Since you were a child, whenever you start getting the sniffles, one of the immediate reactions is to drink some orange juice, which is notoriously high in vitamin C. It seems like an instinctual reaction now, at the very first sign of illness. Sore throat? Chug some orange juice. Runny nose? Add an extra vitamin C pill to your morning health regimen.
The question is, does vitamin C actually prevent colds?
Short answer… It’s complicated. Vitamin C can help you get healthy, but it might not prevent you from getting sick.
What is Vitamin C?
Also known as ascorbic acid, vitamin C is one of the rockstars of the vitamin world, primarily because of this “well-known” fact that vitamin C is so good for the immune system. Before we dig into the confusing complexities of that claim, let’s figure out what vitamin C actually is.
Specifically, vitamin C is a water-soluble compound that is found in many different types of food and drink, and is a very important part of overall human health. Vitamin C functions as an antioxidant and is a key component of collagen and other connective tissue, meaning that it is needed for the creation of cells, muscles, bones, blood vessels and other parts of the body that we definitely need!
Vitamin C and the Immune System
As mentioned above, vitamin C works as an antioxidant within the body, meaning that it can help to reduce the effect of free radicals, the dangerous byproducts of cellular metabolism. These free radicals can cause oxidative stress in various parts of the body, primarily by causing healthy cells to become sick or mutated. These dangerous free radicals are a major contributor to inflammation in various organ systems, and unnecessary stress on the body that the immune system must address and handle.
Therefore, vitamin C does have an impact on the prevention of chronic disease, but as the title of this article implies, what about acute illnesses?
Well, there has been plenty of research done on the direct effects of vitamin C on the immune system, and in the prevention of the common cold. As it turns out, the common cold virus is quite resilient and can manage to infect the body in any number of ways. Countless studies have shown that adding vitamin C to your diet isn’t a preventative measure for colds, because vitamin C is a necessary part of human health for many other reasons. In other words, vitamin C is always in your body to a certain degree, but you can still get infected by a virus.
However, vitamin C is a proven way to shorten the duration of a cold, and kick-start the immune system to counteract the virus by attacking the nucleus. Studies have shown that the symptoms are less severe when vitamin C is regularly consumed, or taken at higher concentrations once the first signs of an illness present themselves.
High-Risk Patients and Vitamin C
Every person is unique, and their exposure to the elements and potential pathogens is always going to be different. While studies on the “average Joe” showed that vitamin C is not a means of prevention, but rather of shortening the duration, those who are at high risk of getting sick respond slightly differently to vitamin C.For example, if you are a long-distance runner who is constantly jogging through the bitter autumn and winter, then the chances of getting a cold are quite high.
Supplementing your diet with extra vitamin C won’t necessarily keep these people healthy 100% of the time, but it was shown to decrease the regularity with which people got “the sniffles”. Similarly, for younger children who are in pre-school or other high-germ areas, getting colds is almost impossible to avoid, but again, higher intake of vitamin C has shown a drop in the regularity of getting sick.
In effect, people who suffer through intense physical stress, or are constantly testing the durability of their immune system, can see a measurable benefit by regularly using or supplementing their regular diet with extra vitamin C.
All in Your Head?
As you now know, vitamin C isn’t the cure-all solution to the common cold, as so many people are wont to believe. That being said, the human mind is a powerful thing, and a number of studies have been done on the placebo effects of vitamin C supplementation on human health. The placebo effect is when you essentially convince yourself that you are benefitting from something because you are told what the effects will be, and you believe that you are being administered that drug or treatment.
For example, if 20 people have back pain, a placebo study may consist of giving 10 people actual painkillers, while the other 10 will be given sugar pills and told that they are pain relievers. The “placebo effect” occurs when some of the patients who were only given the sugar pills also feel pain relief. This is a psychological manifestation of the mind that can actually help bring about the “believed” relief.
The same thing has been found to be true for vitamin C and the common cold. In simple terms, if people believe that vitamin C will help them be healthier, and they supplement their normal intake with vitamin C, they are more likely to show a quicker reduction in symptoms due to this belief.
In short, to answer the original question, taking vitamin C is essential for human health for many different reasons, including bone strength, cellular repair, and the prevention of chronic disease. However, it shouldn’t be considered the end-all be-all treatment for the common cold. It may shorten the duration of the symptoms by a day or two, but it is not a preventative measure unless you are regularly exposed to extreme stress on the body and immune system. Even so, taking some extra vitamin C can help you psychosomatically heal yourself, simply because you believe that it will work!