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Many people recommend taking vitamin C supplements to prevent colds and even cancer, but there have been reports that they can be harmful. So is it safe to take vitamin C supplements, how much should be taken and what are the benefits?

Ever since its dramatic effect in preventing disease was witnessed in British sailors in the 1800s, vitamin C has often been credited with preventing all manner of illness.  At this time of year in particular, many people recommend taking high doses of vitamin C to ward off or lessen the effects of colds and flu, and some research claims it can treat cancer.  But over the years there have also been worrying reports linking vitamin C supplementation with serious side effects and even causing cancer. 

Vitamin C is essential to life and our bodies cannot manufacture it, so we are dependent on obtaining it from food or other sources.

We cannot store it and so must have a regular supply, any excess being lost in the urine.  Lack of this vitamin causes breakdown of connective tissues leading to severe skin disease, bleeding and degeneration of tendons and ligaments.

In the 1800s, British sailors who had restricted diets for many months aboard ships, developed terrible skin and gum disease (known as ‘scurvy’) leading to bleeding and even death.  It was found that the disease could be completely prevented with just a daily dose of lime juice. Citrus fruits and leafy green vegetables are good sources of vitamin C, and scurvy is very rare in people with a good diet.

Proposed benefits of vitamin C

Studies have shown a link between people with high intake of vitamin C through diets high in fresh fruit and vegetables and a substantially reduced risk of developing cancer.  In the 1970s, the Nobel prize-winning scientist, Linus Pauling, claimed that vitamin C in high doses prevented colds, as well as reducing their severity and duration.

He also conducted studies which showed that people with advanced cancer who were given large doses of  vitamin C intravenously, survived three or four times longer than those not treated.

This is not far-fetched as vitamin C is known to be an anti-oxidant and these compounds are able to eliminate free radicals which are associated with causing cancer. But there seem to be as many cancer studies showing improved outcomes with vitamin C supplementation, as there are those which found no benefit. There have also been claims that vitamin C supplements can treat AIDS and polio, and also prevent heart disease and strokes. It is thought that vitamin C boosts the immune system, having an effect on white cells.

Health scares with vitamin C supplements

The toxicity of the industrial chemical chromium 6, made famous in the film Erin Brockovich, is thought to be due to an interaction with vitamin C, causing cancer-associated damage to DNA.  There is other evidence that high doses of vitamin C alone can interfere with DNA and therefore cause cancer. Some cancer specialists believe that vitamin C may actually interfere with certain cancer treatments.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Brown University (2007, March 13). Cancer-causing Compound Can Be Triggered By Vitamin C. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 4, 2013, from¬ /releases/2007/03/070312151951.htm
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