Jeffrey Bland, PhD, founded the Institute for Functional Medicine. He is now the chief science officer for Metagenics, one of the largest providers of nutritional products for licensed health care practitioners.
In March, Bland was inducted into New Hope Natural Media’s Hall of Legends. In this Q&A he shares his thoughts on science, nutritional supplements and the future of healthcare.
Functional Ingredients: Looking at where the industry is now, what do you advise today as far as scientific validation is concerned?
Jeffrey Bland: First of all, I think it is very important to say that as the science has emerged over the past twenty years it has validated strongly the importance of selective nutritional supplementation in the management of a variety of health-related issues.
Prior to the science being available a lot of the purported benefit of supplements was derived from anecdotes and was more experiential. As it has evolved, however, we have hundreds of clinical trials in humans, we’ve got all sorts of mechanistic studies in cell biology to understand how nutrients interact with cells.
This rising tide of science has really allowed the industry to be put on a different standard of authenticity. The challenge going forward is how the industry will embrace that science and feel responsible for its stewardship and support. The government can only sponsor so much research.
Fi: Given the limitations from what companies can say about what their products can do, what can companies do to help the population be healthier?
JB: The way I believe that nutrition supplements can be conceptualized is within the rising tide of importance nutrition in the prevention and management of the epidemic of chronic disease. The nutritional supplement industry needs to understand it is affiliated in a broad sense with this bigger issue of our food supply, our environment, our social structure, the whole idea that we develop a greater sense of responsibility for our health.
That’s what Metagenics over the last years has come to recognize. It started off as a company provide nutritional products, but over the years it has come to recognize that it has a bigger responsibility to tie that together with lifestyle changes.
Fi: How does the healthcare system need to change?
JB: I think that we need to recognize in our pursuit of improved healthcare delivery that, No. 1. We have a disease care system, it’s not a healthcare system. No. 2, presently all the emphasis on the disease care system is on universal access, which I think is very important. No.3, the model, as it relates to universal access, is heavily biased toward drugs and surgery.
Those three principles then prevent us from understanding that the reasons that people get sick is often from things that happen within their decision making in around their lifestyle, their diet, their exercise patterns, their stress, their exercise patterns, and that these factors are the big drivers that create the outcome that we call chronic illness. I believe that what we are going to witness is a change in the medicine we do but how we do medicine.
Fi: I have seen more and more companies launching practitioner lines. What are the practitioners themselves looking for?
JB: If you are talking about naturopathic medical practitioners, they are quite sophisticated in the area of nutrition when they come out of school. If you talk about traditional doctors, they come out very well trained in basic science, in anatomy, physiology and pathology but they don’t understand much at all about how nutrients work.
I believe the practitioner company has to understand their audience and has to tailor their approach. The practitioner business is really built on the integrity of that relationship. A practitioner might be in some jeopardy for providing wrong information or products that don’t work or have some adverse effect.
And the practitioners are working with patients who are not well. It is a much more complicated environment than dealing with an apparently well population that wants to keep well as in the health food retail business.
Fi: What would you be doing if you hadn’t gone into naturopathic medicine?
JB: I started off as a music major in college. I was in the band in Disneyland way back when in the late 50s and 60s. I was planning on being a professional musician. I played brass instruments and I thought I was pretty good, actually.
I’ve always been very strongly moved by and interested in music and I’ve taken up many instruments over the years. Guitar and piano... my latest thing is I’m teaching myself to play the harmonica. I’ve got some synthesizers I’ve been playing with.