DETHRONING  VITAMIN C

MANILA, JULY 26, 2007
 (STAR) DE RERUM NATURA By Maria Isabel Garcia - Not even the crusade proportions of two-time Nobel winner chemist Linus Pauling’s heralding of Vitamin C stopped researchers from getting to work to find out if the claim that Vitamin C can prevent or treat the common cold, has basis in science. The verdict: Vitamin C does NOT prevent or significantly shorten the duration of the common cold.

Linus Pauling won the Nobel for Chemistry (1954) and the Nobel Prize for Peace (1962). It was only in 1966 when he seriously began to home in on Vitamin C as the key molecule vital in maintaining human health. In fact, he became so convinced of its powers, not just over the common cold but over human health in general, despite widespread criticism from his scientific peers, that he even began taking large doses himself — one gram. He himself noted in his writings (Linus Pauling in His Own Words, Selections from His Writings, Speeches and Interviews. Simon and Schuster, NY:1995) that the daily recommended intake for Vitamin C then was only 50 milligrams. His fervor in pursuing this took on a proportion that puzzled and sometimes irritated the larger scientific community who could not believe that Pauling could promote something without solid research to back up his claims. Pauling became so passionately entwined with the Vitamin C molecule that in the book I just cited, his editor, Barbara Marinacci, noted that Pauling’s wife, Ava Helen, “would not have permitted him to have an affair, even in his head with anybody, or anything, except perhaps for Vitamin C.” But this recent study dethroning Vitamin C illustrates how science itself can correct a scientist’s claims even when that scientist is a two-time Nobel winner and have passed away. That is the self-correcting mechanism that makes science the discipline that could never be cowed by awards, authority or charm alone. You still need to show good science to back up your claim even if you are Linus Pauling.

Linus added fodder to popular claims that singled out Vitamin C as the most effective molecular armor against the common cold. But popular claims are different from valid research. Popular claims are usually a string of anecdotes that are spread throughout time or throughout populations that refer to a connection between things that they claim have worked for them. So effectively, they are really stories or impressions which are susceptible to “revisions” much like what you get playing “Chinese whispers.” But popular claims are not always useless since they keep science awake as science tests these very claims with scientific rigor so that we can think more clearly how certain things are connected, if they are at all connected.

After a survey of studies spanning 20 years, involving over 11,000 people, the latest issue of the Cochrane Library, published in all the science pages of major newspapers worldwide, including The Guardian, concluded that you really do not foil the common cold by taking Vitamin C regularly. They say the only exception is if you are under “extraordinary” stress comparable to the levels of “marathon runners, skiers and soldiers on sub-arctic exercises.” This means that unless you are an athlete or about to invade a country on foot under freezing conditions, Vitamin C is useless as a defense or treatment against the common cold (although I would think that if you agreed to invade a country under sub-arctic conditions, getting the common cold is the least of your problems.)

But for those who seem to think that science is just out to crush your long-held beliefs, well, you can rest assured that science does exactly that. But it does not do that because it does not like you. It does that to get us thinking clearly.

In fact, science itself did some validating for another popular preventive for the common cold — Echinacea — and found that it DOES help prevent and treat the common cold. You find various extracts of this plant and/or any of its parts in diet supplements like tea. The journal Lancet Infectious Diseases published the results last month of 14 different studies on Echinacea’s anti-cold properties and found that when “taken alongside Vitamin C… (it) reduced cold incidence by 86 percent” and “when Echinacea was used alone it reduced cold incidence by 65 percent.” The research was led by Dr. Craig Coleman from the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy. The researchers further qualified that during the winter months, Echinacea seems to be effective in preventing or treating the common cold for those whose immune system are already impaired. But for those who are healthy, they say that the studies are not yet conclusive on whether taking Echinacea regularly would prevent you from getting the common cold.

Many, especially the vitamin supplement industry, may be disheartened by the scientific studies that bust the vitamin myth. The billion-dollar diet supplement industry seemed to have been successful in forging the market’s emotional attachment with certain vitamins. Earlier this year, another study that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association involving close to 50 clinical trials testing 180,000 people over many years, concluded that regular vitamin supplements, particularly A and E, did NOT at all deliver the anti-oxidant effects on humans that they were believed to have. Instead, in a small subset of the test subjects, those who took regular supplements of these vitamins even seemed to have died earlier compared to those who did not take these supplements religiously.

I think we should always be skeptical of any ONE thing — whether it be a molecule, oil (virgin or not), fruit, nut or vegetable — that claims to be the key and the answer to ALL our health problems. It is one thing to want to stay healthy and another to volunteer as a hostage to a vitamin.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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