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Steer Clear of "Chiropractic Nutrition"

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Chiropractic is based on the faulty notion that most ailments are related to spinal problems. Although some aspects of scientific nutrition are taught in chiropractic schools, many chiropractors use methods that clash with what is known about the anatomy and physiology of the body.

Applied kinesiology (AK), for example, is based on the notion that every organ dysfunction is accompanied by a specific muscle weakness, which enables health problems to be diagnosed through muscle-testing procedures. Testing is typically carried out by pulling on the patient's outstretched arm after placing the test substance (such as a vitamin or food extract) in the patient's mouth until salivation occurs. However, some practitioners place the test material in the patient's hand or touch it to other parts of the body. If a weak muscle becomes stronger when a nutrient (or a food high in the nutrient) is tested, that supposedly indicates "a deficiency normally associated with that muscle." "Treatment" may include special diets, food supplements, acupressure, and spinal manipulation.

Contact Reflex Analysis (CRA) proponents claim that over a thousand health problems can be diagnosed with a muscle test during which the chiropractor's finger or hand is placed on one of 75 "reflex points" on the patient's body. If the patient's arm can be pulled downward, a condition corresponding to the "reflex" is considered present, and dietary supplements (typically made from freeze-dried vegetables or animal organs) are prescribed. CRA's chief proponent teaches that 80% of disease is due to allergy, the two main causes of disease are gallbladder disease and staph infections, and obesity is commonly caused by parasites.

The Enzyme Replacement System, promoted by Howard F. Loomis, D.C., is based on treating "enzyme deficiency states" with products "targeted to organs stressed by subluxation." The alleged deficiency states are identified by taking a history, examining the patients, obtaining a "24-hour urinalysis, " and correlating this information with "recurring spinal subluxation patterns." The products listed in Loomis's 1995 catalog include "Chiro-Zyme," a line of "carefully formulated combinations of herbs, vitamins and minerals with plant enzymes," each named with an abbreviation for certain spinal segments and an organ or body function. The product "C8 to T1 Thy," for example, was claimed to "nourish the tissues of the thyroid gland stressed by subluxations of the upper thoracic and cervical spine."

The Morter HealthSystem is claimed to be "a complete alternative healthcare system" that can correct physical (biomagnetic), nutritional, and emotional stresses. Its followers postulate that an imbalance in the patient's electromagnetic field causes unequal leg length, which the chiropractor can instantly correct by applying his own electromagnetic energy to proper points on the body. According to this notion, two fingers on each of the chiropractor's hands are North poles, two are South poles, and the thumbs are electromagnetically neutral. When imbalance is detected, the hands are held for a few seconds at "contact points" on the patient's body until the patient's legs test equally long. Proponents recommend that such testing be started early in infancy and continued at least monthly throughout life. The "nutritional" component is based on the belief that "patients can maintain life and vitality by consuming four times as much alkaline-forming as acid-forming foods." Proponents claim that testing saliva pH [degree of acidity or alkalinity] can determine whether the most effective method of care should be nutritional supplementation and/or spinal manipulation. The recommended supplements include a barley juice formula said to be the best "overall body alkalizer."

NUTRI-SPEC is a system claimed to tell "in what ways your body chemistry tends to slip off balance" and reveal "exactly which foods and nutritional supplements you need and which you should avoid." The chiropractor's advice is based on the patient's respiratory rate, body temperature, blood pressure, pulse, breath-holding ability, pupil size, degree of thickness or coating of the tongue, saliva and urine characteristics, and various reflexes. These findings supposedly enable the chiropractor to conclude whether the patient is metabolically unbalanced or suffers from "sex hormone insufficiency," "myocardial insufficiency," "pineal stress," and about 25 other fanciful conditions. Dietary modifications and supplements are then prescribed to correct the alleged imbalances.

Nutritional blood analysis, also called live cell analysis, is performed by placing a drop of blood on a microscope slide and viewing it at high magnification with a special microscope that forwards its image to a television screen. Practitioner and patient then view the patient's blood cells, which are typically said to show too much clumping and other abnormalities. (Most of the "abnormalities" are actually artifacts of drying.) The prospect is then given enzyme pills, after which the alleged clumping disappears. This approach is based on the notion that lack of enzymes in the foods we eat is a major cause of disease. This is nonsensical because the enzymes present in foods are digested rather than absorbed by the body and would not function as human enzymes even if they were absorbed.

Hair analysis is performed by sending a lock of hair from the patient's neck to a commercial laboratory for analysis. The test report supposedly pinpoints nutritional imbalances that can be corrected with dietary supplements. Scientific studies indicate that hair analysis is not valid for this purpose. In the 1980s, I sent identical hair samples to 16 hair analysis laboratories and found that the reported mineral levels varied considerably from lab to lab and even between samples sent several weeks apart to the same lab. So even if hair analysis were a valuable diagnostic tool, my investigations demonstrated that most labs were unreliable.

NutraBalance uses a the results of a blood chemistry profile and a urinalysis performed at a legitimate laboratory and submitted to Nutrabalance for interpretation. The company then issues a lengthy computerized report which classifies the patient according to 14 "metabolic types," lists supposed health problem areas, and recommends dietary changes and food supplements from a manufacturer chosen by the patient's doctor. The process is similar to hair analysis schemes except that, unlike the hair tests, the blood and urine tests are legitimate. The metabolic types—most of which are named after a gland or other body organ—do not correspond to anything known to medical science, and the supplement recommendations are nutritionally senseless. The interpretation of the tests is also improper. Laboratories list a normal "clinical range" for each laboratory value. Nutrabalance uses a narrower "physiologic range," which means that some normal lab values will be classified as abnormal. Neither the existence of the types nor the recommended nutritional strategies have been substantiated.

Some chiropractors use questionable test procedures that supposedly determine "hidden allergies" responsible for a broad range of health problems. The tests results are then used to make dietary recommendations and possibly to recommend dietary supplements. However, allergy is not a factor in most ailments and dietary supplements have no value in treating allergies. Proper evaluation should begin with detailed record-keeping and a trial period in which suspected foods are avoided. What happens after that should be determined through consultation with a knowledgeable physician. Chiropractic schools do not qualify their graduates to manage allergic conditions.

At least 50 companies are marketing irrationally formulated supplement products exclusively or primarily through chiropractors. Some of these companies (or their distributors) sponsor seminars at which chiropractors are taught pseudoscientific nutrition concepts-including the use of supplements to treat disease. These seminars enable manufacturers and distributors to provide information on alleged therapeutic uses that would not be legal to place on product labels. Some companies issue newsletters and/or product literature that provide dubious advice.

Most chiropractors who recommend supplements sell them to their patients at two to three times their wholesale cost. The products invariably cost much more than similar products (if available) in retail outlets. I have encountered useless recommended regimens that cost as much as $10 per day.

The percentage of chiropractors engaged in unscientific nutrition practices is unknown but is probably a majority. Sound nutrition advice, when needed, can easily be obtained elsewhere.

Comment from a Chiropractic Nutritionist
Views of the ACA Council on Nutrition President (1992)

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This article was revised on September 2, 2002.