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People have been arguing about vitamin C for over 40 years, which is about how long I have been involved in promoting the ethical and rational use of vitamin supplements.

There is absolutely no doubt that vitamin C is essential to human health. In the 1920's a Hungarian chemist named Albert Szent-Gyorgyi became interested in exactly what it was about limes, lemons, and other citrus fruit that prevented a horrendous disease that was once much more common that it is today, scurvy. This condition causes defects in collagen that result in teeth falling out, bleeding gums, failing muscles, and even death.

The Hungarian scientist isolated this vitamin from paprika, and named it vitamin P, the paprika vitamin. Because this compound is involved in an important biochemical cycle that occurs in every cell known as the citric acid cycle, it became known as vitamin C in English-speaking countries. The term "vitamin P" stuck around for over 50 years, however.

One of the things Albert Szent-Gyorgyi noticed about vitamin C is that it is "vital", that is, life is impossible without it, but it isn't enough. He found that vitamin C only did its work when it had cofactors that keep its antioxidant powers fully functional.

Just giving someone vitamin C actually didn't cure scurvy the way limes and lemons did. Vitamin C only works in the context of getting other vitamins along with it.

About 50 years after the discovery of vitamin C, American scientist Linus Pauling became, well, more than a little obsessed with it. Pauling had won not just one but two Nobel prizes. He won a Nobel prize for chemistry, not for vitamin research but for explaining the nature of the chemical bond. He later won a Nobel prize for peace for decades of opposing the use of nuclear weapons.

Linus Pauling did not actually come up with the idea of high-dose vitamin C. He was told about it by another researcher named Irwin Stone, whose primary field of research was vitamin C. Pauling started taking 3,000 mg of vitamin C a day to prevent colds in the 1960's, and not having had a cold in several years, he wrote a book about vitamin C and colds in 1971.

In the 1970's, Pauling recruited a group of terminal cancer patients willing to take 10,000 mg of vitamin C a day. This much vitamin C is enough to cause diarrhea, and since this time many people have mistakenly believed that taking enough of the supplement to have loose bowels is a sign it works. Pauling claimed that, although all the cancer patients died. they lived on average four times longer than cancer patients who did not take vitamin C so the treatment was a success. However, in 1982, it was revealed that the patients who got vitamin C got it at an early stage in their disease so it would appear that the vitamin helped. Pauling himself died of cancer in 1994, at the age of 93.

Oddly enough, Pauling turned out to be right about vitamin C and cancer but wrong about the way to give it.

A series of clinical trials in Canada have found that 10,000 mg of vitamin C a day actually does extend life in advanced cancer, although it has to be given by IV, not taken by mouth. If you are taking so much vitamin C that you get diarrhea, most of the vitamin is going into the toilet, not into your body. IV administration of the vitamin can have remarkable results, although this is the sort of thing that has to be done by qualified medical personnel.

How vitamin C do you really need?

  • If your objective is just to keep your teeth from falling out due to scurvy, you need no more than 125 mg per day.
  • If you haven't been eating right for a long time and you need to replenish your vitamin C, then it is best to take 200 to 400 mg a day.
  • If you are trying to fight off an infection, then it's OK to take 1,000 to 3,000 mg a day for up to a week, but then you need to drop back down to 400 mg a day or less.
What is the problem with taking high-dose vitamin C? It's not toxic, but it isn't absorbed after a few days, either.

Your kidneys get used to the higher dose and simply start sending the excess vitamin C into the urine. This can be a problem if you have kidney stones, but the bigger problem occurs when you have been taking more than 500 mg a day for more than 2 weeks. If you go back to a "normal" level of vitamin C all at once, your kidneys keep on excreting high levels of vitamin C, or all your incoming vitamin C, and you can develop scurvy. There are cases in the medical literature documenting travelers to Florida who got in the habit of drinking 8 or 10 glasses of fresh-squeezed juice a day and then returned home, where they developed scurvy on a normal diet. Too much vitamin C by mouth is not a good thing.

If you happen to have a tendency to bladder infections, there's nothing wrong with taking 500 mg of vitamin C or even more every day. The extra vitamin C is going into your urine, but your urine is bathing the lining of your bladder and fighting infection.

No matter what dose of vitamin C you take, however, taking just vitamin C is not enough. Your body doesn't need just one antioxidant. It needs hundreds of antioxidants. The only way you can get them is by eating real fruits and vegetables. We simply don't have supplements with "everything" in them yet.

Vitamin C is important to health, and taking vitamin C can go a long way toward keeping you healthy, but it is only part of what your body needs.

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