Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS
There’s lots of hot debate about whether vitamin C helps fight off Covid-19. The honest truth is: there’s no simple answer.
However, I’m personally taking it for all the reasons outlined below. And it’s something I recommend to my friends and family.
I’ll explain why in a second.
But first: Have you ever wonder why you have a sweet tooth.
That sweet tooth – the same one most of us have cursed at one time or another – actually serves a very important evolutionary purpose.
And it all has to do with Vitamin C.
See, we humans are one of the few animals that can’t manufacture our own vitamin C. Yet Vitamin C is an essential nutrient for humans – without which a whole lot of bad things happen.
So nature, in her infinite wisdom, figured out a hack. She gave us a sweet tooth.
Why? Because sweet things we encounter in nature – i.e. fruits – are loaded with vitamin C. By hard-wiring us to desire (crave) these sweet things our hunter-gatherer forefathers routinely encountered on their missions to gather food (i.e. fruits, berries), nature ensured we wouldn’t get scurvy* and die. It’s a great system! It makes us want what our bodies need!
*Scurvy is a dreadful and mostly fatal disease caused by vitamin C deficiency.
What Do We Need Vitamin C For Anyway?
So how does Vitamin C help us, anyway? Why is it so important?
Well, as the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning said, “let me count the ways”.
Let’s start with those two dreaded towers of cellular destruction, inflammation and oxidation.
Oxidation – caused by nasty molecules known as free radicals – causes significant damage to the cells in the body, including (but not limited to) the cells in the immune system. Vitamin C helps protect immunity by mopping up the oxidative damage caused by these free radicals. That’s because it’s one of the most powerful antioxidants in the world. (1,2)
Research shows that vitamin C supplementation can raise blood antioxidant levels by up to 30%. (3) What’s more, that increased antioxidant firepower helps the body fight the other twin tower of cellular destruction, inflammation.(4) It’s a double whammy.
Vitamin C And Immunity
There are many ways vitamin C supplementation directly impacts the performance of the immune system.
It helps turbo-charge the production of infection-fighting white blood cells like lymphocytes and phagocytes. (5) Lymphocytes are the slowest to restore of all the white blood cells, which puts patients at risk for all kinds of nasty infections. Vitamin C also enhances T-cell production, and even increases the production of NK cells, one of the immune system’s most aggressive weapons against toxic microbes and viral infections. (6,7)
When you’re hit with a nasty microbe (like a viral infection) one of the first actions the immune system performs is phagocytosis. That’s where the invader is surrounded and devoured by immune system cells which literally ingest the enemy invaders like little Pac-Men. (The preface “phago” comes from the Greek, meaning “to eat”.) Vitamin C literally makes phagocytosis happen faster and more effectively, meaning it helps your immune system gobble up pathogenic invaders faster and more effectively. (8).
The Skin: The Body’s Largest Organ
Most people are aware that vitamin C is a common ingredient in lots of high-end skin products, not only for its antioxidant power but because it’s essential for manufacturing collagen. (9). But we sometimes forget that the skin is an organ – in fact, it’s the largest organ in the body, and it’s also the body’s first line of defense against pathogens and toxins, making it absolutely essential to the immune system.
And Vitamin C is an absolutely essential member of the skin’s defense team. It’s actively transported right to the skin, where it’s antioxidant power can help fortify the skin’s ability to act as a protective barrier to the outside world. (10)
Vitamin C And Covid-19
Let’s be clear. There’s no evidence that vitamin C by itself is effective as either a protection against or a treatment for Covid-19. But there’s no real evidence that anything else is, either.
There is, however, an awful lot of “connect-the-dots” evidence that supplementation with vitamin C is a wise move anytime at all there’s a challenge to immunity. Just for example: people with pneumonia recover faster with vitamin C supplementation. Not surprisingly, people with pneumonia also have lower vitamin C levels than those without pneumonia. (11,12)
Is that because pneumonia, like any stressor, eats up vitamin C? Or is it because patients with pneumonia are using every drop of vitamin C they have available to fight the virus?
Who knows? What’s important is that vitamin C plays an important, evidence-based role in many metabolic functions that have to do with immunity.
To me, it makes sense that C is the first supplement to reach for in a viral challenge.
How Much Should I Take?
The “ideal” dose of vitamin C has been hotly debated ever since the great Dr. Linus Pauling promoted it as a cure for… well, just about everything. Like most questions about dosage, the correct (but unsatisfying) answer is, “It depends”.
One of the early advocates for high-dose vitamin C was Dr. Robert Cathcart, who frequently gave vitamin C intravenously, as do many functional and integrative medical practitioners. Cathcart recommended that doctors give vitamin C to “bowel tolerance”, which basically meant that you took as much as you could without getting mild diarrhea. According to Cathcart, that mild diarrhea was a sign that your tissues were not saturated with C and you could back off on the dose. It was not unheard of for Cathcart to prescribe 9,000 or even 10,000 mg a day for a certain period of time.
Those recommendations would raise eyebrows today, but they’re based on one essential truth – it’s almost impossible to “OD” on “C”. You can’t store it, you pee it out constantly, stress of any kind eats it up, and there’s no known toxicity (at least none I’ve ever read about and certainly none at under 10,000 mg a day!)
For challenging times like this, I believe 2,000 mg a day is a good basic dose. That shouldn’t present any problems for most people.
Though there are all kinds of expensive vitamin C products, C is one of the easiest and least expensive vitamins to manufacture. It’s always nice to have fancy formulas with synergistic nutrients, but in the case of C it’s not absolutely necessary.
Vitamin C is basically ascorbic acid – any good ascorbic acid product should do the trick. Remember that fact – especially now, when supplement manufacturers are experiencing a huge demand for vitamin C and are reportedly having trouble keeping retailers) supplied with enough product!