Does Vitamin C Really Boost Your Immune System?

Of the 13 recommended daily vitamins, vitamin C (also called ascorbic acid) is the supplement most widely used, and for good reason. In the early 1970s, Linus Pauling, the two-time Nobel Prize winning chemist, championed the use of large doses of vitamin C as the cure for many diseases, including prevention of the common cold, a virus that almost everyone experiences on a relatively regular basis each winter, particularly around the holidays when we eat a lot of sugary treats that lower our immune defenses and are in close proximity with other ill people at parties.

The Public Embraces Vitamin C

Pauling first explored the use of high doses of vitamin C in the 1960s, influenced by the theories of biochemist Irving Stone. He promoted the idea that vitamin C taken in high doses by mouth or intravenously could be effective in treating a variety of health problems; he believed it guarded against heart disease, could reduce the risk of infection and be an effective cancer treatment. Pauling himself took 3 grams of vitamin C every day to prevent colds.

His theories were eagerly embraced by the general public, who went out in droves to buy vitamin C supplements and helped to boost orange juice sales. However, since 1994, when Pauling died at age 93, there has been more than a little controversy over whether taking high doses of vitamin C have any major impact on the immune system.

The Medical Community Is Skeptical

One thing that scientists do agree with is that moderate doses of vitamin C taken on a regular basis (equal to approximately 200 mg each day) could shorten the duration and lessen the severity of the common cold, but believe that it only lowers the risk of the acquiring the virus in those who practice such intense physical activities such as marathoners and world-class skiers, for whom vitamin C has been demonstrated to cut the risk of colds by 50 percent.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) conducted a study on vitamin C and concluded that when the body reached saturation with the vitamin, which they estimated to be at 200 mg, any amount of vitamin in excess of this was for all intents and purposes useless and would just be eliminated through the urine. Interestingly, all the research on vitamin C performed by the mainstream medical establishment has been undertaken using small to moderate doses. Large-scale studies on the effect of mega-doses of vitamin C have yet to be undertaken.

Flawed Study

Intrigued by the controversy, Drs. Steve Hickey and Hilary Roberts decided to investigate this issue further and performed a detailed examination of the NIH study, in addition to looking at 50 years’ worth of clinical reports and independent scientific reports on how vitamin C worked in a clinical setting; they found significant evidence pointing toward the effectiveness of large doses of vitamin C for immune system support and for use in the treatment of heart disease and cancer, among others. They questioned whether the NIH’s findings were truly valid, as the NIH study only measured vitamin C levels in the bloodstream and white blood cells, which are the type of cells that are specially designed to absorb vitamin C, before it is taken into any other of the body’s cells. Hickey and Roberts believed that the NIH was remiss in not taking into account how the body’s other cells utilize vitamin C, and not performing the study with high doses of the vitamin, particularly in light of the abundance of clinical evidence showing its effectiveness.

Benefits and Sources of Vitamin C

Any large-scale studies may be a long time in coming in regard to the effectiveness of vitamin C in treating and preventing disease, as it is not profitable for the pharmaceutical companies. Vitamin C can be found in abundance in a wide range of vegetables and fruits and is cheap to produce. It has been shown to boost the production of antibodies and white blood cells and to increase levels of interferon, which is a protein made by cells to protect them against an invasion by pathogens. Its antioxidant activity helps to keep cells strong so as to better defend against disease.

For those who are interested in discovering the benefits of vitamin C for themselves, it is found in greatest amounts in citrus (such as oranges, grapefruit and lemons), bell peppers (particularly red and green peppers), broccoli, strawberries and green leafy vegetables such as spinach, collard greens and Swiss chard. Supplements are also widely available in tablets, capsules or liquid form, and it is best to take 250-500 mg of vitamin C with meals twice a day rather than taking the daily dose at once so as to retain the maximum benefits.

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