What is an Orthomolecular Medicine?

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  • Written By: Karyn Maier
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 November 2019
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Orthomolecular medicine is a branch of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) that focuses on targeted nutrition to prevent, manage, or reverse disease. Commonly referred to as megavitamin therapy, this modality of healing emerged from the work of Linus Pauling, who first identified abnormal hemoglobin as the cause of sickle-cell anemia in 1949. Over the next several decades, Pauling refined his theory to include the specific mechanism by which this disease occurred: irregular molecule formation triggered by enzyme deficiency. Thus, sickle-cell anemia was the first to be labeled as a molecular disease. Eventually, the study of this and other diseases of the same origin became known as molecular medicine.

Pauling is also responsible for introducing the term orthomolecular medicine, which incorporates the Greek ortho to literally mean “right.” Beyond the nomenclature, the term intends to convey the idea that the presence of certain molecules in an amount sufficient or “right” for an ailing individual could affect a cure. In other words, the scientist speculated that certain nutrients that naturally help to help to keep the body healthy could also thwart or remedy disease when introduced at high dosages.


Many different types of nutrients are considered viable therapies in orthomolecular medicine. Proteins, for example, provide a source of L-type amino acids that are necessary for cell metabolism as well as neurotransmission in the brain. Citruline, a non-essential amino acid also derived from protein, supports immune function and assists in the detoxification of ammonia, a by-product of protein metabolism. Of course, various minerals and vitamins also play an important role in supplementation therapy, as does copious amounts of plain water.

In keeping with CAM philosophy, proponents of nutrient therapy do not view orthomolecular medicine as being an alternative to conventional therapies by definition. In fact, its supporters agree that supplemental therapy can and should be implemented in a complementary fashion with other therapies. Many also point to examples of this application existing within the scope of conventional medicine, such as the use of insulin (glucose) to treat diabetes, another disease classified as being molecular in nature.

Of course, there are just as many critics of orthomolecular medicine, most of whom cite a lack of clinical evidence to support its efficacy. In fact, some researchers and physicians think of it as pseudoscience, or even quackery. This school of thought may have been particularly fueled by the American Academy of Pediatrics declaring this brand of therapy as a fad in the late 1970s, referring to what the governing body considered dubious claims that nutrient therapy could prevent or cure learning disorders in children. The debate continues. However, given the fact that mega vitamin therapy is a popular complementary treatment for many cancer and AIDS patients, it’s possible that further research may shed new light on its merit.


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