The belief that vitamin C helps with colds and boosts the immune system is so prevalent that probably everybody reading this, including me, has taken a vitamin C tablet in their life.
Scurvy is a disease that most people associate with sailors losing teeth from their bleeding gums and is caused by a lack of vitamin C. In 1752 a Scottish surgeon called James Lind discovered that scurvy could be treated by giving the patient citrus fruits to eat. We now know this is because citrus fruits, along with most fruits and vegetables, contain vitamin C.
Vitamins are substances we need to survive and are found in trace amounts in the food we eat. Vitamin deficiency can lead to diseases such as rickets and pellagra, but these are very rare in New Zealand where most people are far from malnourished. Unfortunately, instead of people eating the right foods to gain sufficient vitamins, people started considering vitamins as something they need to take as a health supplement.
Linus Pauling was a brilliant American chemist who won Nobel prizes in both science and peace. Unfortunately his giant brain went a little doolally in his old age and he teamed up with “Doctor” (term used loosely) Irwin Stone who told Pauling that he could live another 30 years if he took 3000mg of vitamin C every day. In 1971, Pauling wrote a book called Vitamin C and the Common Cold and it sold like crazy. He believed that taking massive doses of vitamin C could both cure a cold and prevent you from getting it in the first place. Stone took it a step further. He added that vitamin C could cure cancer. In response to this, vitamin C sales went ballistic, and it continues to be by far the most popular vitamin supplement on the market.
There are around 2000 published studies a year on the effects of vitamin C on the human body. The vast majority of these studies show that taking large amounts of vitamin C is at best pointless, and at worst dangerous. Since our bodies cannot store it, most excess vitamin C you ingest will be excreted in your urine. One large study on cancer patients in 1996 had to be stopped because the group taking masses of vitamins was dying out rapidly. Believing you need to take masses of vitamin C all the time is like thinking you should take masses of aspirin all the time simply because aspirin is good for headaches …