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Published on 30 April 2014

Vitamin C: What Are the Benefits? And How Much is Too Much?

by Don V. Richards

Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is a nutrient that has a multiplicity of health benefits. First of all, it is absolutely necessary for the proper functioning of the human body - actually, for life itself: Without sufficient Vitamin C, you'd die. Vitamin C is also necessary for collagen production and therefore for healthy skin. Vitamin C is known to boost the human immune system. This necessary nutrient can also help our bodies fight off the common cold - according to the most recent studies it can't reduce its incidence or severity, but it can cut its duration.

Vitamin C deficiency results in the disease scurvy, which can make you look pale, with spots on your skin and bleeding mucous membranes, while it makes you feel depressed and immobilized. Before scientists understood this nutrient, sailors and others who ate only preserved meats and grains - which don't contain Vitamin C - aboard ship would often suffer from scurvy. Scurvy symptoms can show up among us modern folks too, if we make very poor dietary choices. Scurvy, if left untreated, is always fatal. But death from scurvy is rare, because all that you need to do to be cured is to resume consuming a healthy amount of Vitamin C.

Vitamin C is also one of the most powerful antioxidants available. Cell oxidization, which results in the breakdown of cell structures within your body, is a result of the interaction of your cells with oxygen and highly reactive substances called free radicals - and this breakdown is a major cause of the signs of aging. Some oxidation is necessary as a part of the process of life. But, unchecked, oxidization can set off a chain reaction that can lead to dysfunction, malformation, and death of cells on a massive scale. Vitamin C, being an antioxidant, helps stop this chain reaction in its tracks. In fact, Vitamin C is such a powerful antioxidant, it is sometimes used a food additive specifically to prevent oxidization.

Vitamin C is one of the few substances that has been found to be helpful (though only modestly so) in fighting the common cold. Vitamin C has also been found to have a mood-elevating effect. In a study of hospital patients, who often have chronically low Vitamin C levels, were found to have noticeably improved moods after taking Vitamin C supplements. Considering that one of the early symptoms of Vitamin C deficiency (ultimately leading to scurvy) is depression, that's not surprising.

If you're smoker, you really ought to stop that health-destroying habit. But, until you do, it's important to know that smokers with higher amounts of Vitamin C in their blood are somewhat less prone to contract lung disease from smoking.

Many animals can synthesize their own Vitamin C from within their bodies, but humans and other higher primates, along with a few other animals like bats and guinea pigs, cannot do so. So we and they must obtain this essential nutrient in our diets, either by eating foods rich in Vitamin C or by taking supplements. The process of pasteurization - often used in milk and infant formula - destroys the chemical structure of Vitamin C, by the way, so infants can actually sometimes suffer from scurvy and in some cases supplementation is required. Breast milk contains sufficient Vitamin C, though. Baby formulas often are enriched with Vitamin C after the pasteurization process, but heat and long storage can also destroy the nutrient, so pay attention to expiration dates and storage practices.

The human body can store only a limited amount of Vitamin C, and any excess consumed is flushed out of the body - so for maximum health benefit, our intake of this nutrient must be on a regular basis. There is some controversy over what constitutes a healthy dose of Vitamin C, and we'll be discussing that controversy in detail, so read on.

Life extension and natural health advocates emphasize that when we get enough of this essential vitamin, we detoxify our bodies, prevent disease, and strengthen the immune system (which helps us better deal with stress). In all this they are in agreement with the medical establishment. Where they differ is in their opinion of just how much Vitamin C we should consume daily. Life extensionists say that the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of 90 mg of Vitamin C is too low. That, they say, is enough to prevent scurvy but not enough to reap other significant benefits. These health advocates point out that other animals - guinea pigs and the higher primates like apes and chimpanzees - which, like humans, do not synthesize their own Vitamin C, generally consume 20 to 80 times the RDA amount of Vitamin C every day when adjusted for body weight. The great apes, similar to us in so many ways, usually consume 2,000 to 6,000 mg per day under normal circumstances.

One health advocacy group, the Vitamin C Foundation, states that while the amount of Vitamin C we need will vary based on our age, stress level, diet, exposure to environmental toxins, and overall health, their general recommendation is 1,000 to 4,000 mg per day for a healthy person. They say a person with any significant disease will need much more. Compare that to the Mayo Clinic's recommendation of just barely meeting the Recommended Daily Allowance of 90 mg daily as a minimum, and never exceeding 2,000 mg per day. (Assuming that you're healthy, neither the Vitamin C Foundation nor the Mayo Clinic would object to 1,000 to 2,000 mg per day, though - and that's what I take, in case any of my readers are curious.)

Here's a summary of some of the benefits of Vitamin C in recent scientific studies according to the Vitamin C Foundation:

Sedentary overweight men and women who started to take a 500 mg dose of Vitamin C supplement daily experienced an average of a 13-pound weight loss.

Young adults who began supplementation of Vitamin C at 250 mg and then gradually increased their intake in steps until plateauing at 2,000 mg daily experienced a 60 to 90 per cent reduction in oxidative stress, measured in just ten weeks.

Fully 82 per cent of Americans consume low or just marginally adequate amounts of Vitamin C in their diets - enough to prevent scurvy perhaps, but little more.

An intake of 2000 mg per day of Vitamin C increases the effectiveness of a certain kind of white blood cells - known as neutrophils - to locate and kill (in a process called chemotaxis) disease-carrying germs and even free-floating cancer cells.

One study claims that oral Vitamin C when taken in divided high doses can cause blood concentrations (over 73.8 micromole per liter) which have been shown to reduce the risk of mortality from cancer by 57 per cent and for all causes of death taken together by 62 per cent.

Nobel Prize-winning scientist Linus Pauling was a strong advocate for high daily doses of Vitamin C as a health-boosting regimen, something which he practiced himself - and Pauling lived to the age of 93. Pauling's claims are controversial and have often been dismissed or minimized by the medical establishment. But some of Linus Pauling's critics have changed their positions recently.

Pauling stated that very high doses of the vitamin overcame the fragile half life decay problem of the nutrient. He also advocated Vitamin C in very high doses as a treatment for cancer, and some scientists who initially dismissed his claims are now saying that the idea deserves further investigation. Pauling (along with Canadian scientist G.C. Willis) also stated that Vitamin C was beneficial for those suffering from arthritis, since chronic low levels of the nutrient were a probable cause of the disease.

Linus Pauling's advocacy of Vitamin C megadoses - particularly his promotion of high intravenous doses of C for cancer - proved to be highly controversial. Pauling himself took 3,000 mg of Vitamin C every day. Pauling - one of very few double Nobel Prize winners - almost single handedly popularized Vitamin C in the 1960s and 1970s. Pauling published studies showing a dramatic increase in survival for cancer patients receiving very high intravenous doses of the vitamin. Critics of Pauling, including the Mayo Clinic, asserted that his studies were flawed and stated that the body excreted excess C anyway, rendering Pauling's claims impossible. They published their own studies claiming that Vitamin C didn't significantly benefit cancer patients - they even called him a quack. Pauling called these studies examples of "fraud and deliberate misrepresentation, pointing out that oral, not intravenous Vitamin C was used, and that some of the control group also received the vitamin, along with other discrepancies. The battle was very acrimonious, and, for a time, the study of Vitamin C in relation to cancer was largely dropped. But some scientists - notably those quoted in a 2009 review of the controversy in the journal Anticancer Research - now say that Linus's critics spoke too soon and further investigation is called for.

So how much is too much Vitamin C? Since it is water-soluble, excess Vitamin C beyond that which the body can absorb is not stored and is simply flushed out in the urine - so C has remarkably low toxicity. A study in 1936 showed that a small but significant number of subjects started to show adverse symptoms when they were given 6,000 mg per day of the nutrient: Among adults and children, these symptoms included disturbed sleep, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, flushing of the face, headache, and fatigue. Among infants, the main symptom observed was skin rashes. As I mentioned before, the Mayo Clinic recommends an upper limit of 2,000 mg per day of Vitamin C supplements.

Vitamin C is best taken as a component of the foods we eat as part of a healthy, natural diet. Some foods that are high in Vitamin C include citrus fruits, parsley, kiwifruit, chili peppers, red peppers, and broccoli - in fact, most common produce contains some level of Vitamin C. Some less common but potent sources include acerola cherries, camu camu fruit, and rose hips. But be aware that Vitamin C is relatively fragile, and cooking and even cutting and storage can destroy some or all of this vital nutrient. Fresh is best!

As a result of C's fragility in food, many of us rely on supplements to get the amount of Vitamin C we need. Natural Vitamin C complexes, derived directly from food sources, are said to be far more potent than the cheaper, synthesized form of the vitamin. However, they are also more expensive - and immunology expert Melissa Makris says that mineral-derived Vitamin C is also effective, while being less costly. She recommends avoiding Vitamin C synthesized from corn, however, because the corn used these days is almost invariably a GMO (genetically modified) variety.


Mayo Clinic Online, Nutrition and Healthy Eating, Is vitamin C good for more than fighting colds?, http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/benefits-vitamin-c/faq-20058271 , accessed April 29, 2014

Makris, Melissa, Natural News, Health and Scientific Discoveries, The health benefits of vitamin C go well beyond a stronger immune system, http://www.naturalnews.com/032027_vitamin_C_immune_system.html , accessed April 29, 2014

Journal of Nutrition, volume 137, page 1757, 2007

Journal of the American College of Nutrition, volume 20: page 623, 2001

European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, volume 54: page 573, 2000

Journal of the American College of Nutrition, volume 11, page 172, 1992

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, volume 72: page 139, 2000

Rivers, J.M. (1987), "Safety of high-level vitamin C ingestion," Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 498: 445-54

Michels, A. and Frei, B (2012). "Vitamin C," In Caudill M.A., Rogers M., Biochemical, Physiological, and Molecular Aspects of Human Nutrition (3 ed.), Philadelphia: Saunders, pp. 627-654

Packer, L. (1997), "Vitamin C and redox cycling antioxidants," In Fuchs J., Packer L., Vitamin C in health and disease, New York: M. Dekker

"Linus Pauling Vindicated; Researchers Claim RDA For vitamin C is Flawed" (Press release), Knowledge of Health, July 6, 2004; http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/linus-pauling-vindicated-researchers-claim-rda-for-vitamin-c-is-flawed-71172707.html , accessed March, 17 2014.

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