Over the past seven years, Pure North S'Energy Foundation's preventive health program has gained a significant foothold in Alberta and parts of B.C. — 20,000 people have registered to try its vitamin and supplements, according to the foundation.
But as the charity looks to expand its reach with public funding, there is a growing chorus of criticism over whether the Pure North program is effective and what the role of alternative health care should be in a publicly-funded system.
Pure North S'Energy Foundation was started as a workplace wellness program in 2006 by oil executive and philanthropist Allan Markin, who funds the entire program at a cost of $20 to $30 million annually. Participants receive vitamins and supplements, as well as lifestyle counselling and dental care.
Although Pure North targets vulnerable people, such as the homeless, who don't have good access to nutritional food, for many years it also offered its program for free to the general population.
Vitamin D booster: 50,000 IU, one capsule every two days for several days.
Multi-nutrients: Up to 2000- 4000 IU of Vitamin D, 310mg Vitamin E, 80 mcg Vitamin K2, 50 mg Vitamin C, more than 30 other vitamins and minerals.
One of those participants agreed to speak with the CBC on the condition of anonymity. The man says he started the Pure North program because he didn't have a family doctor. After a series of blood tests, he was told that his iron levels were too high. Pure North suggested his blood removed in a process called "ferritin reduction."
He says he was also put on a program of vitamins and supplements, including a Vitamin D booster of 50,000 international units of Vitamin D every other day for a several days. That's more than 50 times the Health Canada recommended daily allowance.
When the man did get a family doctor, he says he was told his Vitamin D levels were too high and that there was no evidence his iron levels were high. After finding this out, KT stopped the ferritin reduction and ended his participation in Pure North. He says he doesn't believe the program did him any harm, but doesn't think it did any good, either.
"I didn't really know what the purpose of the program ever was."
Alternative medicine questions
Most people view vitamins as a sort of insurance policy for an imperfect diet. But there is a growing debate over whether any vitamin supplementation is necessary.
A review was done last year of a series of research studies on the effects of vitamins on both healthy and unhealthy people. It found an increase in risk of death may be linked to beta carotene and Vitamin E, as well as higher doses of Vitamin A.
In the past several years, much research has been focused on Vitamin D, which is a key part of the Pure North S'Energy program. Canadians are often told to take a Vitamin D supplement in the winter months, when we don't get enough time in the sunshine. A study done by New Zealand's Massey University showed Vitamin D improved insulin resistance. Another study showed Vitamin D supplementation can also lower blood pressure of participants during the winter months.
Dr. Paul Offit is the chief of Infectious Diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He has researched the risks of high dose vitamins and written about it in his recent book, Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine.
"If one takes large quantities of excess vitamins, you actually increase your risk of cancer and increase your risk of heart disease," he says.
Offit says there are only a few occasions when we need vitamins.
"You need a Vitamin K shot at birth, if you're breastfeeding a baby, that baby supplements from Vitamin D supplementation until they get a little older," he says.
"Vegans benefit from supplementation from iron or certain or certain B complex vitamin, women of childbearing age should take supplemental Vitamin B9 , which is Folic Acid."
Doctors suggest that another issue with the program is with its trial and error approach to developing the supplement regimen.
National-level speed skater Justin Maunder supports the program, but had some initial problems.
Offered it for free, the athlete's regimen included iodine supplements. Maunder says they affected his thyroid and made him feel groggy and tired and was told if he stayed on it he would have harmed his thyroid. The speed skater stopped taking the iodine and recovered. He remains in the program and says he believes the nutrition counselling has made him a stronger and faster athlete.
Pure North spokesperson Jack Davis says the foundation thinks that it can help reduce health-care costs in the province by $500 million a year if the program was widely adopted.
"[Markin has] approached the government, not to take over what he's doing, but to work with him on how to make the program accessible to more individuals. We do think that it is the government's responsibility to invest in illness prevention and wellness."
Tim Caulfield, the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, says the bar is very high when it comes to public funding of health care.
"When you're actually trying to get dollars from the government, you do have to provide evidence of efficacy. Best case scenario is a randomized, double blind, controlled study, where you really get a sense 'does this work.' And often times, one isn't enough," says Caulfield.
"You have to remember often times this stuff doesn't work."