Vitamin C: cold prevention or dangerously misunderstood?

By Molly Dunn

Vitamins are known for protecting the body as an antioxidant, providing the body with necessary nutrients and maintaining proper cell development. That means it’s all right to take more vitamins than the body needs, right? Wrong.

In fact, taking more than the recommended amount of vitamins can cause the body to suffer rather than receive benefits.

Linda Bostwick, staff nurse practitioner in the Health Center, said she believes people do not fully understand which vitamins they need, whether they come from a supplement or directly from natural food.

“Current guidelines are complex and generally require individual tailoring,” Bostwick said. “Generally, it is believed that a person absorbs vitamins better from food than from supplements. That is why it is recommended that individuals eat five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day.”

Dr. Suzy Weems, professor and chair in the department of family and consumer sciences, explained the logic many individuals use when correlating vitamin C with cold prevention.

“A lot of times people start taking vitamin C in the winter because they think it’s going to keep them from getting a cold, or getting the flu or getting pneumonia,” Weems said. “There’s a little bit of truth to making sure you have enough, but too much doesn’t really do any more than exactly enough does.”

The daily recommendation for vitamin C is 75 milligrams for women and 90 milligrams for men. Weems said a person is safe from reaching toxic levels if less than 200 milligrams is taken.

Because of the belief that vitamin C helps protect the body in significant ways, many people think they need vitamin C supplements to get full protection.

R. Morgan Griffin, a freelance writer for WebMD, wrote in an online article that using vitamin C as a preventative vitamin does not work for every person.

“Studies have shown that vitamin C may reduce the odds of getting a cold, but only in specific groups in extreme circumstances, such as soldiers in subarctic environments, skiers and marathon runners,” Griffin said. “Studies have not found solid evidence that vitamin C helps prevent or treat colds in average people.”

When the vitamin C intake goes above 200 milligrams a day, Weems and Bostwick said the body doesn’t absorb the extra amounts, but rather excretes it.

Weems said the effects of an extremely high amount of vitamin C cause toxic problems in the body.

“When you get way too much, like 2000 up to 5000 a day for a long period of time, the body gets really lost on how it absorbs it,” Weems said. “Sometimes they’ll pick up flu-like symptoms, the very symptoms they’re trying to treat.”

In hopes of preventing a cold or the flu, many individuals bring symptoms upon themselves.

Not only are flu-like symptoms possible, but Bostwick said diarrhea, abdominal bloating and possibly kidney stones can occur as well.

The best way to get the recommended daily amount of vitamin C is to eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables every day.

Weems said people do not eat enough fruits and vegetables each day.

“Children and young adults will tend to not get enough fruit or vegetables in their diet,” Weems said. “They would be the ones most at risk unless they happen to be adding a lemon to their tea or they add a fruit jelly to their sandwich.”

Simple additions of fruits and vegetables to the diet can increase the amount of vitamins the body needs without overdosing, a complication which is more likely with vitamin supplements because of the high intake amount from one supplement.

Weems said vitamin C supplements can have as much as 1000 to 2000 milligrams — more than one person needs.

“I would push food first, and then if you’re not comfortable that you’re eating the right kinds of foods, I think it’s really wise to talk to a registered dietician or another qualified medical person to see what you’re getting and see if you really need something,” Weems said. “You’re much better to spend those dollars on a fresh orange or a nice juicy grapefruit or even some orange juice or limeades, especially those that are made with a fresh fruit.”