A little bit about vitamin research and studies in general. One of the difficult things we face In looking at the benefit of any type of vitamin, beyond its known biochemistry in the body, is to determine what benefits we might derive in preventing disease or in some cases treating disease. Unfortunately, because vitamins are not unique molecules that can be patented, there is often lacking research and studies performed to determine benefits in certain clinical situations. As a result, it is often important to dive into multiple, small studies and also take into account sometimes animal research that is done in order to gain meaningful insight into the benefits that various vitamins pose.
Vitamin C is considered an essential nutrient, meaning that our bodies do not produce it on their own and we must obtain it from the food we eat or from supplements we take. Vitamin C has gained much attention in the past two years in light of the COVID pandemic, with millions of Americans becoming more aware of this vitamin for its benefits in boosting the immune system and decreasing inflammation during infections. But what other benefits does this nutrient possess and what does the research show when it comes to human studies?
Vitamin C's role in immune function is crucial, as it stimulates the production of white blood cells, especially neutrophils, lymphocytes, and phagocytes, and promotes the cells' normal functions, such as their ability to detect and engulf pathogens. Immune cells release large quantities of reactive oxygen species as they attack various pathogens and viruses, often incurring damage. To protect themselves from this damage, immune cells accumulate large quantities of vitamin C, which serves as an antioxidant within the cells. Immune cells also release interferons, a class of proteins produced as a defensive response to viruses. Some evidence indicates that vitamin C promotes the production of interferon, a protein that participates in antiviral activity.
Specific data from studies looking at the role and benefits of Vitamin C are much too numerous to list here, but some of these benefits from vitamin C include:
- Decrease in common cold symptoms
- Improve lung function during pneumonia
- Decrease bronchospasm in asthma
- Decrease in incidence of lung cancer based on dose
- Improved fat oxidation which may aid in weight management
- Protection from neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease
- High dose treatment for cancer and increased survival
In the case of these studies, the dosage of vitamin C and the route of administration (oral vs IV) plays a role in the efficacy of treatment. Oral dosages are beneficial at raising blood levels, but only to a certain point at which time continuing to take oral dosages will only lead to side effects such as nausea and GI issues without a continued increase in blood and tissue levels. Giving vitamin C by IV, on the other hand, can raise blood levels much higher than those achieved with oral supplementation, and seems to be more effective at improving immune cell function during illness and as an adjunct treatment for certain types of cancer.
The ultimate take home point is that vitamin C is definitely an important component of our diet, and in studies, it seems to play an important role in reducing a vast array of acute and chronic diseases from the common cold to cancer. In the setting of acute infections such as viral illness and even bacterial infections, the added stress on the immune system in attacking these “foreign invaders” and the damage that occurs to our cells is benefited by the antioxidant properties of vitamin C. This is likely the setting where IV vitamin C, by achieving higher blood levels, may prove beneficial at helping to shorten the duration of colds when we get sick and even boosting our immunity during cold and flu season, or during times of stress. As always, speak to your personal physician before starting any type of treatment.