experience which has changed my life, my practice and, of course, my health.
Again, times have changed. Many more “sophisticated” people go to health food stores now than once did. But never forget – it is difficult for a doctor to admit his ignorance, not only to another doctor, but even more so to a person in a health food store or to a patient, or to himself.
Reprinted with permission from THE HEALTH QUARTERLY PLUS TWO, Volume 5, Number 6, November-December, 1980.