For Heart Disease: Vitamin E

By J.D. Ratcliff

Summary: In this rare excerpt from the October 1948 issue of Coronet magazine, author J.D. Ratcliff discusses the function of  vitamin E (known originally as “the fertility vitamin” because of its critical role in animal reproduction) in the area of heart health. In particular Ratcliff discusses the clinical work of the famous Shute brothers of Canada, medical doctors and researchers who gained international notoriety by successfully treating heart disease with vitamin E instead of pharmaceutical drugs. Ratcliff also addresses the wholesale destruction of naturally occurring vitamins in the modern diet. From Coronet, 1948. Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research reprint 40.

[The following is a transcription of the original Archives document. To view or download the original document, click here.]

For Heart Disease: Vitamin E[spacer height=”20px”]

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well enough to play golf. With their stethoscopes, the doctors claim, they have heard the sounds emitted by sick hearts settle to the normal rhythm of healthy organs.

On the surface it appears preposterous to expect such results from a vitamin. Look at the E substance supposed to work these miracles. There is more of it in the body than all other vitamins put together. Discovered in 1922 by Dr. Herbert M. Evans of the University of California, it was first labeled the “fertility” vitamin. When female rats were denied the substance, they were unable to bear young. Thus vitamin E became the chief weapon against human abortion. Treated with it, women who had lost three or more babies were enabled to bear healthy children 80 percent of the time.

After this heartening work, other researchers began to wonder, was vitamin E useful only in reproduction? When rabbits were fed vitamin-E-free diets, they became paralyzed. The same was true with guinea pigs, turkeys, ducks, and even puppies! Microscopic examination of these animals showed that muscle fibers were “washed out.”

These findings changed all emphasis on vitamin E. Instead of being primarily the fertility vitamin, it appeared to exert a far greater influence in keeping muscles healthy. These observations led to use of vitamin E in treatment of fibrositis and other types of muscular pain.

A British researcher tried vitamin E on old hunting dogs that showed all signs of heart disease. Under this treatment the animals ran with the pack again and even were used for breeding.

Nevertheless, it was difficult to make such findings fit an orderly pattern. But E was the muscle vitamin, and the heart was the hardest-working muscle in the body. This, however, is getting ahead of our story. Let’s get back to Evan Shute of Ontario, a big, mild-mannered man who once was intercollegiate boxing champion of Canada.

His father, a rural school teacher and farmer, waited until midlife to settle on a career. At age 34 he sold the family farm and used the money to enroll in medical college.

The elder Shute wanted his three sons to become doctors too. Evan went to the University of Toronto and then did postgraduate work in pathology at Wayne University, Detroit. Next, he spent a year in surgery at Montreal General Hospital, then three-and-a-half years at Chicago’s famed Lying-in Hospital, working with the great Dr. Joseph B. De Lee.

In 1935, while practicing obstetrics in London, he started using vitamin E on women who had suffered spontaneous abortions. He became convinced that the vitamin had an antagonistic action against estrogen, a hormone produced by the ovaries that causes rhythmic contractions of the womb. Might not this hormone cause dislodgement of a new life, resulting in abortion? And wasn’t it reasonable to suppose that vitamin E prevented this by neutralizing estrogen?

During the summer of 1945, Floyd Skelton, medical student at University of Western Ontario, wanted a research project. Shute suggested that he investigate the vitamin-E–estrogen antagonism. Skelton agreed and started injecting dogs with estrogens.

Soon he noted something strange: blood vessels under the dogs’ skin broke down, but when the animals were given vitamin E, the purple patches disappeared. Skelton reported this to Shute at an opportune moment.

In a London hospital, a friend of Shute’s—Dr. Arthur Vogelsang—had a difficult patient, a 67-year-old man with hypertensive heart disease. The patient was scheduled for surgery, but his condition was so poor that the surgeon was afraid to operate. The patient’s kidneys were limping badly, fluids were causing gross swelling of his legs, and rupture of his blood vessels had created large purple patches. It was this last [symptom] that caught their interest.

Vitamin E had cleared up such hemorrhages in dogs. What about man? Skelton calculated the amount of vitamin E required to get results. Each day, the old man took massive doses. On the fifth day, Vogelsang was making routine rounds of the hospital. The patient’s bed was empty. The old man was helping floor nurses with trays!

The patient reported that he hadn’t felt better in years. His breathlessness was gone, and so was the leg swelling. He announced proudly that he had done more work that morning than in several years.

Vogelsang and Shute, unprepared for this turn of events, started reading all available data on vitamin E. In addition to its stimulating effect on muscles, vitamin E exerted some mysterious beneficial effect on blood vessels. Also, muscles starved of vitamin E required a lot of oxygen—several times the amount required by healthy muscle.

Vogelsang and Shute reasoned that vitamin E’s stimulating effect on blood vessels would have a direct action on the heart itself. This same stimulating effect would account for the improved kidney function. And vitamin E’s ability to cut oxygen requirements would minimize breathlessness. Thus the two men theorized their way through the problem. And they were reasonably sure that the vitamin could do no harm—the body would simply discard any excess quantities it did not want.

Patient No. 2 was Dr. Shute’s mother, a 71-year-old lady who had suffered stabbing anginal pains. For fear of bringing on an attack, she avoided exercise; her arms and legs were waterlogged. After five days on vitamin E, the swelling was gone and the pains had disappeared.

Brother Wilfrid Shute, practicing in Guelph, started using vitamin E in his own practice. In the three years that have elapsed since Patient No. 1 was treated, the three-man team has used vitamin E on some 4,000 heart patients.

One of the commonest forms of heart disease is that which accompanies hypertension: high blood pressure. This means that the heart must work harder to push blood through the circulatory system. It may in time simply work itself to death.

Coronary occlusion is another form of heart disease. In this [condition], a clot forms on an artery in the heart, grows larger, and finally blocks the flow of blood. A fifth of the people to whom this happens die within a few hours. In others scar tissue forms in the damaged area, cutting heart efficiency.

Rheumatic heart disease is a third form. In this condition some microbe, as yet unidentified, attacks the heart, injuring valves and destroying muscle tissue. The organ may have to labor to accomplish a given amount of work several times as much as it did before the injury.

A fourth form is caused by hardening of heart arteries. The arteries become smaller and less elastic, thereby reducing the heart’s food supply. The starved muscle reacts by forming scar tissue, which further cuts the capacity of the organ.

For the most part, laymen think of angina pectoris as a disease in itself. Actually, it is a symptom that may announce the presence of any of the conditions mentioned above. Stabbing pains simply indicate that the heart muscle isn’t getting enough blood.

Vitamin E has been used for all these disorders by Drs. Shute and Vogelsang. Of eighty-four patients having anginal pain, 52 percent got complete relief, and 44 percent got some improvement. In twenty-eight cases of rheumatic heart disease, 53 percent got marked improvement; 43 percent some improvement. In sixty-six cases of hypertension, 42 percent got marked improvement; 43 percent some improvement.

Look at some of the patients. One man was a wheelchair invalid. Even sustained conversation brought on sharp anginal pains. Massive doses of vitamin E got him out of his wheelchair. Recently, he fished all day and then played bridge until midnight. And the next day, he played nine holes of golf!

A 52-year-old musician suffered attacks of coronary thrombosis over a five-year period. He started taking vitamin E in July 1945 and hasn’t spent a day in bed since. Another man, 26, had a siege of rheumatic fever while a youngster. Now he is working in a foundry. Another patient, 71 years old, was prey to anginal pains at the slightest exertion. Now he is doing heavy work in a tannery.

On the basis of these cases—and hundreds like them—Wilfrid Shute states bluntly: “Vitamin E is the most effective known drug in the treatment of heart disease and certainly the safest. The percentage of cases that show improvement is high—80 percent. The degree of improvement, even in the worst cases, is often marked.”

The best results recorded thus far, the Canadian physicians claim, have been obtained with anginal symptoms, with early coronary thrombosis, and in cases of early failure. So far as high blood pressure by itself is concerned, vitamin E seems to exert little influence, although dramatic improvement has been recorded in a few cases associated with heart disease.

Results obtained so far seem impressive. What, then, are the objections? Critical physicians complain that the Shutes and Vogelsang have not used “controls”—that is, have not treated one group of patients by traditional methods while treating a second group with vitamin E. Such procedure would give a basis for comparing older methods with the new one.

To this objection Evan Shute retorts, “We have the records of a century of medical practice to indicate the course of heart disease under standard treatment.” Wilfrid Shute, who has treated 2,000 patients with vitamin E, affirms that private practitioners are in no position to do “controlled” experiments.

Secondly, physicians complain about that ever-recurring medical bugaboo: publicity. The vitamin E treatment has been publicized in Canadian newspapers and American news magazines. Vogelsang replies that his group was in no position to stop such publication, since the stories covered talks given in open medical meetings and reports in medical publications.

A third criticism is that electrocardiograms—tracings of heart-action patterns—show little change soon after vitamin E treatment. Vogelsang replies that some electrocardiograms do show significant changes, and that in cases where there are no changes, he is more impressed by reactions of the patient than by reactions in a strip of photo film.

The American Medical Association sums up the case of the critics: “Far too often, there has been overemphasis in the press on research too fresh from the laboratory to permit evaluation. The reported discovery of almost-miraculous powers of vitamin E needs careful evaluation and confirmation because the substance has already been investigated by many competent clinicians and found wanting.”

Yet in the two years that have elapsed since this discovery was announced, no such critical reports have appeared in medical journals. On the other hand, there has been published a wealth of data all supporting the Shute-Vogelsang contention—experiments on cows, rats, rabbits, dogs, hamsters, monkeys, and so on.

Since vitamin E is the most common of all vitamins—present in the germ of grains, leafy vegetables, root vegetables, meats—how could heart disease trace to a shortage of the substance in normal diet? The Canadian physicians reply that we have made an almost-systematic effort to remove it from foods.

Bread, they point out, is our main staple, yet we remove most of the E-carrying germ from white flour. In fruit—apples for example—it is present in peel and core, which are usually discarded. It appears in the peel of potatoes, which we throw away.

Many investigators contend that we are more deficient in vitamin E than in any other vitamin. To this lack they attribute many of the vague aches and pains that beset us, and they think they see a connection between lack of vitamin E and widespread circulatory disorders.

In a host of other disease conditions in which inadequate blood supply is the basic factor—such as thrombosis and phlebitis, chronic leg ulcers, Buerger’s disease, even early gangrene—vitamin E has proved remarkably effective.

In their own field, the Shutes and Vogelsang note that heart disease is almost unknown among primitive peoples—until they start eating civilized man’s food. Further, they emphasize that in 1910, before our national diet had become too refined, heart disease was the fourth cause of death instead of the first, as it is today, and that the rate of heart deaths is up 250 percent in this period.

Many people attempt to explain this away by noting that early in the twentieth century, when the life span was shorter, people didn’t live long enough to get heart disease. But cold fact lends little support to this idea. We may regard heart disease as an ailment of the aged, but it is the third cause of death in the 5-to-24 age group and the top killer thereafter.

The evidence, then, seems to add up to the fact that we may all be gravely short of vitamin E. If the Canadian physicians are correct in their beliefs, the prevalence of heart disease may be simply an expression of this want.

Every new suggestion in medicine has had its early critics. At the moment the position of vitamin E as a remedy for heart disease is not finally settled, but the dispute about its value is much less bitter than at first. The original opposition developed before doctors had tried the treatment themselves. But now a single pharmaceutical company can point to 3,300 medical men in the U.S. who are using vitamin E for heart disease. No longer are there on the one side three dedicated advocates and on the other a mass of vocal critics. Evan Shute puts his case thusly:

“It is hard to imagine that what vitamin E does to clots in superficial vessels it cannot also do for the vessels of the heart. The controversy can be settled with ease. All that is necessary is for an unprejudiced cardiac clinic to treat alternate patients by our methods and by traditional methods. The results will tell the story quickly. If we are wrong, it will be simple to prove it. If we are right, everyone should know about it.”

By J.D. Ratcliff. Reprinted from Coronet, Vol. 24, No. 6, October 1948, by the Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research. 

Reprint No. 40
Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Note: Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research is a nonprofit, public-service institution, chartered to investigate and disseminate nutritional information. The attached publication is not literature or labeling for any product, nor shall it be employed as such by anyone. In accordance with the right of freedom of the press guaranteed to the Foundation by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the attached publication is issued and distributed for informational purposes.


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