What Young Athletes Need To Know About The Great Vitamin C Myth
In winter, the first signs of a sore throat, runny nose or foggy head usually see us reaching for vitamin C supplements. But, have you ever stopped to wonder why? and what the origins of this information are?
Prior to the discovery of vitamin C, it was said that certain fruits possessed the ability to prevent and treat the common cold. The scientific discovery of vitamin C in the early 20th Century then generated interest as to whether this was the active component of fruits that assisted in fighting infections. However, it wasn't until 1970 when Linus Pauling published the best-selling book Vitamin C and the Common Cold that the popularity of using high doses of vitamin C to prevent and treat common colds soared.
Pauling was a chemist, biochemist, and physicist who became interested in the idea of treating disease with vitamins following personal experience with using a low protein, salt-free diet, and vitamin supplementation to control his kidney disease. Later, after reading Niacin Therapy in Psychiatry by Abram Hoffer, Pauling began to theorise that vitamins may have a benefit beyond the prevention of deficiencies. Ultimately, this led to a belief that large doses of vitamins could be used to prevent and treat disease. Once introduced to vitamin C by fellow biochemist Irwin Stone, Pauling began supplementing his diet with 3g of vitamin C daily. On the back of his own perceived positive results in using the vitamin, Pauling examined the clinical literature and published his book Vitamin C and the Common Cold which advocated for a daily dose of 1g vitamin C.
Now, what we've established so far sure makes for a great story into the origins of using vitamin C for colds, but the anecdotal experience isn't exactly a great foundation for providing advice. Thankfully, Pauling went a step further than relying on his own positive experiences and conducted research into the use of vitamin C in common colds, as well as in cancer. Unfortunately, the quality of these studies came under fire when Pauling was criticised for assigning less ill cancer patients to his vitamin C therapy. Research has since demonstrated that high dose vitamin C is as effective as a placebo in the treatment and prevention of cancer. However, the relationship between vitamin C and the common cold has not been so easily dismissed.
Vitamin C has roles in synthesising collagen which is a major material in many body tissues, aiding the absorption of iron, and protecting cells as an antioxidant. However, vitamin C is also important for immune cells where it is in concentrated amounts and is found to be quickly depleted during infection. For this reason, it's easy to conceive that vitamin C has a role in treating and preventing infections such as the common cold.
However, just because something makes sense theoretically, this doesn’t always translate to results in reality – this is the premise of scientific experimentation! The research into vitamin C and common colds have been underwhelming, to say the least. By and large, evidence indicates that supplementation with large doses of vitamin C (1,000mg per day or more) has very limited effect in fighting the common cold. Firstly, there is no evidence that vitamin C will prevent you from catching a cold. Secondly, if taken after the onset of symptoms, there is no evidence vitamin C will shorten the duration of a cold. There is, however, some research that suggests when taken continuously, prior to the onset of a cold, that vitamin C may reduce the duration of a cold by 8% for adults and 14% for children. You have to think though, is half a day less of illness really going to make that much of a difference?
The high doses of vitamin C contained in supplements and recommended to prevent and treat colds is well above of the recommended daily intake of 40-45mg/day. When consumed beyond the body's needs, excess amounts are excreted. To put it bluntly, if you're supplementing, you might ever so slightly reduce the duration of your cold, but you're more likely to be making very expensive urine. A better approach is to focus on consuming a diet rich in fruits and vegetables which will not only smash your vitamin C requirements out of the park but also provide a range of other immune and performance aiding vitamins and minerals.
When hit with cold or flu, we know our athletes want to do anything in their power to be back into their sport as quickly as possible. The reality is a vitamin C supplement isn't likely to speed this process up. As this winter draws to a close, a nutrient-rich diet that includes 2 serves of fruit and 5 serves of vegetables daily will support immune function and help keep the last wave of cold & flu at bay