Text: Bertrand Tappy

Vitamin C

Said to prevent just about any illness, Vitamin C becomes a bestseller every year as winter approaches. But what exactly is Vitamin C?

The story of vitamin C begins on a boat. James Lind, physician with the British Royal Navy, was looking for an effective remedy for scurvy. This disease was the sailors’ curse during long oceanic crossings, causing symptoms such as despondency, loosening of teeth, haemorrhaging and death.

Lind decided to conduct a clinical trial – supposedly the first ever. In his systematic experiment on scorbutic sailors, he compared the effects of a number of empirical remedies used to treat the disease at the time. The most effective turned out to be a blend of citrus fruit juices, whose benefits he described in a book published in 1753... It took the navy many years before applying his recommendations. And medicine needed more time yet to understand the biological mechanism at work in Lind’s discovery. Vitamin C had just made its debut into
the scientific community.

Today it is sold as a medicine, despite being available in ample quantities in many fruits and vegetables.
Since the days of James Lind, the list of its supposed virtues has continued to stretch. Vitamin C is thought to be the most effective therapy for fighting colds and flus and is also attributed with being able to boost mental capacity, counteract the effects of nicotine in smokers and prevent cancer.

This last assertion, fervently upheld by two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling in the 1970s, caused a stir in the scientific community. And it was never confirmed. “This example perfectly illustrates how vitamin C eventually came to be thought of as a cure-all,” says Thierry Buclin, chief of the Clinical Pharmacology Service at Lausanne University Hospital. “Between miracle food and effective medicine, vitamin C is a well of hope into which people pour all the benefits of Mother Nature.”

Interestingly, humans, unlike most mammals, are one of the rare species that cannot produce vitamin C. Perhaps that is why so many parents make their children load up on it!

And no proof has ever been given that it can truly prevent or treat the common cold or flu. “We know that the lack of vitamin C makes the mucous membranes more susceptible to infection,” says Thierry Buclin, “and that taking it as a supplement can correct the problem. But that does not mean that a regular dose will prevent us from getting sick if we already take in enough from the food we eat!” So, food or medicine? Whichever, vitamin C looks determined to continue riding the wave of success.