Ian Spohn, ND, is a staff naturopathic doctor for Energique who enjoys challenging the dogmas of both conventional and alternative medicine. He is a passionate supporter of the paleo diet and classical homeopathy.
It tends to be taken for granted that all of our vitamins have been discovered, and yet the entire notion of vitamins is a relatively recent phenomenon. Perhaps because diets were once held relatively constant over generations by their tradition of proven effectiveness, and were comprised of foods much less processed and tampered-with than many of today’s, it seemed that all you had to do was eat the very same foods that kept your parents alive and healthy enough to produce you, and everything would be fine. People knew that departing from their usual diet for long periods could occasionally cause disease; for instance, the lack of fresh fruit aboard ships was identified as the cause of scurvy and the substitution of cornmeal for rye flour was identified as the cause of pellagra before anyone knew precisely why. The very word vitamin was not coined until 1911, meaning it’s only been about a century since we even started searching our foods for these factors. So are we truly certain that we’ve identified them all?
As of 1905, it was known only that foods were comprised of fats, proteins, carbohydrates, and some necessary inorganic minerals, until it was discovered that bare combinations of these were insufficient to keep experimental animals alive. A researcher named Cornelius Adrianus Pekelharing discovered that by adding a small amount of milk to a highly processed macronutrient diet, the animals would somehow stay alive,[i] thus concluding that there was something undiscovered in milk, and likely other foods, that was essential to life. Then in 1911, another researcher named Casimir Funk discovered that pigeons would get neurological disease if they were fed polished rice, which could be cured with rice bran. He concluded there was some vital protein in the rice bran and coined the term vitamin as a portmanteau of the words “vital” and “amine,”[ii] believing it incorrectly to be a protein. This essential substance in real food was presumed to be just one thing, until further research revealed that it had separate fat-soluble and water-soluble components, at the time known only as vitamins A and B. Vitamin C wasn’t discovered until 1928,[iii] when it was finally isolated and proven to be the miraculous anti-scorbutic factor in fruit but was evidently not either vitamin A or B. It is remarkable that these crude breakthroughs comprised our current understanding of human nutrition less than one hundred years ago. In fact, the electric light bulb, camera, refrigerator, telephone, radio, automobile, and even the airplane had all been invented before the first vitamin had even been discovered. The present names of our known vitamins still stand as an embarrassing testament to the many flawed attempts to characterize them. If methylcobalamin is vitamin B12, what were vitamins B10 and B11? And how did we get all the way to vitamin K, with no vitamins F through J?
Given their clumsy history, it would seem almost presumptuous to think that our knowledge of vitamins is complete, especially given the continuing prevalence of inexplicable modern diseases, such as chronic fatigue syndrome. The puzzling nature of these conditions is likely an indication that they are multifactorial, lacking a unifying cause, but it’s certainly plausible to suppose some missing component of the diet might be to blame, perhaps even an undiscovered one. If one was to search for a new vitamin, liver would probably be the best place to look since it contains so many of the known ones in large quantities, and, indeed, some shocking experiments done in the 1950s revealed an unknown nutrient in liver that wondrously prevented fatigue, yet was distinct from any known vitamin and remains a mystery to this day.
These experiments were conducted by a researcher named Benjamin Ershoff in 1951.[iv] He randomized three groups of rats: one fed a control diet, one fed the same diet supplemented with the full complex of B vitamins, and a third fed the same diet but supplemented instead with 10 percent powdered liver. After several weeks the rats were forced to swim to exhaustion, in cold water to provide an additional stress. The rats on the control and B-complex diets managed to swim 13.3 and 13.4 minutes on average before reaching exhaustion, not a glowing endorsement of recommending a B complex to improve energy levels. Of the rats receiving liver, however, one of them swam for 63 minutes and nine of the twelve were still swimming after two hours when the trial was terminated! That would be tantamount to a person who could not run for even two miles at a time starting to eat liver every day and after a few weeks completing a half-marathon with no additional training whatsoever. Despite this incredible result, no one has been able to identify this mysterious factor, beyond concluding that it is not a part of the B vitamin complex. Liver has become a popular supplement among extreme athletes and body builders, however.
Functional medical practitioners often focus on the adrenals when addressing fatigue, and it’s possible that liver’s anti-fatigue factor works through some mechanism involving these glands. An additional experiment by Ershoff[v] found that his 10 percent liver powder supplemental diet completely prevented the detrimental effects of overdosing rats with cortisone acetate. Once more, merely supplementing a B vitamin complex did not reproduce the effect. So something in liver would seem to increase one’s resilience and, indeed, seem to make one almost impervious to simulated chronic stress. To replicate this dose of 10 percent liver powder for a human on a 2,000 calorie diet, one would only need to eat 200 calories a day worth of beef liver, the equivalent of 4.3 ounces.
It is possible that one of the other vitamins in liver, like A or K2, might have been responsible, or perhaps choline, or simply a higher dose of one of the known B vitamins. But it’s also possible that we haven’t yet discovered all the factors in food essential for optimum health. There are other reasons to consider foods as preferable in some cases to purified supplements: they provide combinations of nutrients in natural balance, they often contain nutrients in their most bioavailable forms, and the production methods are often much cleaner in terms of the chemicals and excipients used. Also, it makes sense that liver would provide everything needed to support detoxification and metabolism, or that thymus glands would provide everything required to maintain the immune system. Disadvantages of using food include convenience, taste, and in some cases the need to eat large quantities of food to obtain the desired dose. The last one is not really an issue with liver, as it so rich in nutrients that not much is needed to provide adequate doses, though taste does remain a barrier for some people. In such cases, freeze-dried liver capsules are a very convenient way to enjoy the benefits of liver without having to eat it, including its mysterious anti-fatigue factor.
[iv] Ershoff BH. Beneficial Effect of Liver Feeding on Swimming Capacity of Rats in Cold Water. Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine. 1951;77(3):488-491. doi:10.3181/00379727-77-18824
[v] Ershoff BH. Beneficial Effects of Liver on Cortisone Acetate Toxicity in the Rat. Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine. 1951;78(3):836-840. doi:10.3181/00379727-78-19236
Any homeopathic claims are based on traditional homeopathic practice, not accepted medical evidence. Not FDA evaluated.
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