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Orthomolecular Medicine

By Steven Novella, MD, Assistant Professor of Neurology, Yale University School of Medicine

Orthomolecular medicine uses nutrients, including vitamins, enzymes, minerals, hormones (such as melatonin), and amino acids, normally found in the body to treat specific conditions and to maintain health. These nutrients may be used alone or in various combinations Nutrition is the focus in diagnosis and treatment.

Sometimes referred to as nutritional medicine, orthomolecular therapy differs from diet therapy because it emphasizes supplementing the diet with doses of nutrients that are much higher than the amounts normally consumed in the diet. Practitioners believe that people’s nutritional needs far exceed the recommended daily allowances (RDAs) and that nutritional therapy must be individualized based on each person's characteristics and symptoms. Nutrients may be given by mouth or, far less often, intravenously.

Megavitamin therapy is a common form of orthomolecular medicine. Doses are often well above RDAs. Orthomolecular medicine practitioners contend these RDAs are inadequate to maintain health or to treat disease.

Medicinal claims

Orthomolecular medicine has been used to treat many disorders, including cancer, heart and blood vessel (cardiovascular) disorders, chronic fatigue, chronic pain, autism, and mental health disorders. There is no scientific evidence supporting most of these treatments.

However, those that have been shown to be effective become part of conventional medicine. For example, high-doses of fish oil are used to treat high levels of triglycerides (a type of fat) and possibly disorders that cause inflammation (such as rheumatoid arthritis) and mood disorders.

Possible side effects

Orthomolecular therapies have risks and can sometimes be toxic. High doses of fish oil may increase risk of prostate cancer.