“Ortho means ‘right’ — the right molecules in the right amounts. Orthomolecular medicine is the use of the right molecules or orthomolecular substances that are normally present in the human body in the amounts that lead to the best of health and the greatest decrease in disease. It is the most effective prevention in the treatment of disease.”
-Linus Pauling. Interview by Deborah Kesten. Healthline. April 1983.
Linus Pauling was well known — though not always celebrated — for his steadfast endorsement of the health benefits of megadoses of vitamin C. He began promoting the use of vitamin C as a preventative measure against colds in the mid-1960s. In the late-1960s, he published some of his early findings, calling his theory of vitamins and health “orthomolecular medicine” stemming from the Greek root ortho meaning “right” or “correct”.
Pauling applied his orthomolecular research to mental health as well, describing numerous psychological problems as the result of an imbalance of molecules.
Listen: Pauling describes the rapid evolution of his research agenda
In 1968, Pauling introduced the concept of orthomolecular psychiatry to the medical community with his publication of “Orthomolecular Psychiatry: Varying the concentrations of substances normally present in the human body may control mental disease” [PDF]. This article first appeared in Science and has since been reprinted in a number of other journals as well as the book Orthomolecular Psychiatry: Treatment of Schizophrenia, for which Pauling was a co-editor.
In his article, Pauling stated his belief that mental disease is caused almost entirely by the combination of abnormal reaction rates and abnormal molecular concentrations of substances essential to the human body.
The majority of chemical reactions that take place in humans employ an enzyme as a catalyst. As such, if a certain enzyme fails to function properly, the rate of the reaction that utilizes the enzyme will be severely reduced. Pauling developed two ways to push reactions in the forward direction, consequently solving the problem of rate reduction. He stated that this molecular propulsion could be accomplished by either introducing large amounts of the enzyme’s substrate or by somehow increasing the amount of the enzyme that is synthesized. He came to these conclusions by manipulating the Michaelis-Menten equation, which gives the rate law for a reaction catalyzed by an enzyme.
In his 1968 article, Pauling likewise described a variety of vitamins and other essential substances as well as the consequences of deficiencies of each. Among the substances discussed are vitamin B12, nicotinic acid, and vitamin C. Pauling believed that simply introducing more of a deficient substance would alleviate the effects of the deficiency.
Pauling’s concept of orthomolecular psychiatry is in application today. For example, Phenylketonuria, or PKU, is caused by poor functioning of the enzyme that processes phenylalanine. According to Pauling, this disease could be treated in two ways. One option is the introduction of mass amounts of the enzyme’s substrate to counterbalance the effects of the dysfunction. The second, and practiced, treatment is to require PKU patients to adhere to a strict low-protein diet, which significantly lowers the amount of phenylalanine they consume. (This approach also happened to have been an important component of the treatment that Pauling himself followed when battling glomerular nephritis in the 1940s) Nevertheless, both treatment possibilities are examples of orthomolecular therapy.
Orthomolecular psychiatry was an exciting theory for Pauling. The orthomolecular concept was originally applied only to the brain, but it wasn’t long before Pauling began to extend it to the entire body. Eventually, he would consider problems ranging from diabetes to cavities as treatable using the orthomolecular concept.
For more information on orthomolecular psychiatry and related topics, visit It’s in the Blood! A Documentary History of Linus Pauling, Hemoglobin, and Sickle Cell Anemia. To view more content related to Linus Pauling, visit Linus Pauling Online.