Whenever I come down with a cold, I buy two things: NyQuil and orange juice. I try to approach the NyQuil with moderation, but I chug the juice, with the belief that the surge of vitamin C will magically heal me. Of course, that never happens, and I spend the next week coughing and blowing my nose while cursing the gods for afflicting me with this seemingly incurable illness. So, to figure out what vitamin C actually does, I chatted with two experts. Now I understand why it’s so important to get enough of it each day, and why it’s never going to actually cure my cold.
At the most basic level, what’s so important about vitamin C? We all know what vitamin C is (it’s the C vitamin, duh), but I had Dr. Chris D’Adamo, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, break it down for us anyway. “It’s a vitamin, which means it’s essential to human health. If you don’t get enough you will actually die. Scurvy is when there is a deficiency of vitamin C. It’s not all that common in the developing world, but it is possible,” Dr. D’Adamo said, adding that it’s actually one of 13 essential vitamins.
What does vitamin C even do? Most of us think of vitamin C solely as being an immune-system booster (hence the need for OJ when we’re sick), but in reality, it does so much more. According to registered dietitian Mary Jane Detroyer, it also helps make collagen, which mean it’s really important in terms of skin and connective tissue (and may also help people with arthritis). It also helps the body absorb iron and heal wounds, and is a powerful antioxidant.
Okay, but I hate orange juice. Luckily, vitamin C can be found in many fruits and vegetables, which means it’s relatively easy to get enough of it solely through your diet (if you’re eating well). In addition to citrus fruits (like oranges), it can be found in kiwi, broccoli, strawberries, kale, Brussels sprouts, and more. Dr. D’Adamo says that, actually, red bell peppers may be one of the richest sources of vitamin C out there.
How much vitamin C does a person need each day? It’s generally recommended that women have 75 milligrams of vitamin C per day, while men should get 90 milligrams, Detroyer told me. Dr. D’Adamo said someone could easily make that happen if, for instance, they have a salad for lunch and then broccoli or Brussels sprouts with their dinner. Both experts, however, warned that people who smoke need extra vitamin C — Detroyer noted that it could be as much as 35 milligrams more — since smoking can deplete the body of the vitamin.
When should I take it in a supplement form? Generally, the best way to get vitamin C is through your diet, so if you’re eating well, then great, you’re probably set. But if you’re not, it could be a good idea to take a multivitamin that includes vitamin C, according to the doctor. He added that most people won’t need to take a vitamin C supplement.
So, can it cure my cold or what? Unfortunately, it appears that the common belief that taking vitamin C can magically cure a cold is actually just an old wives’ tale. If you’re going to get sick, vitamin C won’t stop your illness from coming on, according to Detroyer, the registered dietitian. However, what it can do is potentially decrease the duration of your cold, Dr. D’Adamo noted. “What I personally recommend or suggest is to eat lots of vitamin C–containing foods throughout the year, and if you feel the symptoms of a cold coming on, take a vitamin C supplement,” he said. Endurance athletes in particular are more likely to benefit from taking vitamin C when they feel like they’re getting sick, since they’re the ones who are generally putting their bodies through a lot of stress.
Are there any risks associated with taking vitamin C? Since vitamin C is, as we established, a vitamin, it’s generally safe for most people to take and actually necessary to live. But, if you wind up taking too much vitamin C, you could be putting yourself at risk of having some gastrointestinal problems. Luckily, Dr. D’Adamo says that usually doesn’t happen unless you take really high doses. (In other words, maybe don’t chug the entire carton of orange juice.)
Who shouldn’t take vitamin C? Again, it’s generally safe for everyone, but if you’re taking certain medications (like an anticoagulant), you might want to check with your doctor first. Also, some vitamin C supplements are made with corn, so if you have a corn allergy, that’s something to look out for.