By Jim English
Vitamin C is one of the most widely used and highly valued vitamins in the world. Vitamin C became popular in 1970, when Linus Pauling published his groundbreaking work, “Vitamin C and the Common Cold.” Vitamin C sales skyrocketed, with some impressive results, including a staggering 40% drop in the number of deaths attributed to heart disease in the next decade. Scientists now estimate that over 250,000 lives are saved every year because of the efforts of Linus Pauling and other dedicated researchers to educate the public about the benefits of vitamin C. Based on these statistics, it has been estimated that if everyone in the United States took several hundred milligrams of vitamin C a day, over 100,000 lives and $100 billion in health care costs would be saved each year.
Not only can vitamin C help us feel better and live longer, but it has also been proven to support numerous functions that can help us attain optimal health, including:
This premier antioxidant nutrient protects us from the ravages of free radicals that, if left to destroy cell membranes and damage DNA, lead to the development of degenerative diseases and accelerated aging.
Vitamin C helps manufacture collagen, the basic cellular “cement” that keeps muscles, tendons, bones, teeth and skin healthy and strong, and aids in the repair of blood vessels and broken bones.
Vitamin C benefits heart conditions of all kinds, normalizes blood pressure, reduces cholesterol levels, and aids in the removal of cholesterol deposits from arterial walls.
Despite these and other numerous health benefits, this basic nutrient is constantly under attack from those who argue that all good nutrition begins and ends with a fork. And is it possible to get optimal amounts of vitamin C from food alone? It has been shown that even the best diet cannot begin to provide the minimum levels of vitamin C (500 to 1,000 mg per day) that research has proven can help us fend off illness, degenerative diseases and premature aging. In fact, a recent study has shown that men who take vitamin C supplements live, on average, six years longer than those who only get their vitamin C from dietary sources.
The History of Vitamin C
Vitamin C, also called ascorbic acid, is a powerful water-soluble antioxidant vital for the growth and maintenance of all body tissues. Though easily absorbed by the intestines, vitamin C cannot be stored in the body, and is excreted in the urine within two to four hours of ingestion. Human history has been deeply influenced by vitamin C or more accurately, by a frequent and disastrous lack of this vital nutrient. In his book The Healing Factor: Vitamin C Against Disease, the late biochemist Irwin Stone stated: “…the lack of this molecule [vitamin C] in humans has contributed to more deaths, sickness, and just plain misery than any other single factor in man’s long history”.
The Discovery of Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid)
The first breakthrough in vitamin C research occurred in 1926, when the Hungarian scientist, Albert Szent-Gyšrgyi, MD, PhD, traveled to Cambridge University to conduct research on the chemical processes that caused fruits and vegetables to turn brown. Szent-Gyšrgyi first succeeded in isolating a white crystalline substance from the adrenal gland of cows, which he referred to as Cx11. Later, in 1928, Szent-Gyšrgyi isolated these same crystals from the juice of potatoes and cabbages, and renamed the substance hexuronic acid. Szent-Gyšrgyi later collaborated with the famed English chemist W. Haworth, and together they finally determined the chemical structure of hexuronic acid (C6H8O6). Finally, in 1932, after producing the first pure crystals of vitamin C, Szent-Gyšrgyi and Haworth once again renamed the substance, and, in recognition of its role in preventing scurvy, called it ascorbic acid, from the Latin word, ascorbic, which means without scurvy.
Five years later, in 1937, Szent-Gyšrgyi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discoveries in connection with the biological combustion processes, with special reference to vitamin C and the catalysis of fumaric acid.
What Does Vitamin C Do?
Vitamin C is utilized by virtually every part of the human body. In fact, there are few, if any, biological functions that do not require vitamin C.
- Vitamin C is a water-soluble antioxidant to protect cells from free radicals. Vitamin C also prevents oxidative damage that leads to the development of atherosclerosis.
- Vitamin C is vital to the immune system, aiding white blood cells that attack and destroy cancer cells, viruses, bacteria, parasites and other pathogens. Vitamin C also promotes wound healing and acts to control the release of histamine.
- Vitamin C is used by the body to produce collagen, used by connective tissues to give strength and shape to our tissues, such as muscles, blood vessels, bones and teeth.
- Vitamin C helps the body utilize folic acid (required for maintaining our DNA) and regulates the uptake of iron (needed for production of hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying part of blood cells).
- Vitamin C is important for the synthesis of neurotransmitters, such as noradrenaline (for energy and mood) and serotonin (for sleep, well-being and pain control).
Vitamin C and the Common Cold
Large doses of vitamin C (two grams or more per day) can dramatically shorten both the duration and severity of a cold if taken at first sign of symptoms. Most studies show that vitamin C therapy can result in milder symptoms while reducing the duration by about a third.
More than twenty studies have found that preventive vitamin C supplementation reduces the annual number of colds in children. One study of over 600 children, between the ages of 8 and 9 years, found that 1,000 mg of vitamin C a day for three months reduced the severity and duration of colds, but not the number of colds. Based on these findings, it makes more sense to increase vitamin C intake at the onset of cold symptoms rather than as a preventive measure.
To understand how vitamin C can help us recover from colds, flu and other forms of infection, we need to understand that vitamin C takes on a new role when the body is under attack.
Common Cold as Acute Induced Scurvy
Often we may begin to notice that we are starting to feel ill, only to have the symptoms quickly disappear within a day or so. This is what is supposed to happen when our immune system is healthy and well supported. At the first sign of an attack, all of the components of the immune complex move quickly to identify, target and kill the invading pathogens.
Just as often we don’t get better and our symptoms worsen as we are caught up in a cold or flu infection that can last for days or weeks. What has happened is that invading viruses have slipped past our first lines of defense and are damaging mitochondria, the cells that produce energy. This damage results in a flood of free radicals that quickly use up all of the vitamin C in the affected area, like the nose and throat. Dr. Robert Cathcart, a pioneer in the field of orthomolecular medicine, refers to this condition as acute induced scurvy.
When vitamin C is depleted in the affected area, the body can no longer mount an effective response until it has produced enough antibodies to attack and destroy the virus. In the meantime the condition has time to spread to the sinuses, ears, lungs, etc. This also allows bacteria to take advantage of the situation, potentially causing secondary infections, such as bronchitis, pneumonia or worse.
Cathcart believes that taking moderate doses of vitamin C (200 to 2,000 mg per day) in such conditions may prevent the spread of the infection to other areas of the body, but will do little to shorten the course of the illness. On the other hand, Cathcart argues that taking massive doses of vitamin C (megadoses) can force enough electrons into the affected tissues to neutralize all the free radicals and support the white cells that come out fighting mad and destroy all the viruses. It does not matter that the disease is moderately advanced, states Cathcart, if sufficient C is used, the cold will be shortly terminated.
The Power of High Dose (Megadose) Vitamin C
Building on the groundbreaking work of Linus Pauling, Irwin Stone, and other orthomolecular physicians, Cathcart has helped to shape our understanding of megadose vitamin therapy, which uses vitamin C in doses higher than those required for normal cellular functions. When taken in very high (ten to one hundred grams or more per day, depending upon the person and the illness) vitamin C works in a uniquely different way to fight off serious illness.
We’ve seen that vitamin C is required to help protect the body from the ravages of free radicals and for the constant repair of our connective tissues. And, except for losses due to collagen formation, most of the time vitamin C is recycled by the body’s antioxidant system. But when the body is challenged by cancer, colds, or other diseases, vitamin C takes on a new role. Dr. Cathcart describes the process in the following way, using the term ascorbate, which is just another technical term for vitamin C:
- Free radicals are molecules that have lost an electron and they are very reactive because they want an electron in the worst way.
- Vitamin C (ascorbate) donates its two spare electrons to neutralize two dangerous free radicals.
- When vitamin C (ascorbate) loses its electrons it is turned into a form of vitamin C called dehydroascorbate.
- Dehydroascorbate has a half-life in the body of only a few minutes.
- If dehydroascorbate does not regain its two electrons from the mitochondria within a few minutes, it is irreversibly lost (mitochondria are tiny structures in every cell that act like powerhouses that provide cellular energy and aid in recycling vitamin C).
- White blood cells need vitamin C (ascorbate) in order to kill viruses, bacteria, parasites, fungi, cancer cells, etc.
- When the mitochondria are damaged (by cancer, viruses, bacteria, etc.), they are unable to provide the electrons needed to turn dehydroascorbate back into vitamin C.
- These damaged mitochondria produce more free radicals.
- Free radicals turn on antibodies and increase inflammation.
In essence what Cathcart and other supporters of megadose therapy are claiming is that when we become seriously ill the body is overwhelmed by a flood of free radicals that quickly use up all of the available stores of vitamin C. This impairs the immune response, which depends on vitamin C to mount an effective defense against the invading organisms (or tumor, in the case of cancer).
By ingesting or infusing large amounts of vitamin C, as in the earlier cancer study by Pauling and Cameron, the aim is to saturate the body with enough electrons to destroy all of the free radicals being generated in the tissues affected by the disease. In short, the body is using the electrons donated by vitamin C, and then tossing away the dehydroascorbate.
The Controversy Surrounding Megadose Therapy
Megadose vitamin C therapy continues to be a highly controversial topic. Traditional medicine tends to view vitamin C as a nutrient that is only useful for preventing scurvy. In The Third Face of Vitamin C, published in 1993, Dr. Cathcart detailed his clinical experience treating over 20,000 patients with high doses of vitamin C over a 23-year period. Cathcart found that doses of up to 200 or more grams per day were effective in treating clinical diseases involving free radicals. The list of diseases involving free radicals includes infections, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, trauma, burns (both thermal and radiation), surgeries, allergies, autoimmune diseases and aging.
Megadose therapy has caught the interest and fired the imagination of many eminent researchers. The late Irwin Stone pioneered the early use of high dose vitamin C for treating diseases. His close friend, Dr. Frederick Klenner conducted much of the original clinical research on vitamin C megadose therapy, reporting that most viral diseases could be cured when patients were treated with intravenous sodium ascorbate in amounts up to 200 grams per day.
Klenner is credited with bringing megadose therapy to the attention of Linus Pauling. Pauling went on to conduct research with Ewan Cameron showing that high dose vitamin C therapy doubled the life span of cancer patients. Based on their work a large number of physicians now routinely use massive doses of vitamin C in their clinical practice for the treatment of a wide variety of diseases.