In the 70s, vitamin C was considered a cure-all, and a new report has finally found evidence to back this up
Fact or myth — can taking vitamin C really help to prevent the common cold or lessen its duration?
I learned a lot of interesting stuff from my patients in my years as a free clinic doctor. Surprisingly, I can still remember a few of those lessons, even a few that I can admit to publicly, although not the best ones, of course. Hey, it was the 1970s, right?
The Miracle Vitamin?
Anyway, the ’70s were when then-famous double-Nobel Prize-winning Dr. Linus Pauling came out with his much-hyped belief that huge doses of vitamin C taken on a regular basis can prevent nearly everything imaginable, especially viral infections.
So, since many of my free-clinic clientele considered vitamin C to be a “natural” therapy, many of them also “naturally” began to consume tons of vitamin C. Despite every doctor they ran into (including me) assuring them that this strategy was nothing but nonsense, many of them swore that it worked—that vitamin C not only helped prevent them from getting a cold, but that it also shortened the duration of any cold they did get.
Although I’m a natural-born skeptic, my patients eventually won me over and sometime in the mid-1970s, I also began taking high doses of vitamin C whenever I think I’m getting sick. I’ve become convinced that the tactic lessens the number of colds I get and shortens the duration of any respiratory viral infection I do happen to come down with — even though, as a dedicated follower of evidence-based medicine, I admit that I’ve never seen even one good study to back that belief.
Quite the contrary, in fact. Every relevant study that I have seen over the years has concluded that vitamin C does nothing for anyone with a cold or the flu.
Pros and Cons of Vitamin C
Until now, that is, because in a recent report, researchers claim to have found five small studies where, for people under great stress, vitamin C can “halve” the frequency of colds and shorten their duration as well. That doesn’t mean, however, that everyone should jump on this bandwagon as soon as they feel a sniffle.
- First, of course, these studies were done in people under great stress, so the results don’t necessarily apply to people under normal stress. (No one is under “no stress,” of course, at least no one who is still breathing.)
- Second, the studies did not determine what dose of vitamin C works best, nor when to take it, nor how often to take it.
- Third, there are known downsides to vitamin C use, including a recent study that linked higher doses of vitamin C with a raised risk of kidney stones. Trust me, you’d much rather get a cold than a kidney stone.
That said, for some people, this still might be a strategy worth considering.
Dr. Art Hister is a medical writer and health analyst for Global TV.