Controversy and Promise: The Science of Vitamin C

Controversy and Promise: The Science of Vitamin C

By Sarah Clachar, Health Writer
November 13, 2009

Dr. Steve Hickey, Ph D. hasn’t had a bad cold since the early 1990’s.

But he doesn’t depend on an exotic herb for his health. No, it’s the one vitamin practically everyone is familiar with thanks to orange juice commercials everywhere – vitamin C.

However, the thing that will really get your heart pumping is this…Dr. Hickey doesn’t just advocate vitamin C for warding off the common cold. In his book, Ascorbate, Dr. Hickey and his coauthor Dr. Hilary Roberts outline how research over the last 50 years indicates that vitamin C may be a simple and effective treatment for diseases ranging from heart disease to cancer!

A Storm of Controversy

When Drs. Hickey and Roberts published their book in honor of the late great chemist, Linus Pauling, they picked up the threads of a stormy controversy…

Pauling ignited one of the most contentious debates in nutritional science when he described vitamin C as a miraculous nutrient. He theorized that high doses of Vitamin C could effectively treat serious illnesses.

His theory was met with virulent attacks from the medical research establishment. Despite Pauling’s reams of evidence supporting his assertion and his reputation as one of the world’s best chemists (he’s the only person to have won TWO Nobel Prizes as an individual – one for medical research, and one for peace), the medical and scientific communities rallied around the cry that Pauling was a quack.

Pharmaceutical company interests, explains Dr. Hickey, fueled many of these attacks. But he also notes that not enough follow-up research has been done to confirm the initial case for C. In fact, Pauling could not find funding to do such research. Instead, many of the studies that received funding were the ones that showed C to be ineffective. For example, the November issue of Prevention Magazine warns its readers not to waste their money on vitamin C for cold and flu season, citing a well-publicized 2007 study.

However, as Hickey and Roberts point out in their book, many of the studies that cast doubt on C were very poorly designed. “Vitamin C does not act in the same way as a typical drug, or as a micronutrient,” they write, “The confusion that surrounds vitamin C stems from a lack of knowledge about the way it works within the body.”

Dosage and Frequency: Two Roots of the Confusion

To experience a significant effect, you must take vitamin C at high doses and at regular intervals.

Why? Humans are one of the few mammals who do not produce vitamin C. It takes four enzymes to convert glucose to vitamin C. But, along the line somewhere, something went wrong with our DNA replication and we lost the instructions for the fourth enzyme. As a consequence, we can no longer make our own vitamin C.

In contrast, animals that make vitamin C on their own, make enormous amounts. Rats, for example, produce 70 mg/kg each day, which for an average human adult would work out to be 5-15 grams (5000 – 15000 mg) each day. (Yet the RDA is a mere 90 mg/day for adults.)

And this is what a healthy rat makes! When rats are stressed, they increase vitamin C production by as much as 3 times their normal rate. When sick, their vitamin C excretion also goes up by 10 times the amount.

Which leads to the second important facet to therapeutic use of vitamin C. Vitamin C is very quickly excreted by the body, even more quickly when the body is distressed. Its half-life (the length of time it takes for the amount in the bloodstream to be reduced by half) is only 30 minutes. To keep the levels of vitamin C in your blood up, you need to continually replace it. (Or produce it, as is the case for the rat and most other mammals).

An Embarrassing Error – Or Major Health Blunder?

When the National Institutes of Health (NIH) set the low RDA for vitamin C, they ignored this crucial fact. They measured vitamin C levels in the blood a full 12 hours after supplementation! Most of the vitamin C the participants had taken had already left the body. As Dr. Hickey puts it, “It was an embarrassing error.”

But it’s more than just embarrassing. This error has had enormous health ramifications. Because, as Drs. Hickey and Roberts discovered in reviewing the literature, the NIH’s mistake has been repeated in several other studies that “disprove” vitamin C works. Study after study uses doses that don’t match therapeutic levels or are not applied frequently enough.

Maintaining a constant vitamin C presence in your body, a “dynamic flow” as Dr. Hickey describes it, is key to C’s effectiveness in dealing with these major health threats.

Vitamin C and Heart Disease

A couple large scale studies have been widely publicized as proof that vitamin C has no value in preventing heart disease. Yet one of these studies used doses of only 250 mg – well below the multi-gram doses recommended by most proponents of vitamin C therapy.

And the second study ignored that, while vitamin C did not seem to offer much dramatic help to people already at risk for heart disease, it lowered the risk for seemingly healthy people by an additional 28-41%.

In contrast, just this year, a Japanese study published in Artherosclerosis linked vitamin C to preventing heart disease. Researchers found that the higher the level of vitamin C in the blood, the lower the levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), the most reliable risk indicator when it comes to heart disease.

This adds to the number of animal studies and a few human studies showing that C can possibly help prevent arteriosclerosis. While vitamin C doesn’t shrink well-established plaques significantly, it seems to stop plaque growth, stabilize existing plaques and shrink new plaques.

Vitamin C’s outstanding antioxidant power helps keep blood vessels and cholesterol healthy, reducing plaque formation and inflammation.

But it also seems to bring further protection due to its key role in the production of the protein collagen, your body’s most common protein. Plaques with more collagen are more stable, less likely to break off as a deadly clot.

Vitamin C and Cancer

In the 1970’s Scottish cancer surgeon, Ewan Cameron, who was highly skeptical of vitamin C’s efficacy, decided his terminally ill patients had nothing to lose by trying it therapeutically.

The results astounded him. With relatively moderate doses of 10 grams, his patients did better. In fact, he found that patients receiving vitamin C through injections and oral doses lived 3-4 times longer.

Cameron theorized that vitamin C’s role in collagen production strengthened cell membranes, making it harder for invasive cancer cells to dissolve cell membranes and spread. C’s antioxidant power and its role in supporting the immune system could also play a role.

While researchers have challenged Cameron’s findings, Dr. Hickey reports that evidence for the effectiveness of vitamin C therapy for cancer continues to build, along with a undercurrent of interest in the medical community. Since the publication of Ascorbate, he’s received many email inquiries from doctors interested in learning more about vitamin C and cancer…with a telling twist. “The doctors do not ask about their patients,” he notes, “they almost invariably ask on behalf of themselves or members of their own families.”

“While they are convinced the approach is worth adopting,” Dr. Hickey explains, “the risk of trying it with family is lower.” As he notes, pointing to the attacks Pauling had to fend off, “Apart from some doctors working in nutritional medicine, they want to stay well clear of the controversy.”

Tantalizing Evidence, Limited Follow Up

According to Dr. Hickey, there is almost no funding available for vitamin C research. In fact, he notes that on recent collaborative grant applications, his colleagues have avoided the term “vitamin C”. As a result, the promising preliminary research Drs. Hickey and Roberts cover in their book is missing some of the follow-up work. This work is crucial for transforming these initial discoveries into practice.

However, while Dr. Hickey hopes this will change, he also points out that the risks in using vitamin C therapeutically are minimal.

While there are some theories that too much C can contribute to kidney stones, diarrhea and mild gassiness are the only documented adverse effects. And these are quickly reversible once the C is reduced. In fact, practitioners who give their patients incredibly high doses – as high as 60-100 grams (60,000-100,000 mg) – have found digestive problems do not come up until the body has had enough C. The sicker the patient, the higher the dosage before diarrhea sets in.

When compared to the side effects of so many pharmaceuticals, the risk of vitamin C seems negligible.

Dr. Hickey advocates working with an experienced practitioner when trying vitamin C at therapeutic doses for specific illnesses. But despite successful treatment with C of diseases ranging from Crohn’s disease to AIDS, it may be difficult to find a doctor willing to work with you.

“Guided by consensus and current medical opinion,” he notes, “if the accepted policy is that vitamin C supplements are useless, then that is what general practitioners are likely to believe.”

As Drs. Hickey and Roberts note several times in their book, this simple, low-risk – admittedly experimental approach – may have saved countless lives and relieved plenty of suffering as well.

But until medical practice decides to move from putting profits and convention before promising treatments, most of us are on our own in deciding whether or not to make use of vitamin C’s promise.

You Can Start Today

At Jigsaw Health, we are excited to bring our community of thoughtful, health-savvy readers this information about vitamin C. Consider adding higher doses of vitamin C to your daily supplement routine, 4-6 grams (in a sustained release formula, like Jigsaw’s Vitamin C w/SRT®, to mimic the way your body would make it) for an average adult. A simple rule of thumb is to taper off once you experience any loose stools.

And should you be battling a more serious health problem, bring this information to your practitioner, or seek out a practitioner who is open to working with vitamin C. It could be the most practical, cost-effective, effective and healthy solution out there.

In addition, we can all spread the word about the powers of vitamin C, and perhaps together, we can help put this important nutrient back on the radar for both researchers and doctors…and make this option available for everyone who needs it.


  • Steve Hickey and Hilary Roberts, Ascorbate, The Science of Vitamin C. LULU Publishing, 2004.
  • Steve Hickey, personal interview 11/7/09
  • Y Kubota et al. Serum vitamin C concentration and hs-CRP level in middle-aged Japanese men and women. Atherosclerosis, 2009.

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