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Truth, Freedom, and the FDA: An Interview with Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw
By David Jay Brown
Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw co-authored two of the first and most widely read books on the subject of human longevity–Life Extension: A Practical Scientific Approach and The Life Extension Companion–which triggered a large amount of popular interest in the subject (including my own), and their many television talk show appearances have reached a large number of people over the years.
Although, perhaps, the ultimate goal of medicine all along, the idea of extending human life in otherwise healthy individuals was a relatively novel concept for most people when Pearson and Shaw published their first book back in 1982. How many people could have predicted back in the early eighties that in just a few years after the publication of Pearson and Shaw’s groundbreaking book that there would be such a huge worldwide interest in life extension, anti-aging, and preventative medicine? Pearson and Shaw were not surprised by this new and growing interest and had, in fact, been anticipating it.
Pearson and Shaw have been studying life extension since 1968. They are largely self-educated. Pearson graduated from MIT with a triple major in physics, biology, and psychology, and Shaw graduated from UCLA with a double-major in chemistry and zoology. However, most of their knowledge comes from consuming scientific and medical journals with a voracious appetite, talking with colleagues, and experimenting on themselves. In this manner, they have become two of the most well-informed people on the planet regarding the biochemical mechanisms of aging, and they continue to study it full- time. Pearson and Shaw then apply this knowledge in designing nutritional supplement formulations for their own use, some of which are available commercially.
Pearson and Shaw have also been very politically-active over the years with regard to protecting people’s rights in America to access nutritional supplements, and to easily obtain available accurate information about the supplements which may benefit their health. To this effect, they wrote the book Freedom of Informed Choice: FDA Versus Nutritional Supplements (Common Sense Press, 1993), and won a landmark lawsuit against the FDA–Pearson v. Shalala–charging the government agency with unconstitutionally restricting manufacturers from distributing truthful health information (which was viewed as a violation of the constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of free speech) that could save many people’s lives. This was a landmark achievement for the dietary supplement industry and for the availability of truthful scientific information to consumers.
This interview occurred on December 16, 2005. Durk and Sandy are responsible for inspiring my own interest in life extension and they have long fascinated me. The couple makes a great team, often completing one another’s sentences, and bouncing ideas and facts back and forth off each other as they speak. It’s as though their nervous systems are symbiotically intertwined, and the breadth of their knowledge is staggering. It doesn’t take much to get them talking passionately about their favorite subjects–life extension and freedom. A few questions can ignite an information explosion. We spoke about how fish oil can improve cardiovascular health, about how the FDA tried to suppress this information, and how they legally forced the FDA into reversing their unconstitutional attempt to suppress the distribution of truthful information.
David: What do you think are the most important nutritional supplements that people should be taking?
Durk: Let me just preface my answer to this question by stating that we’re dealing with a system here–a system for handling free radicals and for doing a lot of other things–and just saying, here’s the most important three or four nutritional supplements really does a disservice to people. This is because free radicals are in fact handled by a rather elaborate system that’s evolved over the past few billion years that the planet’s had oxygen, and just having one of them doesn’t really do you anywhere as much good as having a set of them. But If I wanted to mention just one, I would say EPA and DHA, particularly DHA found in oils from cold water fatty fishes. The reason for that is that it can reduce the risk of a sudden-death heart attack by anywhere from about fifty percent to eighty percent, depending on the dose. As little as two meals per week of fatty cold water fish could give you about a forty to fifty percent reduction on your risk of sudden-death heart attacks.
Sandy: Three hundred thousand people die of sudden death heart attacks every year in the United States, so if all of those people were taking the recommended amounts of fish oil supplements, or the two fatty fish meals a week, then there’d be about fifty percent fewer that would have died. In other words, a hundred and fifty thousand people would not have died.
Durk: They’re very inexpensive, very safe, and very effective. You see these sort of heart attacks on TV all the time. Somebody has a heart attack, the ambulance arrives, and they defibrillate and resuscitate the person and everything is okay. Well, it doesn’t work that way outside the hospital, because they have to get that defibrillator to the person within a few minutes.
Sandy: But most of the incidences of fibrillation occur outside of a hospital, usually in a person’s home or where they work, and they don’t get to the hospital right away. If you lose several minutes, by that time you’ve either already died or you’ve suffered irreversible brain damage, so if you do survive you’re in very damaged condition.
Durk: Under the usual conditions, your brain starts dying after about five minutes from a lack of circulation, which occurs when your heart fibrillates–just vibrates and stops pumping blood. Incidentally, that’s what happens when you are electrocuted. At about ten minutes your brain is irreversibly and completely gone. A response time for a really good paramedic operation is about eight minutes. So you can see that there’s not much of chance for revival, and in fact, paramedics in the field are actually able to revive about two percent of people whose hearts have gone into fibrillation from a sudden-death heart attack. The DHA is very effective in preventing this from occurring. It doesn’t stop the heart attack from happening, but it turns a sudden-death heart attack, which gives you very little chance, into a…
Sandy: …survivable heart attack, where you do recover, and you don’t have irreversible damage to the brain. You can have a full recovery.
Durk: They can get you to the hospital, and then they can do angioplasty, or put in a standard, quadruple bypass or whatever.
One thing that’s very important for people to know about this is that the FDA tried to suppress this information…
Sandy: …about the benefits of fish oil. We actually sued the FDA in 1994 because they would not permit a health claim that fish oils may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Durk: It’s not that they merely would not permit it, they actually issued a regulation that stated that it was a crime to state that the cold water fish oils, with omega-3 fatty acids, could reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. It was actually illegal. They specifically made it illegal.
Sandy: So we filed suit for violation of the First Amendment, because they were not permitting the communication of truthful information.
Durk: At the time we filed suit against them in 1994 there were one hundred and seventy-four papers on the subject in the scientific literature. A hundred and seventy of them supported our position; four did not. The four that did not were very small preliminary studies that didn’t have the statistical power to detect the fifty percent reduction in sudden-death heart attacks. During the seven years that we litigated against the FDA, one million Americans died premature preventable deaths.
Sandy: Half of the three hundred thousand people dying every year from that wouldn’t have died if they’d have been taking fish oil. However, dietary supplement companies, and also food companies offering fish, couldn’t tell people about the benefits of fish oil. And because of that people simply didn’t have the information.
Durk: Since the legal case was resolved in our favor in 2001, you’re now starting to see claims on fish oil supplements, and recently the FDA even caved in and is allowing claims on fish. So I think we’re going to see a very dramatic reduction in people dying of heart attacks as a result of this.
Sandy: I wanted to add that one of the ways that we study the effects of the various supplements is to look at metabolic pathway charts. You see, what happens with free radicals is that they’re handled by a chain of antioxidants in the body. It’s not just one or a couple that take care of the free radicals that are constantly around in the body. They’re constantly there because you’re producing them naturally through metabolic activity, and your body has got to handle these free radicals.
The metabolic pathways show you that once a free radical scavenger like vitamin C reacts with a free radical, then it becomes a free radical itself. It becomes an ascorbyl radical. That radical then has to be taken care of by another antioxidant. Glutathione usually takes care of the vitamin C radical, and converts vitamin C back to it’s reduced state.