Diary of Unknown Symptoms

Mystery of the Internal Vibration

Entry for August 27, 2006


William Grant, an atmospheric scientist. I google him to see what I can find out about him. I come across a site called “The Citizen Scientist” and it has a published article:

New Findings by a Physicist/Atmospheric Scientist Regarding Diet and Solar Ultraviolet Radiation for Maintaining Optimal Health

William B. Grant, Ph.D.
Sunlight, Nutrition and Health Research Center (SUNARC)
2107 Van Ness Avenue , Suite 403B
San Francisco, CA 94109-2529 , USA

How does one determine the dietary and lifestyle choices associated with optimal health? Well, one can read the popular books, ask an MD, or search the web. However, noting that recommendations and fad diets change, and that the profit motive seems to color many recommendations, I sought a better way: I decided to study the literature and interpret the appropriate data. However, since I’m neither trained in the study of nutrition and health nor funded for my research, I had to find an approach that is relatively simple and inexpensive, yet reliable. The approach I stumbled upon while investigating the role of acid rain and ozone on eastern oak and hickory forest decline is called the ecologic approach.

The Ecologic Approach

In the ecologic approach, populations defined geographically, such as states or countries, are the units of study. Population disease outcomes (incidence, prevalence, or mortality rates) are used along with population-averaged risk modifying factors such as diet, smoking, and solar ultraviolet (UV) irradiances. This approach was fairly widely used in the 1970s and early 1980s to make links between various factors and risk of disease, but was largely abandoned in 1981 after two leading British cancer researchers declared that ecologic studies could only generate hypotheses but not determine causality. Fortunately, I didn’t realize this until I had published a few papers using the approach.

Today, many countries are unwittingly conducting a large number of experiments related to health and well being in the form of culturally-linked diets and lifestyle habits. What is needed is a way to interpret the results of these ongoing studies. The ecologic approach provides such a tool; the data are often available but without interpretation related to diet or lifestyle.

One of the important lessons I learned while studying physics at UC Berkeley was that many important scientific discoveries are made by people outside the field who do not accept the paradigms of the field and often use different approaches. In my case, my physics education and atmospheric sciences background provided a solid foundation in experimental and theoretical research, which has proven very useful in health studies.

Applying the Ecologic Approach

My first use of the ecologic approach for health studies was to identify dietary risk modifying factors for Alzheimer’s disease. I identified total caloric supply and total dietary fat as the important dietary risk factors and fish and cereals/grains as the important risk reduction factors, and received press coverage by Dan Rather and CNN when my paper was published in June 1997. It was like hitting a home run the first time at bat in the major leagues, so I was hooked. (My findings were disputed at first, but later generally confirmed, although there are good fats and bad fats.) I kept my day job in atmospheric sciences at NASA, but spent many evenings and weekends on my health research. I went on to confirm dietary risk factors for coronary heart disease (sugar), rheumatoid arthritis (meat), and several types of cancer (animal products). I could tell that I was doing important work since, for three of my press releases, the related disease organization issued press releases rejecting my findings. In my opinion, many such organizations prefer to serve the pharmaceutical corporations and disease care system, rather than to determine simple ways to reduce the risk of disease.

When the latest version of the Atlas of Cancer Mortality Rates in the United States was published in 1999, I noticed that mortality rates for many cancers were about twice as high in the northeast as in the southwest. At first, I tried to find dietary data for different parts of the country in order to explain the differences, but I quickly learned that there are no more than 10-20% differences in dietary components for different quadrants of the U.S. I then started reading the work of Cedric and Frank Garland, who in 1980 first hypothesized that solar UVB reduced the risk of colon cancer through production of vitamin D. They arrived at this hypothesis after they had seen the first version of the Atlas of Cancer Mortality Rates and reasoned from their hiking experience in Arizona and New Mexico that the states with the lowest colon cancer rates were the sunniest ones. and that the main physiological effect of solar radiation was production of vitamin D. I found that solar UVB irradiation had been associated with four cancers by 2000: breast, colon, ovarian, and prostate.

Two Key Questions

I posed two questions to address: How many cancers are UVB/vitamin D-sensitive, and how many Americans die prematurely annually due to insufficient UVB/vitamin D.

Being a NASA atmospheric scientist who, at that time, flew around the world on various field missions to measure aerosols and ozone, I was aware of the UVB data for the U.S. provided by NASA’s Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS) satellite. The UVB map for July 1992 shows a very strongly asymmetrical distribution, with the UVB irradiance east of the Rocky Mountains being much lower than at the corresponding latitudes in the Rockies and to the west. The primary reason for this difference is that as the prevailing westerly winds approach the Rockies , they push the tropopause up, making the stratospheric ozone layer thinner. In addition, some of the states have higher surface elevations than states east of the Rockies . This asymmetry was an excellent (inverse) match for the breast, colon, ovarian, and many other cancer mortality rates. Thus, I had an excellent data set to use along with the cancer mortality rate data, assuming that the high summertime UVB is most important in reducing the risk of cancer. Seeing that the cancer mortality rate data were available by county, state economic area, and state, I elected to use the state economic area data. This meant digitizing the color map of UVB for 500 regions of the country, a process that took several months. I then did simple linear regressions of UVB with cancer mortality rates for males and for females.

Using the ecologic approach with these data sets, I identified over a dozen types of cancer that had inverse correlations with UVB irradiance. To estimate the number of people who died annually due to insufficient UVB/vitamin D, I assumed that the value of cancer mortality rate represented the maximum protection from UVB and that any rate higher than that should be considered preventable. My estimate was 17-23,000 premature deaths per year, based on the population in 2001. I submitted the manuscript to the journal Cancer and it was quickly accepted and published in March 2002.

Expanding the Study

Then the criticism began. The primary criticism was that I had not included other risk modifying factors in my analysis, and that, until doing so, I couldn’t claim that the findings could not be explained by other important cancer risk modifying factors. Thus, I embarked on the second phase of this study, the use of a number of reasonable cancer risk modifying factors to explain the geographic variations. I obtained state-averaged data for alcohol consumption, degree of urbanization, fraction of the population living below the poverty level, fraction of the population considered Hispanic, and lung cancer mortality rates as the index of the adverse health effects of smoking. The main cancer risk factor not included in the analysis is diet, but that doesn’t vary much by state. The added complexity of the analysis made the project much more difficult. Nonetheless, I was able to show that most of the generally-associated risk factors for various types of cancer were easily identified and quantified using the ecologic approach with these data sets. An interesting finding was that vitamin D-cancer mortality rates were often associated with urban residence. I attribute this result to the fact that living in an urban area reduces one’s UVB irradiance.

However, in trying to get this work published, my lack of formal education in epidemiology and statistics became an impediment, so I invited Cedric Garland and coworkers to provide the epidemiology expertise and hired a statistician. The manuscript should be finished and resubmitted in the very near future.

The Outlook for Vitamin D Research

The interest in vitamin D is increasing rapidly: The National Institutes of Health sponsored two vitamin D conferences recently; a number of articles appeared in the popular press, and increasing research effort is now being devoted to determining the role of vitamin D in reducing the risk of a large number of diseases. In addition to the mounting evidence that vitamin D reduces the risk of cancer, there is very good evidence that adequate levels of vitamin D can prevent falls and osteoporotic fractures, in part by helping with calcium absorption and metabolism, and in part by improving neuromuscular function. There is also very good evidence that vitamin D in winter can help reduce the risk of multiple sclerosis by strengthening the immune system during the season of most infectious diseases. There is also some evidence that vitamin D slows the progression of rheumatoid and osteoarthritis, lowers blood pressure, and reduces the risk of heart disease. Finally, there is tantalizing evidence from season-of-birth rate data that a number of birth defects and mental disorders are linked to maternal vitamin D insufficiency during pregnancy.

There are, of course, adverse health outcomes from excess solar UV irradiance, but these effects can largely be minimized by avoiding sun burning and excessive tanning. I do not recommend using sunscreen over prolonged periods but do recommend indoor tanning as a way to obtain vitamin D in the absence of adequate solar UVB irradiance and developing a good tan prior to traveling to sunny vacation spots.

The Sunlight, Nutrition, and Health Research Center

I retired from NASA in early 2004 and moved to San Francisco , where I formed the non-profit organization, Sunlight, Nutrition, and Health Research Center (SUNARC). To follow along on my journey of discovery through the world of health research, please visit our web site, http://www.sunarc.org. There are a number of essays and press releases related to my work, as well as links to other web sites that provide some of the data used in my work or present interesting views on how to maintain optimal health. I’d be interested in hearing from readers on additional topics to study, perhaps as joint projects.


August 27, 2006 - Posted by | Health | ,

1 Comment »

  1. fantastic blog 😀 I’m so happy I wandered onto it through google, Going to definitely need to add this one to the list.

    Comment by Parinita Master | January 7, 2013 | Reply

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