It’s happened to everyone–you’re hanging out by the pool and sippin’ on a margarita, when suddenly you sneeze. And then your nose starts to run and then you start coughing and then you feel all achy. It’s blazing hot out, but you have a summer cold. Most people have heard that if they want to avoid this scenario, they should up their vitamin C intake. But why? Lately it seems that every product on earth is touting its C content, claiming that it can not only prevent or cure colds, but also help prevent cancer, heart disease, diabetes, cataracts and/or practically any chronic condition that results from free radical damage. Does it actually make a difference, and if so, how much is enough? This week, we try to see the truth behind C.
This we know–the UC Berkeley School of Public Health explains that vitamin C, otherwise known as "ascorbic acid," is necessary for the growth and repair of tissue, wound-healing and the health of cartilage, bones and teeth. A powerful antioxidant, it can neutralize potentially harmful free radicals (excessive free radicals damage cells, which can then lead to cancer, disease and accelerated aging of the body). C is especially helpful in combating damage wrought by pollution and cigarette smoke. According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s also needed to help the body use carbohydrates, fats and protein, as well as strengthen blood vessel walls. The body can only store small amounts of C, thus, humans must consume it on a regular basis. So the more the better, right? Well, perhaps, but there’s no evidence to prove that megadoses have any more of an effect than the recommended daily allowance (60-90 milligrams). In fact, despite thousands of studies, the only true certainty about C is that it prevents scurvy and plays other basic roles in human health. According to the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, more does not seem to be better, except in the case of smokers–and then only an extra 35 milligrams is needed.
So put those pricey supplement bottles back on the shelf–the best way to get your C is from your food. If you eat the USDA recommended five to eight servings of fruits and vegetables daily, you’ll get even more C than you need–around 150-300 milligrams, depending on what produce you prefer. Some of the best sources of C include citrus fruits, kiwi, strawberries, mangoes, cantaloupe, avocados, peppers, sweet potatoes, onions, radishes, broccoli, cabbage, spinach and kale. Try whipping a variety of fruits into a smoothie with low-fat yogurt, and fill out a sandwich with avocado, green peppers, onions and spinach instead of lettuce. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables will also supply tons of fiber and many other nutrients other than C that, all together, help fight cancer and heart disease, help maintain a healthy weight and contribute to a strong, functioning body. Basically, if you try to consume more vitamin C, you’ll improve your diet and health in general.
Another reason to skip those supplements is that intake above 2000mg (pretty much impossible to achieve through food) may be associated with adverse side effects in some individuals, including abdominal cramps, bloating and diarrhea, as well as actually doing damage to the body’s health, such as destruction of vitamin B12, interfering with glucose tests and more. Plus, because C is water soluble, the excess amounts simply get peed out, which means you’re peeing out your hard-earned cash. If you want to avoid the summer sniffles, eat an orange–or three–instead.