Cold and flu season is nearing, and for many of us, that means stocking up on vitamin C supplements to help manage symptoms. Vitamin C — also known as ascorbic acid — is a water-soluble vitamin, meaning it leaves the body through the urine. Therefore, you need an ongoing supply.
Back in the 1700s, British sailors would get scurvy — the result of vitamin C deficiency — if they didn’t consume citrus fruits. They would experience bleeding gums, tooth and hair loss, bleeding under the skin and joint pain if they didn’t have enough of this vital nutrient while at sea.
Vitamin C was brought to the limelight in the 1950s by chemist Dr. Linus Pauling, who believed the vitamin's effects to be earth-shattering. According to Pauling, it could cure the common cold and treat heart disease.
He was perhaps a little overzealous.
The jury is still out on whether it has any effect on the common cold — WebMD confirms that findings have been inconsistent. Furthermore, its role in heart disease remains unproven, though some theorize that its antioxidant properties should help block some of the damage caused by free radicals. Likewise, the vitamin may help manage arthritis due to its anti-inflammatory effect, as well as its role in creating the cartilage that arthritis destroys.
Vitamin C also plays an important role in the absorption of iron. This can be achieved with a dietary supplement or with food containing relatively high doses of vitamin C, such as orange juice, taken with the iron pills.
It's important to not overdo it. Vitamin C is very acidic. In high doses, it can do a number on your stomach, causing abdominal pain, nausea and diarrhea. It is also known to cause kidney stones in excessive doses.
A fair guideline for adults is to consume no more than 1,000 mg daily, which may be obtained through food and a daily supplement that should contain approximately 250 mg. If you feel like you are coming down with a respiratory infection, talk to your doctor before upping your dosage yourself.
Arielle Miller Levitan, MD, is a board-certified internal medicine physician and the cofounder of Vous Vitamin, LLC. She is the author of The Vitamin Solution: Two Doctors Clear Confusion About Vitamins and Your Health. She attended Stanford University and Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, and has served as chief medical resident for the Northwestern University McGraw Medical Center’s Evanston Hospital Program and as a clinical instructor for its medical school. She has a special interest in women’s health and preventive medicine and currently practices general internal medicine on the North Shore of Chicago, where she teaches medical students on-site. She enjoys cooking, cardio tennis, running, being a soccer mom (sometimes) and spending time with her three kids and husband (also a doctor of internal medicine).
Romy Block, MD, is a board-certified specialist in endocrine and metabolism medicine, member of American Thyroid Association, and the cofounder of Vous Vitamin, LLC. She is the author of The Vitamin Solution: Two Doctors Clear Confusion About Vitamins and Your Health. She attended Tufts University and Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine. She completed residency training in internal medicine at North Shore University Hospital—North Shore-LIJ and did a fellowship at New York University. She practices on the North Shore of Chicago, where she specializes in thyroid disorders and pituitary diseases. She enjoys travel, food and wine, working out with her personal trainer and spending time with her husband (a pulmonary and sleep specialist) and their three boys.