We often hear of vitamin C as the be-all and end-all for the treatment of a common cold, as well as generally staying on top of your health. But after increasing amounts of reports that are saying stocking up on vitamin C supplements is about as effective as getting truckloads of placebos, why are the myths about vitamin C being a health booster still persisting?
It’s predominantly due to a widespread misbelief. Indeed, vitamin C helps prevent scurvy, as Captain James Cook figured out for his sailors. But the myth that vitamin C helps prevent sickness stems from influential American chemist Linus Pauling during the 1960s. Pauling said that after regularly taking high doses of vitamin C, he felt “livelier and healthier” and no longer experienced cold symptoms. He wrote a book on the subject and it quickly became a bestseller. By the mid-1970s, an estimated 50 million Americans were using vitamin C to treat colds, and sales of vitamin C products had quadrupled.
He isn’t really wrong – vitamin C is a fantastic antioxidant and is needed for the growth of tissues in the body such as skin, blood vessels, and bone. It is a critical part of the production of collagen, a critical component of connective tissue that helps heal wounds. It’s also not naturally produced by the body so it must be taken in via food. Citrus fruits, red and green peppers, watermelon, and leafy greens are among the best sources of vitamin C.
The University of Toronto also found that employees who regularly took vitamin C supplements took an average of 30 sick days less than those who didn’t. One possibility for this is that while vitamin C doesn’t cure a cold, it reduces the severity of the symptoms. However, more research is needed before this can be confirmed. Another study found that subjects in a high-stress subgroup who took vitamin C supplements experienced a 50 percent reduction in incidence of the common cold.
Unfortunately, these findings don’t necessitate the use of vitamin C as a good ward for colds and flus. Getting enough sleep, managing stress and eating and drinking healthily are all proven ways of staving those nasty winter bugs. Washing your hands helps prevent the spread of germs and regular exercise has been found to help fortify the immune system. The complexity of the human body and its relationship to nutrition means that a single vitamin isn’t going to cure sickness. I still think the best remedy for a nagging cold is a cup of tea, a blanket, a good book and just letting the illness run its course.
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