Gluten-free. Low carbs. Vitamin supplements. While some of these habits have demonstrable benefits, some seem a little…weird. For instance, what would you say if I told you eating fifty-one bananas a day was the key to healthy living? Many people swear by obscure diets and practices without researching what they actually do. Let’s examine a common one: vitamin C’s ability to cure the common cold.
In 1970 famed chemist Linus Pauling published Vitamin C and the Common Cold, the culmination of his studies on vitamin C. Pauling advocated high intake of the vitamin to prevent the common cold, and in the following years championed oral and intravenous doses to increase the longevity of terminally ill cancer patients. According to his trials, vitamin C intake extended the patients’ survival as much as four times.
Pauling’s reputation as the recipient of two Nobel Prizes popularized his findings, and his use of vitamin C to combat the common cold spread across the country. In the eyes of many, however, something about his claims did not add up. Reviews of his research claimed to find experimental flaws, and a replicant study by the Mayo Clinic found no difference between high doses of vitamin C and placebos for treating cancer patients. Though Pauling vehemently denounced the reports, the medical community labeled his use of vitamin C to combat cancer and the common cold as quackery.
Many studies have since investigated Pauling’s claims about the common cold, but none have found conclusive evidence to support them. Most doctors say that while vitamin C is essential for a healthy immune system, using it while sick does not expedite recovery. A balanced, healthy diet is recommended to most patients.
More recently, researchers have begun to question the safety of high-dose vitamin supplements. According to Paul Offit, a pediatrician and infectious diseases researcher at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, non-prescribed supplements offer little to no benefit and a litany of health problems. In his 2013 book Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine, Offit uses decades of clinical research to denounce the consumption of megavitamins (supplements with hundreds to thousands of times the daily recommendation) and the alternative medicine industry as a whole. Though Offit—a former member of the CDC’s advisory panel and co-creator of a rotavirus vaccine—opposes the use of megavitamins, his book does not implicate vitamin C specifically.
Clearly, vitamin C does not kill the common cold. In fact, in a 2013 article in The Atlantic, Offit described Pauling’s early work as “so spectacularly right that he won two Nobel Prizes” and his later career as “so spectacularly wrong that he was arguably the world’s greatest quack.” While high doses of vitamin C has not been linked to any health defects, megavitamins are best avoided. A healthy diet and time are the best cures for the common cold.
So what do you think? Do you eat oranges or take vitamin C supplements when you’re feeling sick? Do you think it has worked? Share your thoughts in the comments below. As always, check me out on Twitter and Facebook, where I talk about science and food and Pokemon. Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to subscribe for new content every Wednesday. IT’S FREE!
Comment question of the week
Do you use vitamin C to fight the common cold? Has it worked?
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