On the January day I was born in 1942, two ships were sunk and thirteen people drowned in a frigid ocean as part of the most horrific war in all recorded history. Hundreds of German U-boats were busy torpedoing merchant ship convoys along the Eastern seaboard. My birth certificate notes that, at 5:20 AM, I was already the seventy-fourth baby born at that hospital that day.
None of the ugly implications of what was happening in the world concerned me in the least. At long last, I had air to breathe and a warm nurturing breast to suckle. By all appearances, I was a healthy child.
Our family lived far from the front lines, in Brookline, Massachusetts, where the hazards of a world war seemed distant. Little did we know that U.S. rationing of food supplies was having a sinister effect on the American population. Rationing for bacon, butter and sugar began on January 8, 1940, followed by successive ration schemes for meat, tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, lard, milk and canned and dried fruit. Although fresh vegetables and fruit were not rationed, supplies were limited.
On January 30, 1942, the Emergency Price Control Act granted the Office of Price Administration the authority to set price limits and to ration food and other commodities to discourage hoarding and ensure equitable distribution of scarce resources. My mother’s restricted daily diet not only affected the quality of her breast milk but likely was a major factor impairing my proper fetal development.
As a young adult, I was six inches shorter than either of my younger brothers, who stood over six feet five inches tall. I later learned that poor bone growth is an unheralded effect of mineral deficiencies or imbalances in the first two years of childhood, which can result from famine, wartime food rationing or crops grown on poor soil.
My mother was not able to breastfeed me for more than a month, so—like many other new mothers of the era—she resorted to condensed cow’s milk mixed in a sweetened Pablum cereal. This mixture weakened my immune system, with the result that a serious tubercular lymph gland infection (scrofula) developed on my neck when I was just two years old. Called the “king’s evil” back in medieval times, folklore had it that only the king’s touch could work a cure.
In addition to nutrition, genetics does play a role in the development of this disease; both my maternal grandmother and maternal uncle had scrofula. Given that penicillin was not readily available until 1945, a muscle-eating staph infection nearly killed me. Fortunately, after trial and error, a nurse discovered that hydrogen peroxide worked, although the experience left me with a long scar on my neck (and considerable self-consciousness).
In puberty, I had two convulsive seizures, first fainting in a soap-carving class in the seventh grade and later in my father’s arms. At the time, my doctors and parents did not know (as Adele Davis described in her 1965 book Let’s Get Well) that seizures and convulsions could yield to high-dosage vitamin B6 and magnesium.1
Later, as a graduate student at Yale, I ate a steady diet of packaged junk food—inadequate for all the academic stress that I endured (and JFK’s assassination). At age twenty-one, I experienced an acute nervous breakdown, which dashed my hopes for a graduate engineering degree and drastically changed the course of my life. Medically discharged from my Army ROTC commission, I spent four months recovering on my mother’s good home cooking. However, repeated blood work at Massachusetts General Hospital showed I was still anemic, despite my mother’s good food and the fact that I was eating iron-rich liver every week. Apparently, I had a problem processing heme iron for red blood cell formation.
Reflecting now on all those symptoms, it has become obvious to me that I suffered epigenetic defects causing metabolic imbalances that later affected every aspect of my life—even my decision to remain single and somewhat reclusive. All my siblings were strong, vigorous and married with children—but not me. Something was seriously wrong. Maybe the machinations of what we call destiny are predetermined by our genetic program.
DEFICIENCY VERSUS DEPENDENCY
Having contemplated suicide during my breakdown, I was left with an interest in understanding the causes of frequent student campus killings and suicides. In 2002, my research prompted me to write an article for Wise Traditions entitled “Childhood violence: Is malnutrition the cause?”2 In that piece, I referenced scientific studies implicating chronic malnutrition as a major cause. It was tempting to conclude that a natural diet with adequate B12, protein and fat—especially at breakfast—would have prevented the mental aberrations triggering most of the madcap school massacres. But now I have come to realize that making sure kids are getting a good breakfast is only part of the story. There’s much more to this puzzle than meets the eye.
In San Diego during the 1980s, I volunteered at the Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation (PPNF) and did a lot of reading in PPNF’s extensive library. Studying Nutrition and Mental Illness3 by Dr. Carl C. Pfeiffer, PhD, MD, I learned about effective disease treatments using his orthomolecular approach and about the distinction that Dr. Pfeiffer drew between “deficiencies” and “dependencies.” According to the Merck Manual, “Vitamin dependency results from a genetic defect involving metabolism of a vitamin. In some cases, vitamin doses as high as one thousand times the DRI [dietary reference intake] can improve function of the altered metabolic pathway.” 4 Could it be that students who commit suicide (or carry out a massacre that gets them killed) have this type of genetic dependency, and that eating poorly for weeks or months on end short-circuits their brain?
According to Pfeiffer’s book, casual deficiencies can be remedied with a wholesome diet and perhaps a few low-dose supplements. These will help a person feel better in a relatively short time. People with genetic nutritional dependencies, on the other hand, will require specific high-dose nutrients for life to function normally. At the time that I encountered Pfeiffer’s book, this idea was not popular among whole-food advocates, and it still is not embraced by a mindset that says that everything must be “natural.”
In my family tree, the history of mental illness included not just my nervous breakdown but also a cousin with chronic schizophrenia. Moreover, heart failure appears to be chiseled in our genes. My youngest brother had an EKG at ten years old, all my siblings have heart arrhythmias, my paternal aunt and a nephew had valve replacements and my parents both died of heart disease. Other relatives in our extended family have a susceptibility to cancer lurking in a defective gene. My maternal aunt married a fellow who died of cancer, as did three of their four children. My maternal uncle had five children who all needed hip replacements because that disease runs in his wife’s family. These modest examples point to inherited genetic fault lines that high-dosage nutrients might have remedied, if only we had known enough. As the Bible states in Hosea 4:6, “My people suffer for lack of knowledge.”
EPIGENETICS AND NUTRIENTS
During pregnancy, food shortages or mineral imbalances can damage the growing embryo. When environmental or lifestyle factors cause such defects, it’s called epigenetic. During the war, for example, copper was in short supply for bullet shells and for wiring ships, tanks and planes. As a result, it was restricted from soil amendments, which affected the quantity and quality of food crops. Epigenetic defects can carry on through subsequent generations, a phenomenon called epigenetic inheritance.
As another example of an epigenetic influence, certain regions have soil high in selenium; foods grown and eaten there will provide humans and livestock with protection for the liver and from cancer. However, generations born on soil that is low in selenium may require much higher supplemental levels of selenium than food normally supplies. This can lead to a selenium dependency for life and susceptibility to cancer.
In my case, the wartime food shortages may have caused irreparable damage in utero, making me highly dependent on certain nutrients. And as I learned about nutritional dependencies, the question arose: which nutrients could remedy my specific and long list of symptoms? These included poor dream recall, paper-thin fingernails, odor and light sensitivity, noise intolerance, convulsions and schizophrenia. These are just some of the signs and symptoms associated with a common yet under-recognized condition called pyroluria—which is linked to deficiencies in vitamin B6 and zinc.5
It was the strong odors from my soap-carving class in the seventh grade that triggered my first convulsion, and to this day, I have to hold my breath when I walk through the soap aisle in a supermarket. On leaving a dark room and entering bright sunlight, I always sneeze. Sensitivity to light is a hallmark of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), which thrives in those with a weak immune system. My paternal aunt died of SLE, and the same gene might be lurking in my genome waiting for an ultraviolet trigger. However, SLE improves with high doses of vitamin B6, even though it is deemed “incurable.”6 In fact, according to Pfeiffer, paper-thin fingernails and various symptoms will respond within six months to upward of two thousand milligrams daily of B6—where the normal intake is two milligrams—along with high-dosage zinc. Such nutrient levels, impossible to obtain from food, must be maintained for the life of the patient. (P5P is the preferred predigested form of vitamin B6, as it bypasses a dysfunctional liver.)
If I had fathered children never having addressed this nutrient dependency, my offspring would surely have inherited it and might have been worse off. However, if I had achieved adequacy in B6 (and zinc) six months prior to insemination, theoretically my offspring would have been born normal. Somehow the ancients knew this without fancy lab instruments: “The Lord. . . visiting the sins [mistakes] of the fathers unto the third and fourth generation” (Numbers 14:18).
There are other examples. We know that Alzheimer’s disease improves with high-dosage vitamin B12. And manganese dependency may well explain the irrational, unnatural behavior of a mother who cannot bond with (or may even abandon or kill) her offspring; this mother would require upward of thirty milligrams of manganese a day, whereas the intake from a normal diet is typically less than five to ten milligrams.7 Research by veterinarians has amply validated this mother-love effect.
As another example, high daily doses of choline (upward of one thousand milligrams per day versus the three hundred milligrams furnished by a typical diet) are key to recovering from non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD),8 which is now epidemic due to the lower choline content of “adequate” diets. NAFLD can lead to steatosis (build-up of fats in the liver), cancer, type 2 diabetes and atrial fibrillation—a heart condition now widespread that used to afflict the elderly more frequently.9 One might also ask, could autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), panic attacks and disabling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also reflect hidden, inherited nutritional dependencies?
THE FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE APPROACH
Composting, proper soil conditioning and eating a wide variety of whole foods are good ideas, but they are inadequate for addressing deep-seated genetic dependencies. Nor can the inborn hidden defects that are becoming more and more prevalent in our industrialized society be remedied solely by organically grown, non- GMO foods, grass-fed beef and butter, or pure water and air.
Achieving optimum mental, physical and spiritual health is no longer simply a matter of eating a wholesome diet grown on rich soil. The economic cycles of war (with accompanying famines), variations in soil mineral conditions around the globe, destructive weather patterns and the synthetic mass production technologies relied on by profit-motivated agribusiness have riddled our genome with crippling lifetime defects that may call for remedies that go beyond garden-variety strategies. Pharmaceutical doses of key nutrients may be required for life, preferably under the guidance of a practitioner of functional medicine. As stated in Ecclesiastes (11:5, NIV), “As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.”
NUTRIENTS EMPHASIZED IN CARL PFEIFFER’S BOOK
VITAMIN B6: Vitamin B6 (or pyridoxine) is a group of six compounds. Vitamin B6 has a wide variety of functions and is particularly involved in protein metabolism. It is a key component in the formation of hemoglobin (the substance in red blood cells that carries oxygen around the body). The predigested form of B6 is called P5P, which is usually available in sublingual form. B6 is critical for addressing a host of illnesses, including convulsions, schizophrenia, muscle spasms and postpartum depression. Along with iodine, it is also crucial for producing thyroid hormone. An overactive thyroid gland will require more vitamin B6; muscle weakness is very common in people lacking B6. The normal intake of B6 should be adequate in a well-constructed diet, especially if consuming raw dairy products and bananas daily. Usual supplementation is two milligrams, but all the major B vitamins—like B1, B2, B3, PABA (called vitamin Bx), pantothenic acid, B12, choline, biotin and inositol—need to be kept in balance with one another, lest other B deficiencies develop over time. Dr. Pfeiffer’s typical dosage for pyroluria (see box on p. 25) is thirty milligrams twice a day. Long-term high doses over one hundred milligrams per day can be toxic and may result in nerve damage. This can become irreversible if hypersupplementation persists for more than a few months. A high-dosage B6 dependency allows waiving this concern. However, proper lab testing is required to ascertain such a lifetime dependency.
ZINC: Zinc plays important roles in the immune system, wound healing, development and growth. It is also important for preventing leaky gut syndrome and allergies. Zinc deficiency affects an estimated two billion people worldwide. In children, zinc deficiency can cause growth retardation and an impaired immune system, resulting in an increased risk of infections (such as scrofula). However, taking high doses of zinc over a long period reduces the amount of copper that the body can absorb. This can lead to anemia and the weakening of bones. The dietary zinc-to-copper ratio should be kept at about ten. The typical therapeutic dosage prescribed by Pfeiffer is in the range of twenty-five milligrams twice a day, gradually lowering the dosage to a daily intake of ten milligrams if symptoms abate.
MANGANESE: Manganese is a trace element that is involved in metabolizing food to produce energy. It also has pro- and antioxidant properties. Manganese toxicity is partly attributable to its pro-oxidant activity, which can cause oxidative stress that the body cannot cope with. Toxicity via ingestion is very rare compared to inhalation and is likely to occur only by consuming supplements over a long period. The typical dosage recommended by Pfeiffer is twenty milligrams per day, with a gradual lowering to a normal intake of two milligrams of daily supplementation if symptoms abate.
Pyroluria is a condition where the body manufactures excess pyrroles. These chemicals are a byproduct produced when the body makes hemoglobin for red blood cells. The body usually removes these compounds through the urine. People with pyroluria are unable to get rid of pyrroles effectively and as a result they accumulate in their body. The root cause of pyroluria is the production of excess amounts of “kryptopyrrole” also known as “hemepyrrole” in the blood. Pyroluria happens when pyrroles attach to zinc and vitamin B6 (pyroxidine). This binding causes large quantities of vitamin B6 and zinc to be flushed out of the body, leading to a deficiency of these vital nutrients and a very high dietary requirement.
Vitamin B6 helps in the metabolism of amino acids, carbohydrates, lipids, heme and nucleic acid. Insufficient amounts of vitamin B6 can cause seborrheic dermatitis, cheilosis (inflammation and fissures in the corners of the mouth) and peripheral neuropathy, among other serious conditions.
Zinc is a vital mineral needed to support manufacture of cells and fight infections. It is also required in sexual development and reproduction. When large amounts of zinc are excreted through the urine, it leads to zinc deficiency affecting the body’s ability to build healthy cells.
Both zinc and vitamin B6 deficiency can cause depression, anxiety, nervousness and poor memory. Risk factors for pyroluria include prolonged stress, alcoholism and autism. Studies estimate that 50 percent of people with autism develop pyroluria.
Signs and symptoms associated with pyroluria include frequent infections, anxiety, poor memory, joint pain, acne, eczema, mood swings, frequent allergies, lack of appetite in the morning, frequent nausea and motion sickness. Pyroluria is diagnosed through a kryptopyrroles urine test. When the test results show numbers above 20 ug/dl, it indicates a positive test. Lab tests for zinc status can also be helpful.
With so much emphasis on omega-3 fatty acids in modern practice, it’s interesting to note that people with pyroluria need food rich in omega-6 fatty acids found in animal fats, grass-fed beef, pastured eggs and grass-fed butter. These foods are also good sources of zinc.
In addition to vitamin B6 and zinc, vitamin C, manganese and magnesium supplements may be helpful in the treatment of pyroluria.
“The field of epigenetics is quickly growing and with it the understanding that both the environment and individual lifestyle can also directly interact with the genome to influence epigenetic change. These changes may be reflected at various stages throughout a person’s life and even in later generations. For example, human epidemiological studies have provided evidence that prenatal and early postnatal environmental factors influence the adult risk of developing various chronic diseases and behavioral disorders. Studies have shown that children born during the period of the Dutch famine from 1944-1945 have increased rates of coronary heart disease and obesity after maternal exposure to famine during early pregnancy compared to those not exposed to famine. Less DNA methylation of the insulin-like growth factor II (IGF2) gene, a well-characterized epigenetic locus, was found to be associated with this exposure. Likewise, adults with prenatal exposure to famine conditions have also been reported to have significantly higher incidence of schizophrenia.”
SOURCE: Epigenetics and the environment: How lifestyle can influence epigenetic changes from one generation to the next.10
- Davis A. Let’s Get Well: A Practical Guide to Renewed Health Through Nutrition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1965, pp. 220-221.
- DellOrfano RM. Child violence: is malnutrition the cause? Wise Traditions, Summer 2002. https://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/childrens-health/child-violence-is-malnutrition-the-cause/.
- Pfeiffer CC. Nutrition and Mental Illness: An Orthomolecular Approach to Balancing Body Chemistry. Healing Arts Press, 1988.
- “Vitamin dependency.” https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/nutritional-disorders/vitamin-deficiency,-dependency,-and-toxicity/overview-of-vitamins.
- Nichols M, Mello A. Pyroluria, an underlying cause of mental illness. https://livinglovecommunity.com/2017/09/09/pyroluria-an-underlying-cause-of-mental-illness/.
- Minami Y, Hirabayashi Y, Nagata C, et al. Intakes of vitamin B6 and dietary fiber and clinical course of systemic lupus erythematosus: a prospective study of Japanese female patients. J Epidemiol 2011;21(4):246-54.
- Schutte KH, Myers JA. Metabolic Aspects of Health: Nutritional Elements in Health and Disease. Discovery Press, 1979, p. 107.
- Davis, 1965, pp. 173-174.
- Targher G, Valbusa F, Bonapace S, et al. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is associated with an increased incidence of atrial fibrillation in patients with type 2 diabetes. PLoS One 2013;8(2):e57183.
- Epigenetics: fundamentals. https://www.whatisepigenetics.com/fundamentals/.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2019