The surprising truth about Vitamin C

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A few weeks ago I was unknowingly coming down with the flu. But I knew something was off so I dragged myself to the nearest grocery store to pick up some preventative care. In a cart packed with cough drops, broth, and cold pressed juice, my eye caught a bright orange package on the top shelf. It read “Airborne Immune Support Supplement”.

Normally I would have mindlessly tossed this into my cart of potential elixirs.

Instead, I hesitated. This thought had never really crossed my mind: What is Vitamain C exactly?

Is it the immune-boosting super supplement our parents told us to take once they caught wind of a cold or nothing more than a cleverly marketed placebo?

Once upon a time, vitamin C was an essential nutrient found in various foods or sold as a dietary supplement. It paired nicely with a hot cup of lemon tea on days we were feeling a little under the weather.

Today vitamin C has found itself in an array of different products targeted at health-conscious consumers. From serums and lipsticks to gummies and dissolvable tablets, we are praising vitamin C for its “age-defying abilities” and “skin brightening prowess” among other things.

The only problem is, most people don’t know the whole truth about vitamin C’s effectiveness.

Breaking Down Vitamin C And Its Health Benefits

According to the National Institutes of Health, vitamin C (or ascorbic acid) is a water-soluble nutrient found in some foods. It acts as an antioxidant and protects our bodies from the damage of free radicals like air pollution or smoke. Vitamin C also assists the body in creating collagen and improves our body’s absorption of iron from plant-based foods.

While vitamin C has some scientifically backed benefits, there are also common unfounded claims that have been widely accepted by the general public.

According to Celeste Robb-Nicholson, M.D. Former Editor in Chief, Harvard Women’s Health Watch,

“Many people take vitamin C supplements in unnecessarily high doses to prevent or treat various conditions for which its effectiveness is unproved. The vitamin C supplements have variously been touted for preventing cardiovascular disease and osteoarthritis, staving off sunburn, and improving the appearance of wrinkles. None of these purported benefits have been verified in scientific studies.”

Perhaps the best-known and most widely promoted use of high-dose vitamin C is to prevent or treat the common cold. However, the bulk of evidence shows that high-dose vitamin C does not appear to reduce the risk of getting a cold.

Another popular theory is that vitamin C can slow age-related macular degeneration and cataracts. The relationship between vitamin C and cataract formation is still unclear, and some research suggests that vitamin C combined with other nutrients might help slow AMD progression. However, there is no clear cut evidence that vitamin C alone will reduce the advancement of vision loss.

So, should you be taking more vitamin C?

The federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans says that people should get most of their vitamin C from foods.

“Whole foods contain a vitamin and micronutrient complex which cannot be fully replicated in vitamin supplement. Also, your body absorbs more of the vitamin through food than through a supplement.”- Francesco-Maria Serino, MD, PhD

Registered dietician Jillian Graves recommends a daily intake of 75 mg per day for women and 90 mg per day for men which can be achieved by eating one kiwi or half of a papaya.

You also can reach your recommended daily intake of vitamin C with:

  • Citrus fruits (such as oranges and grapefruit) and their juices, as well as red and green peppers.
  • Other fruits and vegetables — such as broccoli, strawberries, cantaloupe, baked potatoes, and tomatoes.
  • Some foods and beverages that are fortified with vitamin C.

It is possible to take too much vitamin C, which can cause discomfort and cramping. In rare cases, vitamin C reliance leads to more severe side effects like kidney stones and nausea. The highest daily intake likely to pose no risks is 2,000 mg per day.

The Bottom Line

While vitamin C may be hyped as a popular supplement to cure colds and boost our immune system, it appears that the evidence on long-term effectiveness is still somewhat skewed.

At the end of the day, supplements like vitamin C should never be leaned on in place of a healthy lifestyle and balanced diet.

This article first appeared on Medium.