Vitamin C, scurvy, James Lind, Treatise on Scurvy, Casimir Funk, vitamins, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, viral illness, cataracts, kidney stones, bowel tolerance, glaucoma

Vitamin C: Still Needed After All These Years

Vitamin C: Still Needed After All These Years

© 2006 Wellness Clubs of

General acceptance of life-saving nutritional information occurs very slowly if it occurs at all. It is astounding that the body’s need for supplemental vitamin C is still being questioned nearly 500 years after the first record of its use in the Western Hemisphere.

For centuries, one of the most dreaded hazards of prolonged sea voyages was scurvy. Over half of a ships crew could be expected to die of the illness before returning to port, and in some cases, the entire crew succumbed to the disease.

Scurvy hit the crew of St. Lawrence River explorer Jacques Cartier in the winter of 1536. Twenty-five died before an Indian discovered their plight and showed them how to brew a tea from the needles and bark of a local tree that quickly reversed the symptoms and saved the lives of the remaining crewmen. Cartier recorded the event in his log, but it received little attention upon his safe return to Europe, and sailors continued to die of scurvy at alarming rates.

It was over two hundred years later, in 1753, that Scottish physician James Lind wrote his historic Treatise on Scurvy in which he described the beneficial effects of citrus fruits in treating the disease. Between 1768 and 1780 Captain James Cook made three successful voyages to the South Pacific without losing a single crew member to scurvy. Cook relied upon sauerkraut, which is rich in vitamin C, and fresh produce from his ports of call to protect his men. Other sailors of the time were not so fortunate.

It was not until 1795 that the British Admiralty ordered that a daily ration of fresh lime juice be given to sailors on naval vessels. Lest they be criticized for their forty year delay, it must be noted that scurvy continued to ravish civilian sailors for an additional seventy years. Concerned about the cost of fresh citrus juices, the Board of Trade did not require rations for crews of the merchant marine until 1865.

It was not until 1911 that a Polish biochemist, Casimir Funk, presented his theory of vitamines – vita from the Latin word for life and amines from the chemical term for molecules containing nitrogen. Funk postulated that substances contained within foods were capable of protecting against diseases such as scurvy, beri-beri, pellagra, and rickets. When it was later found that not all of these compounds contain nitrogen the name was shortened to vitamin.

It was in 1928 that a Hungarian-born chemist, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, isolated vitamin C while working at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Szent-Gyorgyi later received the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for his work on oxidation and vitamin C.

In 1966, Linus Pauling, a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry became interested in the untapped potential of vitamins, particularly vitamin C. Dr. Pauling, in his book, How to Live Longer and Feel Better, described his experience in the following manner:

“I discovered that the science of nutrition had stopped developing. The old professors of nutrition . . . ignored the new discoveries that were being made in biochemistry, molecular biology, and medicine, including vitamins and other nutrients . . . these old professors of nutrition continued to teach their students the old ideas, many of them wrong, such as that no person in ordinary health needs to take supplementary vitamins and that all that you need to do for good nutrition is to eat some of each of the “four foods” each day.

As a result of this poor teaching, many nutritionists and dieticians today still practice the old nutrition, with the result that the American people are not as healthy as they should be. Physicians also contribute to this problem. Most of them have received only as small amount of instruction of nutrition (most of it, of course, out of date) in medical school, and since then have been kept so busy in the care of their patients as not to have time to follow the new developments about vitamins and other nutrients.”

Little, if anything, has changed in the nearly twenty years since Linus Pauling penned those words. The old school nutritionists, like the British Board of Trade, stubbornly refuse to accept that nutritional supplements are worthwhile. As public acceptance of nutritional supplementation has risen they have become even more firm in their resolve that all one need do to stay healthy is follow the latest “Food Pyramid”. In recent years they have abandoned their defensive strategy and gone on offense, devising and publishing studies designed to show that nutritional supplements are not only ineffective, but dangerous.

Their most recent attack is a University of Minnesota study titled, Does supplemental vitamin C increase cardiovascular disease risk in women with diabetes?, which was published in the November 1, 2004, issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The authors state that their objective in doing the study was to demonstrate that, “a high intake of vitamin C in diabetic persons might promote atherosclerosis.” Their conclusion at the end of the study, not surprisingly, reflected their aim, “A high vitamin C intake from supplements is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease mortality in postmenopausal women with diabetes.”

The study received widespread coverage from willing accomplices in the news media, unlike a landmark study in the April 6, 2004, issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, which demonstrated that the currently recommended daily allowance of vitamin C is woefully low. The April study, which received no press coverage, reveals a significant reason why the November study, which made headlines, is fatally flawed and meaningless.

Old school nutritionists maintain that blood levels accurately reflect the body’s need for vitamin C (most of the body’s supply of vitamin C is working in cells and tissues, not circulating in the bloodstream) and that the maximum blood level of vitamin C is obtained by ingesting 200 mg., the amount contained in five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. To validate their position they point to a study recorded in the April 16, 1994, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study, however, was carefully designed to support their position.

Vitamin C passes through the body very quickly. Its half-life, the amount of time required for 50 % of the substance present to break down, is only 30 minutes. The researchers who conducted the National Academy of Sciences study, however, waited 12 hours, or 24 half-lives, after vitamin C was administered to measure its level in the blood!

The April, 2004, study found that cancer patients taking 3,000 mg. of vitamin C every 4 hours achieved a blood level of 220 micromol/L. That is three times the maximum blood level claimed by traditional nutritionists, a fact that brings us back to the “Vitamin C causes cardiovascular disease” report.

Based on the assumption that maximum blood levels are achieved at intakes of vitamin C in the 200 mg. per day range, the University of Minnesota researchers defined a daily intake of 300 mg. as “high-dose” vitamin C consumption. Since numerous studies have shown that the amount of vitamin C needed to protect against oxidative damage is in the 2,000 to 3,000 mg. range, the study was designed to fail from its inception.

Other glaring defects are present in the study. The researchers did not control for the severity of disease. In other words, they did not determine whether those taking higher amounts of vitamin C were experiencing complications of their diabetes or other health challenges. Any person who works with people nutritionally knows from experience that most turn to nutritional supplementation only when their condition has deteriorated. The study authors acknowledge in their comments, “there is a possibility that patients with more severe diabetes tend to consume more supplemental vitamin C.”

If it is true, and I believe it is, that those taking more supplemental vitamin C had more severe diabetes, they would have been expected to have more atherosclerosis on the basis of their disease regardless of their vitamin C intake. To blame administration of vitamin C for the presence of atherosclerosis in people with severe diabetes is as logical as blaming the use of windshield wipers for the greater incidence of accidents on slick roads.

If the University of Minnesota vitamin C study is seriously flawed, what can the thousands of other studies tell us about the benefits and risks of vitamin C? Medical studies are, by their very nature, inconclusive, but the evidence that vitamin C is extremely safe and effective in a wide range of health challenges is overwhelming.

Studies published before and after the release of Vitamin C and the Common Cold in 1976 confirm the effectiveness of vitamin C in preventing and fighting viral illnesses. Benefit has been shown in such diverse infections as hepatitis, polio, herpes simplex (fever blisters), herpes zoster (shingles), infectious mononucleosis, measles, chicken pox, mumps, influenza, viral pneumonia, and viral encephalitis.

Vitamin C administration has been shown to be of tremendous benefit in slowing the progression of cancer. Improved quality of life and prolonged survival have been found to occur even in cases of terminal cancer in which no standard medical treatment was available. Much of this research is reviewed in the book Cancer and Vitamin C by Ewan Cameron and Linus Pauling.

Vitamin C plays a key role in the prevention of atherosclerosis, primarily by recycling vitamin E in the body. Vitamin E, a fat-soluble vitamin, remains in the body for extended periods of time. When it donates an electron to neutralize a damaging free radical, however, vitamin E itself becomes a free radical. Vitamin C donates an electron to these depleted vitamin E molecules and is then quickly washed out of the body.

Individuals with hay fever and asthma have been shown to have low levels of antioxidant nutrients in their respiratory tracts. Vitamin C administration will bring about improvement in up to 75 percent of cases of asthma or nasal allergy.

Cataract operations are one of the most commonly performed procedures in the United States. This is tragic, since the administration of 1000 mg. of vitamin C daily was originally shown to prevent cataracts in 1939. Glaucoma, a cause of blindness, is often brought under control with 3,000 to 5,000 mg. of vitamin C daily.

Vitamin C has been demonstrated to be helpful in preventing all types of kidney stones, yet many physicians continue to point to vitamin C as a cause of kidney stones. The study upon which this erroneous advice is based was shown to be in error, with the cause of kidney stones being not an increased level of vitamin C but a vitamin B6 deficiency.

Vitamin C has also been shown to help prevent urinary tract infections, gallstones, stomach ulcers, & hypoglycemia. It is essential to proper wound healing, and can even help people with gangrene avoid an amputation.

The amount of vitamin C needed for optimum health varies widely, depending upon an individual’s circumstances. Therefore, the optimum intake of vitamin C is best determined by determining “bowel tolerance”.

When the body takes in more vitamin C than it can utilize it allows the rest to pass through without being absorbed. This causes stools to fragment or become loose. When vitamin C is being taken to support the body’s ability to respond to a challenge it should be increased to the point that stool fragmentation occurs and then decreased slightly to allow the stools to reform. When using amounts in excess of 2,000 or 3,000 mg. daily it is best to use non-acidic ascorbate forms.

Acute scurvy is rare in our society. Chronic scurvy, however, is epidemic. The alarming incidence of diseases that have been shown to be preventable with optimum vitamin C intake is a constant reminder that we as a society have yet to learn the lessons of the past. Supplemental vitamin C is still needed after all these years!

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