Health controversies

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

September 2009

What's going on here? Do our genes make us fat? Are vitamins helpful? Does cholesterol really matter? Does mercury in vaccines endanger children?

These are only a few of the topics that are so frustrating to persons who are trying hard to make themselves and their children healthier. In order to keep things in perspective here are some things to consider.

Scientists and the journalists who write about science are not always on the same track. The former take the long view while the latter write for today. A discovery in a mouse model may have little relevance to human disease. Genes that make mice fat or thin may not matter much in people but you'd never know that from the "breakthrough" headlines. Genes do matter but lifestyle matters more.

Vitamins have more than their share of controversy. Scientists who ought to know better continue to study single vitamins such as vitamin A, vitamin C or vitamin E and keep coming up with disappointing results. They seem to have forgotten that back in the Stone Age our ancestors got all the vitamins that they needed because they had an enormously varied diet. A single large dose of any nutrient usually doesn't make much difference in preventing cancer or heart disease whereas a diet that has plenty of the same vitamins seems to work. Vitamins act as part of a team and no single one is a solo superstar.

Cholesterol confusion began long before it was known that there are several subtypes of cholesterol, not all of which cause damage to the heart and blood vessels. Now that we know more about genetic influences on heart disease it makes the puzzle larger. Scientists aren't confused. They simply haven't found all the puzzle pieces yet.

A tragedy that occurred in Japan several decades ago caused death and severe disability in scores of children when companies without a conscience dumped mercury into local waters. Parents are afraid to immunize their children because of the fear that mercury in vaccines causes autism. That form of mercury is quite different from the one that poisoned the children in Japan. The incidence of autism continues to rise even though childhood vaccines have not contained mercury for several years.

You can avoid confusion by avoiding fads and by getting your information from reliable sources such as medical schools' web sites. And don't take those mouse studies too seriously.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at