The Truth about Vitamin C and Colds

A new and comprehensive analysis of studies giving vitamin C confirms that supplementation does reduce the number of colds, the severity of symptoms and the duration – but it all depends on how much you take.

To C or not to C? That is the question and one that has been hotly debated in the context of killing colds. In 1970 twice Nobel prize winner Linus Pauling, who was my teacher and patron of the Institute for Optimum Nutrition, wrote a book on vitamin C and the common cold, arguing that us primates, like the guinea pig and fruit-eating bat, cannot make vitamin C and need much more when fighting an infection.

Following this book, between 1972 and 1975, five placebo controlled studies giving 2 or more grams of vitamin C were published. [1gram(g) = 1,000milligram(mg) ]. Pooling the results together, Professor Harri Hemila from the University of Helsinki showed that ‘there was very strong evidence that colds were shorter or less severe in the vitamin C groups’ thus confirming that Pauling was right.

But the medical establishment (aka big pharma) didn’t like this and soon two ‘reviews’ came out, by Chalmers and Dykes & Meier claiming no effect. The word went out – vitamin C doesn’t work. For example the American Medical Association officially stated “One of the most widely misused vitamins is ascorbic acid. There is no reliable evidence that large doses of ascorbic acid prevents colds or shorten their duration.” They had erroneously reached this assumption by reading only these reviews, both of which had serious flaws and errors in their calculations. The main flaw was that, by including very low dose studies, down to 25mg a day, and fudging the maths, they could eliminate a statistical effect.

We are deeply indebted to Professor Harri Hemila who published this year the most comprehensive review of all studies, including a clear exposé of the flaws that were used to falsely discredit vitamin C, to tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about vitamin C and colds.

That’s the politics so what are the facts? What do you need to do to kill a cold?

There’s no doubt that vitamin C is gold dust for your immune system. It boosts interferon, inhibits viruses multiplying and boosts the production of immune cells, including phagocytes which attack viruses, and white blood cells (leucocytes). It is also a neuraminidase inhibitor. This is the way the drug Tamiflu works. By inhibiting this enzyme viruses can’t get inside, and infect, healthy cells to take them over and become a virus factory. Vitamin C does all this and more.

When you’re under viral attack the level of vitamin C, which is highly concentrated in leucocytes, falls rapidly. Vitamin C is an antioxidant and, under viral attack, the phagocytes start to release oxidants to help destroy the virus. But they also use up vitamin C. During a cold you need about 6 grams a day to stop this decline in leucocyte vitamin C levels according to a Scottish study.

While, overall, studies above 2 grams a day do work, the best results to date have been seen in two controlled trials giving 6 to 8 grams a day on the first day of a cold. These trials have also shown that the higher dose the greater the effect. The biggest and best study, by Anderson, reported that those taking vitamin C cut the duration, measured by days confined to home, by 30%. This reduction in duration increased to 46% for those who had contact with young children.

In a more recent study of students those given 1 gram of vitamin C every hour for six hours during the first day of a cold, reported 85% less cold symptoms than those taking decongestants and pain killers.

However, other studies giving lower doses of 1 gram or more have also shown a benefit in those more ‘stressed’. Five such studies– three on marathon runners, one on military personnel and one of schoolchildren in a Swiss skiing camp, all of which doing very stressful physical activity either in hot or cold conditions, had, overall half the incidence of colds. The likely explanation for this is simple. Exercise and hot/cold conditions generate more oxidants, which uses up vitamin C. The lower your levels to start with the more benefit you’re going to get, even at low doses. The same thing was found in British men. Four trials found that vitamin C decreased the incidence of colds by 30%. These studies were done in the ‘70’s or earlier when men in Britain consumed less vitamin C (up to 50mg on average) than today (average intake from diet is 100mg).

But is 6 to 8 grams enough? All studies to date have shown the higher the dose the greater the reduction in severity and duration of symptoms. So why not go higher? Case reports (not giving placebo but just variable doses of vitamin C to those with colds) have proposed that doses should be over 15 grams a day for the best effect.

This is certainly my experience. I take 2 or 3 grams immediately on the first signs of a cold and 1 gram an hour, or 2 grams every two hours, thereafter. That means I’m going to take in at least 10 to 25 grams in the first 24 hours of a cold. I have been doing this for 35 years and can only recall three bouts of flu which have lasted more than 48 hours. I have perhaps taken 2 days off in the last 35 years due to a cold or flu. Most people report colds lingering for a week or more.

Meanwhile, on a daily basis, it’s a good idea to take 1gram of vitamin C. I take two. A well designed study gave healthy me either 1gram of vitamin C or placebo over 8 weeks. For the whole group there were 7 reported colds in those taking vitamin C and 11 in those on placebo. Also, those taking vitamin C recovered more than twice as fast.

How to kill a cold in three easy steps:

1. Take vitamin C – 1 gram an hour

At the first signs of a cold take 2 grams immediately, then 1 gram an hour until the cold is gone (usually within 24 and often within 12 hours). You could take 2 grams every two hours, or even 3 grams every three hours (during the night, for example, this is more practical). The point is to keep drip feeding enough vitamin C into your bloodstream to keep the level consistently high. Vitamin C is in and out of the body in four to six hours. In case you’re worried vitamin C, in high doses, has been well proven to be non-toxic in both adults and children even if taken over many years.

However, you do get loose bowels. The best dose is the level just below ‘bowel tolerance’. Everyone is different in this respect to it’s best to just try it and find your own way. There is no harm in having high doses for a few days. When all symptoms are gone don’t suddenly cut it out completely. Have, for example, 4 grams spread out during the next day, then reduce to 2 grams a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

Some vitamin C tablets contain other immune-friendly nutrients for extra effect (see below). These are best. You can use effervescent vitamin C but this becomes expensive at high dose and many are full of sugar. You can also buy pure ascorbic acid powder and mix with water and a little juice for taste, then drink throughout the day. It is better, again, to get a powder of alkaline balanced ascorbates, including zinc ascorbate (see below) and black elderberry extract.

2. Increase you intake of zinc.

Zinc is an essential mineral that most of us are relatively deficient in. It is found in the ‘seeds’ of things – from eggs to nuts, seeds and beans. It is also high in meat and fish. The ideal intake is about 15mg a day. Most people achieve half of this only from diet. Thus a good daily multivitamin and mineral supplement should provide an additional 10mg to help ensure an optimal intake every day.

Zinc, in much higher doses of 50–100mg a day, has also proved to be significantly anti-viral reducing cold duration by a third. It is available in lozenges for coughs and colds, which help shorten a cold. Supplementing this amount of zinc has been shown to make the body’s T cells much more effective, hence boosting immunity. Some vitamin C supplements contain a small amount of zinc. For example, if one contains 1,000mg of vitamin C and 3mg of zinc, and you take 1 gram an hour, then you are going to be taking in close to 50mg over the 24 hours. This is effective.

3. Take black elderberry extract.

Viruses get into body cells by puncturing their walls with tiny spikes made of a substance called hemagglutinin. According to research by virologist Madeleine Mumcuoglu, working with Dr Jean Linderman, who discovered interferon, an extract of elderberry disarms these spikes by binding to them and preventing them from penetrating the cell membrane. ‘This was the first discovery,’ said Mumcuoglu. ‘Later I found evidence that elderberry also fights flu virus in other ways.’ In a double-blind controlled trial she tested the effects of elderberry extract on people diagnosed with any one of a number of strains of flu virus. The results showed a significant improvement in symptoms – fever, cough, muscle pain – in 20% of patients within 24 hours, and in a further 73% of patients within 48 hours. After three days, 90% had complete relief of their symptoms compared to another group on a placebo, who took at least six days to recover. In another double-blind controlled trial, elderberry extract cut recovery time in those with influenza by four days. Some vitamin C tablets and powder contain black elderberry. If you are taking high doses this can get you up to the levels that work in clinical studies.

These three simple steps are the most effective natural ways to reduce the severity and duration of colds. Some supplements also provide ginger, and I recommend having hot ginger drinks, which is a natural anti-inflammatory and can help provide relief to the throat and airways. I make ginger juice in my juicer, then pour it into an ice cube tray to have on hand, melting with hot water, when needed.