Vitamin C: Overhyped Or Wonder Treatment?

Ruth Bentley

Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is an essential nutrient that is a vital component of many chemical reactions throughout the body, but how much do we really need?

Almost all animals can manufacture their own vitamin C, but humans cannot and so we meet our vitamin C needs from food alone. Vitamin C dissolves easily in water and so is removed in urine. This means that it cannot be stored in the body, so it is important that you include vitamin C in your diet every day.

It is needed to make collagen which strengthens the skin and plays an important role in the repair of damaged tissues. It is the lack of collagen which leads to the main symptoms of scurvy: weakness, gum disease and skin problems.

Vitamin C promotes the production of lymphocytes, immune cells which release antibodies to attack foreign substances in the blood

Vitamin C also contributes to the efficiency of a number of immune cells. Phagocytes, an important type of cell that ingest pathogens, can use vitamin C to kill these microbes more efficiently. Furthermore, vitamin C promotes the production of lymphocytes, immune cells which release antibodies to attack foreign substances in the blood.

In the early modern period (1500 – 1800),  two million sailors died of scurvy. Nobody knew at the time that the disease was caused by vitamin C deficiency but some suspected that it might be prevented by eating citrus fruits.

In 1747, a naval surgeon by the name of James Lind undertook an experiment to see if certain foodstuffs could help cure scurvy. Out of the six different food treatments only the men who were given oranges and lemons survived.

It took nearly 200 years for scientists to fully understand why citrus fruits cured the sailors. In 1912, Casimir Funk coined the term “vitamin” and used the letter “C” to represent a substance as yet unidentified but known to prevent scurvy. It was not until 1928 that ascorbic acid, “anti-scurvy”, was isolated from citrus fruits and four years later it was shown to be the “C” that cured scurvy.

Public Health England suggests the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for adults is 40 mg of vitamin C per day. You can find vitamin C in many foods, but fruit and vegetables provide the highest concentrations. Most people easily meet the RDA through their normal food choices. For example, a 200 ml glass of orange juice contains over 100 mg of vitamin C and one large potato has over 70 mg.

This leads to the question: can vitamin C be used to treat COVID-19?

Individual human case studies and research on mice suggest high doses of vitamin C may reduce lung inflammation in severe respiratory illnesses. Furthermore, a 2019 analysis found that vitamin C administered both orally and through IV reduced the length of time spent in intensive care units by 8.6% as well as shortening the duration of mechanical ventilation by 18.2%.

All the patients were eventually cured and discharged from hospital

 In China, vitamin C was given intravenously to 50 patients with moderate to severe COVID-19. All the patients were eventually cured and discharged from hospital. We do not know whether the high levels of vitamin C used on these patients contributed to their recovery.

A team from Wuhan university are following up with a randomised control trial to test the safety and effectiveness of vitamin C as a treatment against COVID-19. At the moment they are still recruiting participants, but it will be interesting to hear the results of this study in due course.

However, this does not mean you should run to the shops and start buying all the vitamin C tablets in sight. There is no evidence suggesting that vitamin C taken orally will prevent or treat COVID-19. In fact, taking supplements could lead to the overconsumption of vitamin C, more than 1000 mg, and whilst not life threatening may lead to complaints such as diarrhoea, nausea and stomach cramps.

Ruth Bentley

All Images Courtesy of Alice Nott

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