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We all know that vitamins are vital. But sometimes taking supplements and eating healthy can make a person sick. Water-soluble vitamins such as B and C, it turns out, are not necessarily harmless.

The German nutritional iconoclast Udo Pollmer tells the story of a man in Sweden who developed scurvy, a disease of extreme vitamin C deficiency. Scurvy at first causes bleeding gums, easy bruising, leg pain, nosebleeds, and a peculiar kind of bleeding from the hair follicles. As the body runs out of  the vitamin C it needs to make an enzyme for the production of collagen, old scars may begin to open.   Blood may leak into joints, causing extreme pain. The sternum may start to sink. Later there is diarrhea with bright red and bloody stools, loss of appetite, extreme irritability, swelling over the long bones of the arms and legs, rapid heartbeat, falling blood pressure, and death.

The symptoms of scurvy don't appear all at once. The human body can conserve vitamin C in glandular tissue, up to about 1500 mg in the body of a healthy adult. As long that body receives more vitamin C than it needs, the extra vitamin is excreted into urine. When daily diet does not provide enough vitamin C, spillover into the urine stops and the body begins to use its tiny reserve supply.

The body can function with just tiny amounts of vitamin C from the lymphatic system for 30 to 90 days. But eventually vitamin C, which is, after all, vital to human health, runs out.

What kinds of people can suffer from scurvy?

  • Alcoholics and drug addicts often do not get enough vitamin C from food.
  • People who follow extremely low-carb diets may not get enough vitamin C.
  • Babies who are fed only cow's milk during the first year of life may develop scurvy.
  • Refugees dependent on food aid often do not get enough vitamin C.
  • People who have the iron overload disease hemochromatosis lose excessive amounts of vitamin C through urination.
  • People who have hyperthyroidism, cancer, or AIDS use large amounts of vitamin C.
  • Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers may develop vitamin C deficiency because their bodies use an extra large amount of the vitamin.
  • Smokers may become deficient in many kinds of antioxidants including vitamin C.

But the man in Sweden who developed scurvy did not fit into any of these categories. In fact, he made a point of drinking orange juice every day, an 8 oz (240 ml) glass of orange juice providing more than a day's supply. Why should someone who drinks orange juice develop scurvy?

The answer turned out to be that this man's body was eliminating vitamin C at a very high rate. He had spent a winter vacation in Florida. While he was there, he drank 8 to 10 tall (16 oz/500 ml) glasses of delicious freshly squeezed orange juice almost every day. His body became accustomed to eliminating large amounts of vitamin C, so when he returned home to Sweden and went back to drinking just one small glass of juice a day, he developed scurvy.

Water-soluble vitamins such as B and C, it turns out, are not necessarily harmless. When we take overdoses of water-soluble vitamins, our bodies may demand more and more. But increasing the daily minimum allowance for good health by overdosing vitamins is not the only pitfall over hypervitaminosis.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Udo Pollmer and Susanne Warmuth, Pillen, Pulver, Powerstoffe: Die falschen Versprechen der Nahrungsergänzungsmittel (Piper Taschenbuch, 2010).
  • Photo courtesy of mickie_g on Flickr: