Monday, May 7, 2012

Vitamin C: From curing scurvy to fighting the common cold

Ahoy mateys!

Aside from eye patches, peg legs, and Johnny Depp, what do you associate with pirates?


Scurvy is a disease where fluid stores in the body. Sailors with scurvy would be paralyzed, their old wounds would re-open, their teeth would fall out, and they’d bleed from every opening in their body. It wasn’t pretty and the image reminds me of something you’d see on an episode of House.

Now imagine a man sitting in the hospital, literally rotting alive in the bed, and the doctor hands him a glass of Tropicana. Not an I.V., a syringe, or a pill – an ice-cold glass of orange juice. The man tells the loony doctor to walk the plank… But it works. After a couple of glasses the bleeding stops, the man can move, and he walks out of the hospital with the cheapest medical bill in history.

James Lind, a British doctor, did an experiment that studied the effects of citrus on scurvy in 1747. He isolated a component of the fruits, an acid, which directly cured scurvy in his patients. He couldn’t identify much else about the acid, so he called it “ascorbic acid,” as in “anti-scurvy acid.”

Today, we know ascorbic acid by its more popular name – vitamin C. Scurvy wasn’t a disease so much as it was a nutritional deficiency. It affected sailors because storing fresh fruits was difficult on long voyages. After Lind’s study became public, however, the British Navy ordered all ships to be stocked with limes. This was the origin of the British’s (often derogatory) nickname, “Limeys.”

So aside from being a cool story, what does this have to do with you? Well, as Captain Barbossa would say, “I’m getting to that, ye mangy dogs.”

Many foods are fortified with vitamins now, from tea to corn flakes, making it nearly impossible to come down with scurvy. But Linus Pauling, two-time Nobel prize-winner, claimed in his 1987 book, How to Live Longer and Feel Better, that vitamin C can prevent the common cold. Since then, people have flocked to the vitamin as a cure-all. Some drug companies have capitalized on its popularity and have released products like Emergen-C and Airborne for stopping the flu at its first symptoms.

But does vitamin C work as well as popular culture would have us believe? Well, dead men (and apparently doctors) tell no tales.

An article entitled "How to boost your immune system" from Harvard Medical School warns that most studies done on vitamin C have been poorly designed and therefore do not scientifically prove the acid’s positive effects. However, one article from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) reports that regimens of vitamin C and zinc reduce the severity and duration of respiratory infections like the common cold. The study went further to talk about the benefits of these two vitamins on pneumonia, diarrhea, and malaria. And another study from the NCBI reported that vitamin C increases immunoglobin levels (IgA and IgM)and other factors of the immune system.

So the medical community may not be in consensus whether it’s an apple or an orange a day that will keep them out of a job. But as for me, I’m putting my dubloons on a cold glass of pulp-free OJ.


(For more information on any of the topics covered today, please click the darkened phrases)

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