Sending Out An S.O.S.: Do You Turn to Vitamin C In A Cold & Flu Emergency?

You're sniffling and sneezing, so naturally, you reach for your trusty vitamin C supplement or a good, old-fashioned glass of orange juice. It's common knowledge that vitamin C helps with colds...or is it?

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Since the 1970s, vitamin C has been touted as a remedy for the common cold, but recent research may be calling that into question. Is popping a pill or knocking back a shot of juice enough to keep you fit this cold and flu season, or is it just another marketing flop?

First, a little background on vitamin C. It’s a compound found in citrus fruits, red and green peppers, kiwifruit, broccoli, strawberries, cantaloupe, potatoes, tomatoes: basically a lot of fruits and veggies. Since it’s in so many fresh foods, it became a big deal back in the day, when sailors would go weeks on a ship without access to fruits and vegetables. They became vitamin C deficient and developed scurvy. Most people, though, get at least enough vitamin C to avoid this not-fun, fatal disease.

Vitamin C is water-soluble and acts as an antioxidant, preventing cell damage from free radicals, which come from exposure to cigarette smoke, pollution, U.V. light from the sun, and even basic bodily processes. Vitamin C is also important for wound healing, iron absorption, and immune function.

Immune function! That’s the one we want to focus on.

THE PROS

– Taking vitamin C every day may help you get over a cold a bit faster; this effect is more pronounced in children.

– Some individual (and admittedly pretty old) studies show some relief of symptoms.

– If you are vitamin C insufficient or deficient, supplementing may work to improve immune function. It may also work for anyone undergoing serious physical stress, such as endurance athletes.

– Water-soluble vitamins have very low risk of toxicity because they tend not to be stored in the body. If you consume more than you need, your body gets rid of the excess through urination.

THE CONS

– Although daily vitamin C supplementation may help you get over your cold a day or two faster (see above), there’s no evidence that it can help prevent the cold in the first place. It also won’t shorten its duration if you wait until the symptoms arise to start supplementing.

– Paying for and taking a vitamin every single day in the hopes that it will help you get over a cold one day sooner does not seem like the most cost-effective strategy. Plus, the supplement industry is super sleazy and it can be difficult to find a brand to trust.

– Anecdotally (and also scientifically), when I worked in a hospital, I saw a patient who regularly took very high doses of vitamin C. Whenever he stopped, he experienced symptoms of deficiency; not because he was actually deficient, but because his body essentially developed a high tolerance to the vitamin and felt withdrawal symptoms without the mega-dose supplement.

– Vitamin C may not be toxic in large doses, but it can cause nausea, diarrhea, or kidney stones. It’s always a good idea to check with your doctor before starting to supplement, and make sure they have an updated list of everything you take.

THE BOTTOM LINE: FIT OR FLOP?

FLOP! Nearly all researchers agree, there really is no strong evidence to show that vitamin C supplements do anything significant in preventing or treating the common cold. As the Cleveland Clinic so accurately points out, you can’t expect to eat one grapefruit one time and get a burst of immune protection.

When I changed my diet around and started eating more healthfully, I did absolutely stop getting colds as frequently. There is no doubt that filling your diet with fruits and vegetables can have a tremendous impact on your health, including your immune system. These foods are chock-full of vitamins and minerals that are vital for your body performing at its best, but you only get the benefits from a whole lifestyle shift. Once again, there may be truth behind the health myth, but the truth is that there are no short cuts to health. Isolating a single nutrient and stuffing it into a capsule is not the same as eating the original, whole food source of that nutrient. We have to fuel our body with nutritious foods all year-long if we want to reap the rewards.

So what’s the real bottom line? Forget the pills. Eat your broccoli (and oranges, and peppers, and leafy greens). Your mom was right: it really is good for you.

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