15 May 2017

Vitamin C's disease-fighting potential

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 2:30 pm on 15 May 2017

Vitamin C. We know we all need it and we all know its benefits. But did you know that when you have an infection of any kind generally your vitamin C levels drop? There's also research into the potential of the vitamin as a treatment for more serious diseases such as cancer.

Dr Anitra Carr studies the role of micro-nutrients in health and disease at the Centre for Free Radical Research, at the University of Otago.

Vitamin means vital to life and Carr says vitamin C has many vital functions for the human body.

It helps various enzymes function optimally such as those that synthesise collagen - which is what gives strength and flexibility to our hair, skin and tendons.

It is involved in carrying fats into our mitochondria - the cells in our body that generate metabolic energy and can affect epigenetic regulation – the regulation of enzymes that modify DNA and histones the proteins around which DNA wrap, Carr says.

She says animals can create their own vitamin C, but humans lost the ability to do so millions of years ago through mutations in an enzyme.

The Ministry of Health recommends we take 200mg a day of vitamin C for the prevention of chronic diseases.

That’s the highest level humans can use as Carr says our bodies can’t hold onto it.

“[The body] takes what it needs and uses it and excretes the rest.” 

Vitamin C can be injected to bypass the intestinal system Carr says which increases the amount taken into blood – a possible benefit treating infections or cancer.

Carr says there’s not a lot of evidence about dosages or frequency of vitamin C injections.

“We’re trying to carry out clinical trials at the moment in cancer patients at the moment for example to determine, do you really need these really high doses for there to be effects on the tumour.”

Carr says a lot of trials done on the effect of vitamin C transfusions have been carried out over a short time span because of a lack of funds.

“They’re very expensive to run and so you can’t run them long term but ideally you want to be.”

While Carr says vitamin C will never be a cure for cancer, it could be adjunctive therapy to other treatments.

“It’s been shown to have really good effects on people’s quality of life, particularly people who are getting chemotherapy … Intravenous vitamin c has been shown to improve people’s quality of life - decrease their fatigue, improve their appetite, decrease pain if they’ve got pain and things like that.”

She says there’s a lot of research on vitamin C – about 50,000 papers – but much of it is poor.

Carr is working on constructing well-designed clinical studies on the efficacy of vitamin C, but says there is limited funding available for such studies.

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