You know the drill. As soon as you start to sneeze and feel congested, as soon as you start to feel run down and tired, everybody tells you to start taking Vitamin C. Some people talk of it as a miracle cure, as if a few tablets will immediately reverse the cold, stop it dead in its tracks, and so off everybody goes to the store to buy supplements. However, in a recent phone conversation with a friend of mine who’s a graduate of the Harvard Medical School, I asked him about the efficacy of Vitamin C, and he told me that scientifically speaking it has never been shown to have more than a placebo effect. Stumped, I decided to do a little more research, and get the definitive answer to the question: does Vitamin C help prevent colds?

First, let’s look at some facts. Vitamin C is a another name for ascorbic acid, a vitamin that we need to ingest because unlike other mammals or other animals, we humans cannot create our own. It has been proven to be needed for the synthesis of collagen, which is an important structural element of blood vessels, tendons, ligaments, and bone. It’s also key in the synthesis of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, and instrumental in the transport f fat into mitochondria and the metabolism of cholesterol into bile acids. Without Vitamin C, our bodies can break apart and we die-this condition was once the plague of the navy, and was known as ‘scurvy’. It was only when the British navy figured out that it could be prevented by taking oranges and lemons on long trips that sailors were finally made safe from Vitamin C deficiency.

Now, according to the Linus Pauling Institute of Oregon State University, numerous studies have been done in the use of mega-doses of Vitamin C (greater than 1 gram/day) to prevent the common cold. In the past 30 years many placebo controlled trials have been done on the prevention and treatment of colds with this vitamin, and the over all result of all these trials is that Vitamin C supplementation in doses up to 2 grams/day did not decrease the incidence of colds. Additionally, a further 15 studies have shown that Vitamin C does not ameliorate the intensity or duration of cold symptoms. However, a specific study of a subgroup of marathon runners, skiers and soldiers done in the Arctic with doses ranging from 250g to 1 gram/day showed a decreased incidence of colds by 50%.

Thus the conclusion you have to draw from this is that no, Vitamin C does not help with colds once they have started, but rather can help you prevent from ever getting them by a little if you are in stressful or very cold conditions. So, if you’re sneezing and have a runny nose, don’t bother going to the store for Vitamin C. Instead, focus rather on living in a healthy manner, in exercising well and eating well and making sure you get all your vitamin supplements on a regular basis, and not simply trying to pile them on when you get sick!