What is Orthomolecular Medicine?

I remember how I felt when Nobel laureate Linus Pauling’s article on “Orthomolecular Psychiatry” appeared in our leading scientific Journal, Science, in 1968. I was encouraged because Linus Pauling’s endorsement elevated nutrition to a higher scientific status than ever before. That was almost 30 years ago, a time when the leading proponents of nutrition were not taken seriously by scientists and were despised by the medical profession! Adelle Davis, whose best selling books of the 50s and 60s still read up-to-date in most respects, was vilified by numerous medical editorials. But her readers believed in her, and I gained a whole new perspective on my medical education by reading her book, Let’s Get Well. It made the reader, including me, aware that nutrition is a key to health, and that the typical American diet of that day was inadequate. This went completely against the official medical propaganda. It was actually illegal for food and vitamin companies to find fault with our food supply, and questionable to suggest that vitamin pills might be good for anything.

I read Adelle Davis’ books with considerable skepticism but she won me over with her very readable and interesting nutrition tour of the major diseases in Let’s Get Well. Though she was not a physician, her medical scholarship was impressive and she presented a flood of ideas that made me see my medical education in a clearer light, particularly the relationship between nutrition and biochemistry. They go together. But just in case she was distorting data to suit her ends, I found it comforting that her bibliography was extensive. She reviewed the biochemical and medical journals in a manner comparable to any medical school textbook; but her books are written in a more interesting style.

I had just experienced my first successes with megavitamin therapy and I was enthusiastic but also filled with doubts and questions. For one, why was nutrition and vitamin therapy not taught in medical schools? I had only three lectures in nutrition for surgical patients, not a clue about the advantages of nutrient support for just about every disease known. Adelle was persuasive; she made it seem so obvious. So why isn’t everyone doing nutrition, if it is so good? The answer was actually pretty obvious: Nutrition was singled out for scorn and ridicule by the establishment. Nutrition-physicians were regarded as quacks. In 1968 nutrition rated so low in American science and medicine that there was very little research in the field. Nutrition was the bottom of the medical totem pole.

I can say without question that Linus Pauling advanced the cause of nutrition by at least twenty years by inventing the word, “orthomolecular.” That word was his endorsement of nutrition medicine—as science. Ortho-molecular means “right molecules.” Nutrients are these right molecules, the molecules of life that fit into the biochemistry in a way that no drug ever can! Maimonedes knew it in the 12th Century: “Let no illness that can be treated by nutrition be treated by any other means.”

Dr. Pauling is no longer with us. But his influence remains an inspiration in so many ways, and not least is his neologism, “orthomolecular,” which remains the best word to define the essence of what is otherwise known as “alternative medicine.” Words like holistic, integrated, complementary and functional are also in use; but only the word orthomolecular conveys the union of nutrition, science and medicine as envisioned by the great Linus Pauling.

I am convinced that the word, orthomolecular, is here to stay because it really does convey the operational concepts and beliefs of the nutrition-physicians. Let me present a few of these words and ideas that denote the practice of orthomolecular medicine.

  1. Orthomolecular medicine relies on the use of molecules that occur naturally in the human body. These are the preferred molecules for maintaining health and treating disease. They are the right molecules, the molecules necessary for life itself. They are found in the foods we eat and are known by such familiar names as proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, amino acids and water. Fiber and bioflavonoids are food substances that also offer such great health advantages that they are now considered orthomolecules.

  2. Maintaining orthomolecular balance is the biological challenge of survival; doing it well is the key to health and wellbeing. Traditionally this balance was controlled by our choice of food and drink. Only in the last century do we have access to food concentrates that make it possible to regulate the rates of chemical reaction within our bodies intelligently.

  3. Nutrition and Pollution denote the two classes of molecules that most influence our survival. Orthomolecular health-medicine puts nutrition first, but also screens for pollution. This is a human ecology view of health: mankind seen in relation to the environment.

  4. Stress is another human ecology concept, denoting the adaptive response of the neuro-immune-endocrine systems to the environment, which presents as physical, chemical and psychological stimuli. The individual responds with what Hans Selye called, the General Adaptation Syndrome. This has 3 stages: Alarm, Adaptation, and Exhaustion; and at whatever stage, stress is ultimately measured in terms of biochemical change within the individual.

  5. In summary: Nutrition and Pollution are environmental factors. Stress and Disease are types of human responses to the environment. Adaptation is the fundamental purpose of our physiology. To the extent that stress induces adaptation, it strengthens physiologic mechanisms of survival and health.

  6. The orthomolecular perspective can be tabulated by merging the four key words—nutrition, pollution, stress and disease—into corollary categories:


Human Response






















This table identifies the relationships of the key words that define Orthomolecular Health Medicine: i.e. Nutrition-Pollution-Stress. A single word reflects the philosophy of orthodox medicine: Disease. The chart illustrates the fact that orthomolecular medicine comes into play before much damage is done. Orthomolecular medicine is “early” medicine. Orthodox medicine is usually “late” medicine. It takes a crisis of pain, fear or disability to motivate most patients to seek medical help. Too often this is late, beyond adaptation and into the exhaustion-degeneration stage; and too late to regain optimal health.

I have made analogous applications of this tabulation to the ‘Mind. Is it not possible to look on ideas as a kind of food for the mind? Then bad thoughts are like pollutants, able to mislead and harm the mind. Ignorance is a mental deficiency state, "a malnutrition of the mind.” Thought overload, in the form of coercion or confusion is well known to induce hypnosis, a state of compliance without much resistance, as if reason sleeps. Hypnosis is a natural defense, protecting the integrity of the cerebral cortex by limiting its activity.

Everyday life in our civilized world assaults us with an excess of ideas, rules, laws, news, and information and mis-information, sufficient to confuse and overload our mind and cause regression to unthinking compliance and suggestibility. This is a self-protective, near hypnotic state, and when it fails, accidents, violence and post-traumatic neurosis erupt in proportion to the degree of over-load beyond what the individual can absorb. Such break-downs induce biochemical imbalances that can cause permanent damage to the brain, pituitary and adrenal glands. Nutrition, detoxification and therapeutic suggestion (relaxation, meditation, hypnosis) can prevent the damage, even in the face of severe stress.

The most important implication of this tabulation is that medicine is better viewed in a human ecology perspective, not just as disease. Disease concepts in primary care medicine are based on archaic symptoms and signs and not on molecular and cell biology. Orthomolecular medicine is by definition, by its very name, a molecular approach to nutrition, pollution and stress.

Orthomolecular medicine focuses on the adaptive response to environmental stressors, and aims to make the necessary corrections before damage is done. Orthodox medicine begins with the idea of disease, where orthomolecular medicine leaves off. Worse, orthodox medical practice is likely to treat the adaptive mechanisms as disease, with drugs and surgery, and this may be inappropriate. To paraphrase Maimonedes: if it can be cured with food, don’t treat with drugs. I say: “Put nutrition first.” That’s orthomolecular, that’s what.

©2007 Richard A. Kunin, M.D.