The Cure-All Health Supplement?

How important is Vitamin C for our health?

You probably remember that olden-day sailors suffered from a disease called scurvy unless they took enough fruit and vegetables on their long voyages. They didn’t know why it worked, but today we do. The “miracle ingredient” was Vitamin C (or ascorbic acid, to give it its scientific name).

Closer to our own times, double Nobel prize winner Dr Linus Pauling found that when he took extra Vitamin C he caught colds less often, and the colds that he did catch were less severe and of shorter duration.

More recently still, in his book Vitamin C, Infectious Diseases, & Toxins: Curing the Incurable, Dr Thomas E Levy cites research to support his belief that many ailments can be prevented, alleviated, and in many cases even reversed and cured by a sufficient intake of Vitamin C.

'Sufficient' is more than we think!

Our bodies can’t make this vitamin for themselves - we have to ingest it through what we eat and drink. Modern research is finding that we need quite a lot more than people used to think, and more than our normal diet can provide – hence the need to supplement.

Some health scientists think that synthetic ascorbic acid, made up quite cheaply in laboratories, works well enough. However, there are good reasons to believe that it is better to take natural Vitamin C that has been extracted from fruits and vegetables.

What does Vitamin C do?

There are two sides to this: how Vitamin C contributes to our growth and development, and how it protects us from health problems and aids our recovery when we do fall ill.

Growth and Development

Our bodies use this Vitamin in making collagen. This is an important component of blood vessels, tendons, ligaments, and bone.

It also helps in making one of the neurotransmitters that are critical to brain function and are known to affect mood.

Vitamin C is also required for making carnitine, which is essential for converting fat to energy.

Protection and recovery

Most of us know about protection from colds, and we have already mention Linus Pauling’s experience. Some people have disputed his findings, but several scientific studies have confirmed them.

Vitamin C is also a very effective antioxidant. It protects our cells and tissues from the damage caused by the waste products of the oxygen that we breathe. (Just as a motor car engine burns a mixture of fuel and oxygen and produces poisonous exhaust gases, so our bodies “burn” oxygen and produce damaging waste called “free radicals”.)

This vitamin also protects us from pollutants and toxins in the environment.

This protection covers all our cells and therefore it improves our resistance to just about every type of disease. It is particularly important for warding off degenerative diseases like cancer and cardiovascular disease.

It has also been found that Vitamin C helps in the conversion of cholesterol to bile, and probably helps to reduce damaging cholesterol levels in the blood.

Actually, the list of problems that this "cure-all" vitamin can help with is long:

- most forms of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, heart disease and stroke

- cancers such as those of the mouth, throat, vocal chords, esophagus, lung, pancreas, stomach, colon and rectum, and possibly breast

- thyroid disease

- liver problems

- lung problems

- asthma

- depression

- acne

- diabetes

- aging (and Alzheimer’s)

- gallstones

- cataracts and macular degeneration

- most viral infections (including HIV)

In fact, Dr Levy reckons that Vitamin C is crucial to maintaining a healthy balance in our bodies at all times and, with very rare exceptions, should be part of the treatment of virtually any disease state.

Why must we take it in our diet?

Rather strangely for such an important nutrient, the human body cannot make Vitamin C for itself. Most animals can synthesise it internally, but we – along with other primates, guinea pigs, fruit bats and red-vented bulbuls (curious company for us human beings!) – can’t do this. We have to ingest it through what we eat and drink.

How much should we take?

If we look at the mammals that do synthesise their own Vitamin C, we see that relative to their body mass they produce quite a lot. It seems logical that we should be taking in equivalent amounts.

Recommendations vary widely, from the Recommended Daily Allowance (the RDA) – which is really the absolute minimum that keeps you from falling clinically ill with scurvy – to the optimal amount that will keep your system in balance and functioning really well.

The RDA has been increased over the years, and now stands at 90mg daily for men and 75mg for women (upped by 35mg each for people who smoke). But remember, this is the absolute minimum needed to keep you just above the clinical deficiency level.

According to the Linus Pauling Institute, the optimal amount to maintain good health in normally healthy non-smokers is 400mg for both men and women. Other researchers have recommended 500 mg a day, and we reckon that this is probably the best advice to take.

But can you overdose? Not really. There is a simple test called the “bowel tolerance” test. If you start having “tummy trouble”, you should ease off.

Where do we get it?

Here are some figures for popular foodstuffs from the Linus Pauling Institute.

1 medium orange gives you 70mg of Vitamin C;

half a medium grapefruit provides 44mg;

3/4 of a cup of orange juice gives you 75mg;

a cup strawberries gives you 82mg;

a medium tomato gives 23mg;

a medium sized baked potato gives 26mg;

half a cup of cooked broccoli gives you 68mg,

and here's a good one:

half a cup of raw chopped sweet red pepper gives you 141mg!

You can see that you need to eat a lot of these things to get up to 400 or 500 milligrams a day – 6 or 7 oranges, 16 or more potatoes, about 4 cups of broccoli!

More seriously, the Linus Pauling Institute reckons that "consuming at least five servings (2½ cups) of fruits and vegetables daily may provide about 200 mg of vitamin C".

The sums are quite simple: even if you consciously plan a diet that is rich in Vitamin C, you are probably getting about half of what scientists recommend for really good health.

And when you plan your diet, don’t forget that with many foods that were traditionally rich in this vitamin (like oranges), modern production and storage methods (such as chemical fertilizers, early harvesting and cold storage) actually reduce the nutritional content.

So do we need to take supplements?

Let’s sum this up.

- Vitamin C is really good for us in many ways;

- Our bodies can’t make it – we have to get it through what we eat and drink;

- Our regular diet probably supplies about half (or even less) of what we need for optimal health.

So the answer is YES! To get all that we need we really ought to take supplements.

What kind of supplements?

As we said earlier, some health scientists reckon that ascorbic acid produced artificially in a laboratory works adequately as a Vitamin C supplement. Maybe, maybe not.

This is a good moment to point out that supplements are not drugs or medicines. When we take a supplement, all we are doing is taking a little bit more of a nutritional substance that is in our normal diet. (OK, so there are companies that make “supplements” out of substances that are not in our normal diet, like pine bark. We would never recommend taking those.)

So is synthetic ascorbic acid good enough?

When you think about it, science is constantly making new discoveries. Today’s scientists know much more than those of a generation ago, and the next generation will discover a whole lot more.

When scientists make something in the laboratory, they put in only the things they know about. But when a supplement is made up of naturally-occurring foodstuffs, it will contain everything that nature itself has put there, whether the scientists know about it or not.

Although experts differ, there is evidence that naturally-occurring Vitamin C contains bioflavonoids which make it more effective than synthesised ascorbic acid.

The bottom line: To C or not to C?

There really is no argument here: Vitamin C is essential for our health, we don’t get enough in our regular diet, and so we really need to take supplements. The only questions are “how much?” and “what sort?”

Our recommendation is this: 400 to 500 mg a day of naturally-occurring Vitamin C extracted from fruit and vegetables that are part of our normal diet.

(When a cold seems to be coming, step this up to at least 3000 mg a day and add zinc to head it off – the bowel tolerance test will show if this is too much.)

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