You've Got To Ac-cen-tu-ate the Positive

You’ve Got To Ac-cen-tu-ate the Positive

Why would Brigham and Women’s Hospital encourage you to NOT take antioxidant supplements?

Here’s the title of a press release about a recent BWH supplement study: “Vitamin C and Other Antioxidant Vitamins Provide No Protection From Cardiovascular Events.”

And that press release prompted this headline from Reuters: “Common Vitamins No Help for Women’s Hearts – Study”

And yet this quote is taken directly from the BWH study as it appears in an August issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine: “those randomized to both active ascorbic acid and vitamin E experienced fewer strokes.”

So in a study that spanned nearly 10 years and involved more than 8,000 women, those who took supplements of vitamins C and E experienced fewer strokes, and yet somehow that adds up to “no protection”?

If you ignore the BWH research team’s take on their own study, and instead focus on their results, there’s actually some very good news here for women at risk of cardiovascular disease.

Eliminate the negative

First, let’s recognize one glaring omission in the BWH press release title and the Reuters headline. Neither one indicates this KEY aspect of the study: All of the 8,171 women in the study were at increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) or had already been diagnosed with CVD. In other words, this study tested the ability of antioxidant supplements to prevent heart attack, stroke, and other CVD events on women who were ALREADY AT RISK. But the headline and press release title would lead you to believe that antioxidant supplements offer no protection to ANYONE – regardless of their health status.

So right out of the gate we’re being misled.

Each of the BWH subjects was at least 40 years old, and each took one of three antioxidants, or some combination of these antioxidants:

* Vitamin C – 500 mg per day
* Vitamin E – 600 IU every other day
* Beta Carotene – 50 mg every other day

According to the published study, results showed that the supplements individually produced no overall effect in preventing CVD events. And yet, the authors note that a “marginally significant reduction in the primary outcome with active vitamin E was observed amongwomen with prior CVD.”

Okay, “marginally significant” isn’t going to wow anyone, but still, marginally significant is not the same as producing “no overall effect” – especially considering that the effect was seen, not in women at risk of CVD, but in women who already had CVD!

And don’t mess with Mr. In-between

A colleague of mine alerted me to this study with an e-mail that contained the Reuters write up. That e-mail was quickly followed with another that featured a brief article written by Jack Challem of The Nutrition Reporter.

Here’s Jack’s leadoff sentence: “A new study has found that natural vitamin E and vitamin C can significantly reduce the risk of several cardiovascular diseases.”

What!? Is Jack looking at the same study? Indeed he is. And after culling through the results, he came up with several very positive outcomes that completely contradict the “no protection” claim. Absurdly, the published study, the BWH press release, and the Reuters article all neglected to focus on an important subgroup. When researchers looked at the data for only those subjects who said they consistently took their supplements, these were the results:

* Those who took just vitamin E reduced heart attack risk by 22 percent
* Those who took just vitamin E reduced stroke risk by 27 percent
* Those who took vitamin E with vitamin C reduced stroke risk by 31 percent
* Those who took just vitamin E lowered their combined risk of heart attack, stroke, and CVS-related death by 23 percent

Pretty simple, isn’t it? If you don’t take your supplements consistently, you’re probably not going to see much benefit. But if you do

I started out this e-Alert by asking why BWH researchers would encourage you to not take antioxidant supplements. But here’s the more intriguing question: Why would BWH researchers present the results of their study in such a negative light? It’s almost as if they wanted to hide the positive outcomes.

I will give the BWH team their due: They accurately reported that no adverse effects were seen in nearly 10 years of supplementation with these three antioxidants, which have sometimes been ridiculously portrayed as dangerous.

“A Randomized Factorial Trial of Vitamins C and E and Beta Carotene in the Secondary Prevention of Cardiovascular Events in Women” Archives of Internal Medicine, Vol. 167, No. 15, August 13/27, 2007,
“Vitamin C and Other Antioxidant Vitamins Provide No Protection From Cardiovascular Events” Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Press Release, August 2007,
“Common Vitamin No Help for Women’s Hearts – Study” Reuters, 8/14/07,
“Major Study Finds Good News About Vitamins E and C” Jack Challem, News Target, 8/13/07,