It all started with a simple question from one of my blog readers at Heart Sisters. Another heart attack survivor asked me if I’d heard about the use of high-dose vitamin C and lysine to prevent or reverse coronary artery disease, a treatment duo often touted in health food stores. It turns out that almost any Canadian who reads any daily newspaper across our great country has likely heard of these particular supplements, thanks to a syndicated health columnist named W. Gifford-Jones MD whose columns have been published in over 70 newspapers in Canada and beyond.
He’s a University of Toronto- and Harvard-trained MD and author whose bio also includes “family doctor, hotel doctor and ship’s surgeon”. (That’s not his real name, by the way – which is Ken Walker). In one of his columns published in the Windsor Star in December, the 89-year old Gifford-Jones/Walker described his own personal experience taking this vitamin C and lysine combo:
“Following a severe coronary attack, cardiologists warned me I’d die without using cholesterol-lowering drugs. Rather, for the last 16 years I’ve relied on high doses of vitamin C and lysine as recommended by Dr. Linus Pauling. It was a risky decision at that time as there was no evidence that this combination could reverse coronary blockage.
“Now, photos of arteries show that combined vitamin C and lysine not only prevents but also reverses blocked arteries. This combination powder known as Medi-C Plus is available at health food stores.
“It’s a monumental discovery. But this research is collecting dust due to the closed minds of cardiologists who refuse to look at it.”
One of the “closed minds” objecting to this blanket endorsement of Vitamin C and lysine to reverse coronary artery disease belongs to endocrinologist Dr. Raphael Cheung of the Windsor Regional Hospital. He responded to the Windsor Star like this shortly after he read the December column:
“Dr. Gifford-Jones’ anecdotal experience belongs to medicine that was practiced half a century ago!”
But he also spanked the Star itself, asking why the newspaper shouldn’t bear some responsibility for running Gifford-Jones medical columns like this one in the first place:
“Why does (the Windsor Star) keep printing articles written by a retired OB-GYN regarding vascular health? Not knowing any better, there are patients who are at high risk for heart disease and stroke in our community who have stopped taking their medications after reading Gifford-Jones articles.
“While there is always a disclaimer at the end of a Gifford-Jones article that relieves him of any legal liability, the Windsor Star should be held to a higher standard by providing a more balanced approach by at least interviewing a medical expert in the field for another opinion.
“Our motto should be: First do no harm.”
Dr. Cheung also told the Star that he had noticed something else about the unreserved recommendation by Gifford-Jones/Walker of the Medi-C Plus supplement to miraculously prevent and reverse heart disease:
“I was surprised recently when a patient with coronary heart disease told me that he had stopped his heart medications and had started taking Dr. Gifford-Jones’s Medi-C Plus treatment purchased online.”
Suddenly, that folksy anecdote in his syndicated health column has now morphed from casual endorsement to retail marketing tool for the good doctor.
In fact, he’s able to use his considerable public profile (plus his free lectures and online webinars he calls “The Dynamic Duo For Fighting Heart Disease”) to shill his own W. Gifford-Jones MD line of supplements. He recommends that people consume 2-3 scoops of his Medi-C Plus a day; that’s 2,000 mg of vitamin C and 1,300 mg of lysine per scoop.
But evidence suggests that lysine supplements may interact with cardiac medications that can increase bleeding risk, such as anti-coagulant medications like Coumadin or anti-platelet medications like Plavix. Lysine may also increase the risk of low blood sugar if you take medication for diabetes, and Health Canada warns against taking lysine for more than six months at doses higher than 300 mg per day.
In Canada, we tend to take a dim view of docs who go retail.
Here in my province of British Columbia, for example, our B.C. College of Physicians & Surgeons code of conduct guidelines specifically warn MDs here against the practice, calling it “not only unethical, but constituting a direct conflict of interest”, adding:
“A conflict of interest occurs when a professional or business arrangement provides an opportunity for a physician to receive a personal benefit over and above payment for his or her professional services. Conflict of interest can be direct or indirect, real or perceived, financial or non‐financial.
“Such transactions might reasonably be perceived as self‐serving. Even if there is no direct financial gain for the physician, the selling of products might be considered ethically questionable since patients often believe that a physician’s recommendation naturally implies an endorsement of the product’s value and/or efficacy.”
I’ve added emphasis to that second sentence in the last paragraph because the Gifford-Jones/Walker website claims that sales of Medi-C Plus “help support the Gifford-Jones Professorship in Pain Control and Palliative Care at the University of Toronto.”
We don’t really know what “help support” means in this case. Does it mean that 50% of all Medi-C Plus sales do the “helping” – or just .05% of sales? And why doesn’t he spell this out for consumers?
Either way, much like the B.C. practice guidelines specify, the optics are sketchy even if a physician receives no money personally through retail product sales.
And aside from the pure stomach-churning queaziness surrounding a person with the letters M.D. after his name shilling dietary supplements produced within an entirely unregulated industry (as illustrated in his Twitter page below), there’s also the rather sticky issue of credibility.
Gifford-Jones/Walker cites the work of both Dr. Linus Pauling and Dr. Sydney Bush for their work on the benefits of mega doses of vitamin C, including its miraculous claim of preventing/curing diseases ranging from the common cold to cancer and heart disease. Pauling himself reportedly took at least 12,000 mg of vitamin C daily, and up to 40,000 mg if symptoms of a cold struck.  By comparison, according to the National Institutes of Health, the current Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for the vitamin is 75 mg per day for women (that’s the equivalent of eating one medium orange) or up to 120 mg if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, and 90 mg for men (about 1/2 cup of red pepper).
But as Dr. Stephen Barrett of QuackWatch reminds us:
“Pauling is largely responsible for the widespread misbelief that high doses of vitamin C are effective against colds and other illnesses. While his basic science work was brilliant and his peace activist work was highly significant, his clinical vitamin C work was never accepted by the medical profession as it failed to withstand the scrutiny of clinical trials.”
“For many years, the largest corporate donor of The Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine that he founded in 1973 was Hoffmann-La Roche, the pharmaceutical giant that produces most of the world’s vitamin C.”
Besides Pauling, Gifford-Jones also defends his Medi-C Plus supplement by quoting the “monumental findings” of a researcher named Dr. Sydney Bush (actually an English optometrist) who claimed that vitamin C can reverse atherosclerosis. Bush developed an interest in cardiovascular disease at some point during 1998, when he noticed microscopic changes in blood vessels in the eye, calling his theory “nutritional preventative cardioretinometry. From approximately 2003, he began to “promote his findings in his shop window.”
But Gifford-Jones/Walker mocks those who dismiss the optometrist’s theories by asking:
“So what has happened to these monumental findings? Bush has been ridiculed by cardiologists.
“One has to ask whether cardiologists, by ignoring his results, are condemning thousands of people to an early coronary heart attack.”
Well, another thing that’s happened to those “monumental findings” is that Bush has recently been found guilty of misconduct, according to the U.K.’s General Optical Council. The Council found that Bush had violated its code of conduct requiring optometrists to “ensure that personal beliefs do not prejudice patient care.”
All allegations were proved and Bush’s name has now been erased from General Optical Council registers “for the protection of the public” – an outcome that merely confirms to conspiracy theorists that Bush and his believers continue to be persecuted by the evil forces of power.
High quality studies on the impact of vitamin C on cardiovascular health outcomes have certainly been mixed, like this large (over 14,000 men), randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled factorial trial in Boston whose conclusion offered “no support for the use of supplemental vitamin C for the prevention of cardiovascular disease.”  Other research has even shown that high supplemental vitamin C intake is actually associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease mortality in post-menopausal women with diabetes.
Meanwhile, the fine print disclaimer on Gifford-Jones/Walker’s own website warns:
“Natural products and any claims made about specific products on the site have not been evaluated by the United States Food and Drug Administration nor Health Canada.”
That’s known as a CYA disclaimer, strictly for legal liability protection. It’s like saying that, even though there’s no proof that any claims I make about this stuff is true, I will continue to keep on making them.
Or as Dr. Cheung wrote to the Windsor Star:
- Pauling L: Speech at Natural Foods Exposition, March 29, 1982, reported in Natural Foods Merchandiser, June 1982, p.65.
- Marshall CB. Vitamin C: Do High Doses Prevent Colds? Quackwatch, Oct 3, 1999.
- Duk Hee-Lee et al. Does supplemental vitamin C increase cardiovascular disease risk in women with diabetes? Am J Clin Nutr November 2004 vol. 80 no. 5 1194-1200.
- Howard D. Sesso et al.Vitamins E and C in the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease in Men: The Physicians’ Health Study II Randomized Controlled Trial. JAMA. 2008;300(18):2123-2133. doi:10.1001/jama.2008.600.
- When doctors go retail: is it okay to sell products?
- Medical quackery revisited
- Mayo Clinic: “Beware of alternative health care fraud”
- News flash: food is better than supplements for staying healthy
If you really want to do something healthy for your heart, go do at least 30 minutes of exercise today!