What do pirates and Eskimos teach us about vitamin C deficiencies and the common cold?

In 1753 a Scottish naval surgeon named James Lind set out to solve why British sailors and various pirates suffered from scurvy on long voyages. Scurvy results in spots on the skin, spongy gums and bleeding from almost all mucous membranes, and general weakness. In some cases this can get you thrown over board – well before you succumb to the illness.

Lind discovered that by adding citrus to the standard sea fare “of water gruel sweetened with sugar in the morning, fresh mutton broth, light puddings, boiled biscuit with sugar, barley and raisins, rice and currants,” scurvy could be cured or prevented. It would be many years later before we learned that scurvy was caused by vitamin C deficiency. In the early part of the twentieth century, vitamin C would play a central role in the research into vitamin-deficiency diseases and the birth of our modern supplement craze of today.

Once James Lind had demonstrated that by consuming fresh fruits and vegetables containing vitamin C you could cure or prevent scurvy, it was logically assumed that fruits and vegetables were necessary for a balanced diet. But some critical thinking is missing from this line of thinking. While vitamin C may prevent or cure scurvy and hence balance the deficiency, it does not technically tell us that vitamin C deficiency is caused by a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables. This is made all the more interesting when you consider that Inuit and Eskimos living on a vegetable- and fruit-free diet at the turn of the century never suffered from scurvy. Something else must be going on.

Harvard anthropologist turned-Artic-explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson was one of the first professional observers to note the overall good health of these rugged, arctic people. Subsisting almost exclusively on a diet of caribou, fish, seal meat, rabbits, polar bears, birds and eggs, the diet was greater than 50%-75% fat and the rest protein with very small amounts of carbohydrates. Vitamin C was not on the menu. Many naysayers at the time had argued that the Inuit and Eskimo had become “adapted” to a diet that lacked such things as vitamin C. However, this would not explain why traders, explorers and people like Stefansson who lived among the Eskimo for often years and ate this diet never suffered from scurvy. (Note that meat does contain small amounts of vitamin C – evidently, enough to prevent scurvy!).

Turns out, the vitamin C molecule is similar in configuration to glucose – the sugar in the body that is generated from dietary sugars and processed carbohydrates in our diet – and competes with glucose in cellular-uptake. Said differently, when glucose and vitamin C are circulating in our blood, glucose is greatly favored and vitamin C is “inhibited” and thus left circulating and not utilized efficiently. Therefore, by increasing blood sugar (glucose) levels – such is the case in our sugary, high-fructose corn syrup, processed carb diet of today (just like the pirates and sailors) – vitamin C uptake will drop accordingly. Glucose also impairs the reabsorption of vitamin C by the kidney, resulting in the loss of vitamin C in the urine. Though these mechanisms are not controversial, they are rarely mentioned by public health officials and never mentioned in those snazzy “drink Florida orange juice” commercials touting the need for vitamin C. Damn you Tom Selleck!

On top of all that, research has shown that vitamin C supplements do not provide nearly as much protection as other measures – like frequently washing your hands – in preventing the soon to be common cold of the cooler season ahead. Don’t be fooled by the common myth that vitamin C provides any meaningful protection against colds. Whether it is caused by a mild cold or the flu, a runny nose and sore throat are signs of a viral infection. Many people are absolutely convinced that vitamin C provides protection against respiratory infections. Yet research has shown that vitamin C does not prevent infection, and that high doses can even be harmful!

Researchers at the Australian National University and the University of Helsinki found that after following more than 11,000 people over several decades that took a daily dose of at least 200 milligrams of vitamin C (ascorbic acid), did little to reduce the length or severity of a cold.

So, even though a 1970s Nobel Prize-winning chemist named Linus Pauling popularized the regular use of vitamin C in the “cure of common colds” – encouraging us to take 1,000 milligrams daily – you might want to rethink the monetary costs of doing so in these trying financial times.

Take Home Message: Even though vitamin C deficiency can be cured or prevented by eating fruits and veggies, it does not explain why you are deficient. The Eskimos taught us this. In addition, there is very little evidence to suggest that vitamin C has a significant effect on reducing your chances of “catching” a cold or reduce suffering once you have gotten the sniffles. It may be that you get enough vitamin C in what ever diet you may be consuming, but if that diet includes crappy highly-processed pizza from the “other” guys and any appreciable amounts of other processed carbs (sugar, lots of bread, and so forth), then you may need to eat a few more oranges and some select veggies and, of course, a few slices a week of our tasty prebiotic multi-grain pizza fortified with probiotics.

*Note we are NOT saying to stop eating vitamin C containing fruits and veggies, just chatting about the vitamin C craze in general and the adverse effects of our so-called modern diet of highly processed carbs.

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