For more than half a century, people have taken Vitamin C to prevent and treat the common cold.
Despite little evidence, most people believe that Vitamin C will help them fight colds. As a result, the average person still stocks up on it every winter or chooses food products which are enriched with Vitamin C.
It could be possible that millions of people are wasting millions of dollars every year.
After reading this you’ll understand why people are very reluctant to give up their reliance on Vitamin C for dealing with the common cold.
Where it all began: the Vitamin C revolution of the 70s
Unlike many urban health legends, the one about Vitamin C’s effect on the common cold is grounded in real science.
Our attraction to Vitamin C as a cure for the common cold started in the 1970s. That’s when a man named Linus Pauling told the world to start taking heavy doses of Vitamin C. In his book How to Live Longer and Feel Better, he recommended megadoses (an actual scientific term) of the vitamin to ward off the common cold, among other things.
Why did the world listen to this man?
Because he was (and still is) considered one of the top scientific minds of all time (1). He pretty much single-handedly founded the fields of quantum chemistry AND molecular biology. He was awarded two different Nobel prizes, in two different categories (chemistry and peace).
The man was brilliant so the world listened when he told us to take way more Vitamin C than anyone thought was possible. So what if it brought on a “laxative” effect. Kidney stones? No sweat if it means no more colds. The word spread and soon Vitamin C and “cure for the common cold” were linked forever.
Even though Linus Pauling’s advice may not have produced results out the way he hoped, people still line up to buy Vitamin C to this day.
Scientific data has poured in since Pauling’s book came out.
To try and help people sort out the facts, The U.S. National Library of Medicine has an official government statement on Vitamin C and colds: the research is “conflicting” (2).
This doesn’t seem very clear, and that’s because the efficacy of Vitamin C depends on who you are, where you live, and precisely what result you’re seeking when you take the supplement.
No studies have yet been able to establish a link between taking a Vitamin C supplement and preventing a cold.
Vitamin C may do something for colds, but not what you may think.
Perhaps if you’re a long-distance runner living in Iceland, you will see a benefit from Vitamin C supplementation. The only shred of evidence supporting any positive effect of Vitamin C on the common cold was seen on people who were exerting themselves very heavily in winter environments. Details are as follows:
In 2007 a review study was conducted, and then updated in 2013 (3). What that means is researchers looked at all the controlled trials ever performed involving Vitamin C, dating way back to 1966.
That’s 40 years of Vitamin C research rolled into one totally succinct report.
The review study involved thirty trials comparisons and over 11,000 participants. It was found that taking Vitamin C supplements to prevent a cold was no more effective than taking the placebo.
In other words, mega-dosing yourself with C will not keep you from getting a cold. It won’t even lessen your chances.
But the part about the cold-weather endurance athletes holds true: the same review study found an 8% chance that the cold would end sooner if they took Vitamin C. They were skiers, marathon runners, and soldiers operating in sub-arctic environments.
Doctors speculate that the reason for the benefit is because these super athletic cold-weather types have a Vitamin C deficiency. By dosing themselves with C, they’re simply bringing their levels back up to normal.
So in no way should we deduce from that the need to mega-dose ourselves with Vitamin C in order to prevent, shorten, or treat the common cold.
Zinc vs. Vitamin C for colds
Turns out we’ve been looking down the wrong supplement path the whole time. Researchers in the UK have revealed that Zinc, not Vitamin C, is the magic cold-fighter (4).
In another look-back study involving 67 different studies, remedies for the common cold, including Vitamin C supplements, were examined. There were no clear benefits to be found in any of the research for any of the traditional remedies except for zinc and washing your hands a lot.
The Final Word on Vitamin C and Colds
It’s easy to see how data from research can get skewed. Cold-weather extreme athletes who probably have Vitamin C deficiencies benefit from supplementation.
Therefore it’s natural to assume that what works for them will work for everyone.
An entire generation was told by one of the most brilliant scientists of their generation that it works, it’s hard to blame them.
All you have to do is refer back to science, which gives the ultimate word on what works and what doesn’t. The final word: taking Vitamin C won’t prevent colds but for some cold-weather athletes it might shorten the duration of their colds. You’re better off taking Zinc.
- Paradowski, Robert. Linus Pauling, American Scientist. Retrieved 9/11/2015 from http://www.britannica.com/biography/Linus-Pauling
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. Vitamin C and colds. Retrieved 9/11/2015 from https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002145.htm
- Douglas RM, Hemilia H, Chalker E, Treacy B. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. US National Library of Medicine. Retrieved 9/11/2015 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17636648
- Knapton, Sarah. The Telegraph. Zinc not Vitamin C is best for fighting colds. Retrieved 9/11/2015 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/journalists/sarah-knapton/10600246/Zinc-not-Vitamin-C-is-best-for-fighting-colds.html