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BF: Stephen, please tell the brief version of your life story.
SL: OK, well, let's see – I was born in Brooklyn in 1949. I was adopted. My personality was formed, in part, by this latter fact. I had difficulty integrating into my family. Also I had a lot of dental work early as a child and was heavily burdened with mercury.
I felt disconnected and disoriented. I functioned poorly and had a very poor self-image. I was not a good student.
I discovered a few things that were helpful to me as I struggled to adjust. I found that I would feel happier if I helped others. I wanted to see others happy – I had a fair amount of compassion and empathy. In my early teens I started running. This helped stabilize me: the endorphins, the oxygenation, the connection to nature. I began meditating in my late teens. I spent a great deal of time in Buddhist meditation retreats, often for weeks at a time. It's been a difficult journey for me but I think I've developed a certain open-heartedness.
BF: Do you think your pain and disorientation, early in life, contributed to your commitment to health and healing – that is, did you pick your career path, in part, because of your pain?
BF: At what point did you get good at academics?
SL: I had to get away from my adoptive family to blossom academically. I enrolled at Buffalo State College, studied biology, and did well.
In 1971 I was accepted into the PhD program in genetics at Berkeley. I remember walking down Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley in the autumn of '71 feeling completely at home. The people on the street were far from conventional, which I liked; I felt I had come home.
Linus Pauling published Vitamin C and the Common Cold in 1970. This was a seminal moment for me and for a lot of people. I got very interested in Pauling's work and thought a lot about the split between what he was saying about vitamin supplementation and what the current mainstream academic/scientific model was saying. The university model said you only needed small amounts of vitamins to activate various enzymes; additional amounts are not necessary. Pauling said that large doses can be beneficial.
The roots of Pauling's theory can be found in an idea put forth in a series of papers in the 1960s by the biochemist Irwin Stone, who noted that most animals produce vitamin C internally. Their production spikes upward when they're stressed – for example, a stressed goat produces, internally, many thousands of milligrams on a daily basis. Human beings don't have the ability to manufacture the vitamin internally; we apparently lost this capacity somewhere in our evolution due to a genetic error which had adaptive value, allowing more blood glucose during times of stress. Therefore we require relatively large amounts of C from external sources for optimal functioning.
BF: Pauling has been described, more than once, as the greatest scientist America has produced.
SL: Quite right. In the 1970s he introduced the concept of orthomolecular medicine, which I regarded then, and regard now, as profoundly important: the right molecules in the right amounts.
BF: What did you study for your doctorate?
SL: I did my doctoral work through the early and mid 1970s on the genetics and biochemistry of the enzyme catalase, which is extremely important in protecting cells from oxidative damage. I studied the effects of oxidative stress on the body. My mind was primed to ask the questions I would soon be asking about selenium and chemical sensitivity, and generally about oxidants and antioxidants in relationship to a broad range of stresses and diseases.
I developed environmental illness in 1976. I was reacting to all kinds of things in the environment – my wife's perfume, tar in the roads, mold, natural gas, pesticides, air pollution of all kinds. If I took a shower I became exhausted from the chlorine. My symptoms were exhaustion, brain fog, hypoglycemia, body aches, fibromyalgia pain.
I consulted with Dr. William Rea at his clinic in Dallas and spent 2 weeks there. I came home to California and lived in a shed in Santa Cruz for a couple of months while I tried to figure out how to deal with this chemical sensitivity. The shed was located on a beach where I wasn't so reactive. I was doing a little bit of consulting at the time. I had a typewriter and a few books, and I had the Santa Cruz Public Library.
I tested certain pure nutrients on myself to see if I could impact these symptoms. Well, 400 micrograms of selenium had an amazing effect on me, with reversal of fibromyalgia symptoms in less than 30 minutes. Day after day I took selenium and my chemical tolerance normalized after a number of weeks.
I started investigating the biochemistry of what might be happening. I asked a lot of questions and found answers by means of free radical biochemistry. Everywhere I looked I found free radical mechanisms as what I thought to be the best way of explaining the damage to the body from toxic chemicals and then in relationship to degenerative diseases. All forms of stress could be explained with free radical mechanisms: chemical, emotional, physical trauma, cellular damage from infection. I published articles about selenium and chemical sensitivity, and my experience with environmental illness, in scholarly journals and also in health magazines.5 I started writing my book in 1983.
BF: By which time Allergy Research Group was up and running?
SL: Yes. I started ARG in Concord, California, in 1980. My intent from the outset was to offer products that were hypoallergenic and science based. I was much more of a scientist than a marketing person.
I based one of my first products, buffered vitamin C, on the ideas of Theron G. Randolph, MD, a key figure in the history of the treatment of chemical sensitivity and environmental illness. Randolph found in the 1950s that patients often get acidic when they have acute reactions to the environment. Reversal of the acidity can stop much of the acute reaction. Using that concept, I created a highly buffered formula. Randolph and many other environmental doctors loved the product. We did a study at the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic and found that the product had major effects reversing symptoms of addictive craving.
BF: The Harvard University archive holds boxes of Randolph's materials. I hope someone, someday, will have the wit and passion to write his biography as a doctoral thesis.
Who manufactured the C for you?
SL: A large manufacturing plant in Northern California. I had worked for them as a consultant. I told them my idea and they allowed me to use their laboratory to create a prototype. Their terms were beneficial: no money down and 3 months to pay.
A key element in our early success was an article that I wrote for the magazine Let's Live about my experience with environmental illness. The piece was published in May 1980, and overnight we became a real business with a staff of about 10 people. I was told by the editor that it was the most-read article in his 15-year tenure. On the basis of that article I was invited to do print and TV interviews, including one with Prevention magazine. I was a guest on Oprah's show when she was local in Chicago.
Antioxidant Adaptation was published in 1985. It created a new paradigm for doctors. It was very well received by top people, including Dr. Lester Packer at Berkeley, the world's leading authority on vitamin E in terms of number of publications, who asked me, "How did you do this?" We had put the pieces together in ways that obviously surprised and intrigued him.
Putting the story together was an amazing, exciting experience for me. We were able to integrate seemingly unconnected concepts from various areas of research.
Working on the book with Parris Kidd was fun. At first he didn't believe my hypothesis about oxidative stress underlying many or even most pathological processes; eventually he was convinced and became a real collaborator.
BF: As you worked on the book, did you ever meditate to gain insight?
SL: Yes! When I was perplexed I would meditate as I sat in front of the computer. I think I was balancing my brain, integrating brain function, and thereby integrating my understanding of what might be happening.
BF: The FDA raided Allergy Research Group in 1991. This was related to David Kessler taking over as agency commissioner in November of 1990. He ordered his people to take a close look at the agency's stance on supplements.
SL: We went to court, of course. On May 23 of 1991 a federal judge denied the FDA's request for a preliminary injunction against us, saying that preventing Allergy Research Group from doing business would constitute a "real and potentially unnecessary loss to the health needs of the general public." He based this assessment on "the attestations of numerous physicians, health officials, and other experts." The FDA's petition against us was denied in September, but they kept us in court for 5 years. It was an expensive experience. We eventually won a strong victory. We had collected some 1500 supporting affidavits from health professionals, mostly MDs.
BF: Do you think the supplement industry is adequately regulated today through self-monitoring?
SL: Generally, yes, I do. The better supplement companies have quality control procedures in place. We see today pretty close to zero deaths from supplements. Drugs, by contrast, take a huge toll in fatalities.
BF: The "Science" section of the New York Times famously disparages supplements and the supplement industry. I, for one, would be very interested to learn how many staff people in that section take a robust daily array of supplements.
SL: Those who investigate the field become enthusiasts, at least privately.
BF: You have a reputation as a skilled networker. You know hundreds of people in nutritional medicine. What is your general sense of the quality of people in the field, including doctors and researchers? Do they strike you as first rate?
SL: I believe that many are first rate in several ways. One, they're bright. Two, they're courageous – it takes courage to go in the opposite direction of the mainstream, to take a chance with one's medical license. Three, they're energetic – it's easier to do the mainstream thing; it's harder to do all the extra study required to understand nutritional biochemistry. Four, they have integrity; they're not just running with the herd, they're following the truth as they see it.
I have had many rewarding associations. Leo Galland. Sidney MacDonald Baker. Martin L. Pall. John Diamond, author of Your Body Doesn't Lie – a brilliant guy. James L. Wilson, author of Adrenal Fatigue, the best contemporary book on adrenal exhaustion. Jonathan Wright. Carlton Fredericks. Robert Atkins.
Ronald Hoffman, Michael Rosenbaum, Jeff Anderson. Nick Gonzalez. Alan Gaby. Robert Rowen. Elson Haas. Hyla Cass.
Friedrich Douwes. Richard Kunin. Michael Ash. Dan Rubin. Antony Haynes, author of The Food Intolerance Bible.
These are just a few who come to mind. Many are dear friends.
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