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Other Voices: Why vitamin C supplements are harmful

As a chiropractor, I regularly have patients who want to take an active role in their health care. They want to eat right, exercise efficiently, and use supplements wisely.

One of most common self-treatments I encounter is the regular use of high doses of vitamin C. The main reasons patients give for taking vitamin C fall into two camps: boosting the immune system and avoiding chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and dementia.

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of research to show that people are actually harming themselves by taking vitamin C. One of the most recent and eloquently done studies sheds light on the mechanisms by which supplemental vitamin C causes harm. The study was published in January of 2008 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The researchers took a group of “healthy, sedentary men” and divided them into two groups. Group A did routine aerobic exercise for eight weeks and took no supplements. Group B did the same workout program, but took 1 gram (1,000 milligrams – the amount found in many popular supplements) of vitamin C per day.



The researchers measured a key marker of endurance fitness called the VO2max before and after the study. The group that did not take vitamin C improved 22 percent, and the group that took vitamin C improved 10.8 percent

Put another way, the group that took the vitamin C achieved less than half of the aerobic gains that the non-supplementing group experienced! The interesting part is why, and here it is in a large nutshell.




Exercise in and of itself creates free radicals. These free radicals then trigger the body to make two major antioxidant enzymes: superoxide dismutase and glutathione peroxidase.

These two antioxidants are incredibly powerful neutralizers of free radicals and they appear to be part of a signaling system that causes the body to make mitochondria. Mitochondria, in turn, are the “energy factories” of our cells. Increasing their numbers gives us increased capacity to create energy for endurance, as well as every other cellular activity.

The researchers in this study found that taking vitamin C inhibited the body’s natural antioxidant pathways as well as the creation of new mitochondria – these people had less superoxide dismutase, less glutathione peroxidase, and fewer mitochondria in their cells.

The bottom line is this: If you take supplemental vitamin C daily, you decrease your body’s natural antioxidant defense system and literally sabotage your capacity to create energy.

Millions of Americans are taking 1,000mg of vitamin C or more every day without even thinking about it. Many fatigue-related diseases such as chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia are related to problems with mitochondrial function.

Ironically, victims of these disorders are often the ones taking high doses of vitamin C because they think it’s going to help them with energy!

Other research has shown that taking supplemental vitamin C is associated with increased risk for cardiovascular disease in women with diabetes (Lee 2004), and that it acts as a “pro-oxidant” rather than an antioxidant in many circumstances (Podmore 1998).

All of the above is true in regards to supplemental vitamin C only. Dietary vitamin C is another story.

Every study that looks at dietary vitamin C that I have seen demonstrates that it is protective against oxidative diseases such as heart disease, cancer and dementia. This is the research that has created the rationale for supplementing with vitamin C.

What we are seeing, however, is that vitamin C made in a lab does not affect the body in the same way as the vitamin C that we find in food. There are many theories as to why this is, most of it pointing the complex interactions of the thousands of chemicals present in food that we have evolved to use in our bodies, as opposed to high levels of a single molecule (ascorbic acid) produced in a laboratory. There is just no substitute for whole foods!

Foods high in vitamin C include citrus fruits, red, yellow, and orange peppers, papaya, mango, broccoli, tomatoes, kiwi and potatoes. I recommend eating at least two servings of vitamin C containing foods every day.

Craig Roberts lives in Grass Valley.


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