Igor Yopsvoyomatsky,
editor of
answers readers’ questions.

Dear Igor,

On the advice of Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling, I began taking eighteen grams of Vitamin C daily twenty years ago. Now my doctor tells me new research shows that far from being a miracle cure Vitamin C actually protects malignant tumors, causes kidney damage and lowers the body’s resistance to dangerous disease. On top of that he says the Chinese have monopolized the manufacture of Vitamin C and nobody knows what they are putting in those tablets because the FDA does not test supplements. My bowels are shot, my bank account depleted. I’m in a panic that an evil nanobot has been planted in my brain, which can be activated to make me assassinate investment bankers or cable news commentators. Am I the new Manchurian Candidate?
Sanguo Peridonto,
Ciudad Constipato, Paraguay

Dear Sanguo,

You might very well be. Vitamin C is the scientific equivalent of the Tulip Craze, the South Sea Bubble and the subprime fiasco all rolled into one. Almost every living thing can produce it internally. Only bats, guinea pigs and humans need to take it externally. It is essentially a cure for scurvy, a disease that no one has anymore. But it has been elevated to the status of Wonder Drug and we have to ask why?

Scurvy was first diagnosed in the Fifth Century, B.C. by Hippocrates, a Greek physician. noticed that slaves were collapsing in bloody, delirious hulks on the Acropolis. A cursory work up revealed starvation as the probable etiology. Greek medicine was limited to cold baths, leeches and hemlock shooters. Feeding the slaves was not an option.

On his maiden voyage of discovery Christopher Columbus observed his Portuguese crew members spitting blood, swooning and shirking their duties. Convinced that they were either bewitched or suffering the plague he had them put into boats and cast out to sea. The desperate crew made landfall on an uninhabited island, which had an abundance of wild fruit trees.

When Columbus sailed by the island months later, his own crew depleted by disease, the Portuguese swam out to meet him, vigorous and fully restored. Columbus was convinced they had landed on an enchanted island and named it Curacao for “cured.”

Ghost ships provided the next clue. They were found floating aimlessly their crews dying or demented. In 1612, after millennia of nautical mystery a British naval surgeon named John Woodall hit upon an explanation:

“They ran out of food.”

Woodall recommended a simple cure. “Three teaspoonfuls of lemon juice given in the morning.” But the British Admiralty, reluctant to pamper the crews, overruled him. Naval historians estimate that in the next two centuries 800,000 British seamen died as a result.

In 1747, British Naval Surgeon James Lind noticed that German crews were fat and vigorous while the English could barely lift their noggins of grog. He decided it had something to do with the barrels of fermented cabbage or “sourkroute” that they carried. The English called them “krauts” and made fun of their ration, but Lind thought it might be saving their lives. He devised the first controlled experiment in medical history. He gave his sailors lemons and oranges, while feeding a control group of French prisoners a mixture of elixir of vitriol, vinegar and seawater. The English flourished, their protein intake enhanced by feasting on dead Frenchmen.

Still, the Admiralty resisted. It was only in 1794 when the crew of the Bounty mutinied over Captain Bligh’s refusal to let them eat breadfruit that the Crown relented. British crews took so enthusiastically to their citric rations that they turned bright green and became known as “limeys.”

A hundred and twenty years later Kazmir Funk discovered chemicals, which helped release energy, build cells and protect against disease. He named them vita(for life)mins.

During World War I, Hungarian Albert Szent-Gyorgi, a self-proclaimed “mad” scientist shot himself in the arm and claimed he had been wounded by enemy fire so he could get back to his researches on the new discovery ascorbic( for anti-scurvy) acid. He was one of the few Hungarians who disliked paprika, the national condiment. When his wife served it to him he said: “Honey, I’d love to eat this, but I have to use it for my experiments.”

With his fingers crossed and his suspicious spouse looking over his shoulder, Szent-Gyorgi went to work. Luckily, he found he could produce kilograms of pure Vitamin C from paprika. He won a Nobel Prize and spared himself a nasty divorce.

Now Linus Pauling enters the saga. He explored human biochemistry right down to the molecular level. He won a Nobel Prize. The range of his mind was unfathomable. And he was an apostle of Vitamin C.

Once, when Szent-Gyorgi was in bed with a bad cold Pauling entered his sick room and advised: “Take more C.”

Szent-Gyorg took massive doses. He also secretly slurped gallons of his wife’s chicken soup. He recovered completely.

Pauling believed in his science. He discovered the genetic roots of sickle cell anemia . He believed in his politics. He became a crusader for nuclear disarmament and won a Nobel Peace Prize. He was the only person ever to win Nobels in different fields.. It added to his self-belief.

Pauling became convinced that Vitamin C was the answer to all the world’s ills. He wrote a book called Vitamin C and the Common Cold in which he claimed that massive doses of the vitamin could prevent and cure colds. The book became an instant best-seller. The vitamin industry exploded.

Pauling recommended 18 to 20 grams a day, more than eight thousand times the minimum requirement. He claimed to have experimental evidence to back up his theories, but hundreds of studies failed to confirm his findings.

Paulson raged at his critics, accused them of performing imperfect studies, of deliberately rigging the results to disprove him. He broadened his advocacy, now claiming that massive doses of C could cure cancer as well.

In anyone else it would be called faddism, but in a man of Pauling’s genius it could only be insanity. In addition to his C regimen Pauling drank five shots of vodka a day. He claimed alcohol added to “a feeling of well-being.”

Over the years studies consistently showed no significant benefit to taking Vitamin C. Mystics noted that its powers only worked on diseases that started with the letter “C” –colds, cancer, constipation, collagen deficiency, Nevertheless, its reputation grew.

The Chinese saw that it fit their business model of slave labor and cheap manufacturing. They developed a shortcut for the synthesis of ascorbic acid. The Chinese government subsidized the vitamin industry allowing it to lower prices and undercut the competition. Companies in other countries were forced out of business. Within five years China had 60% of the vitamin market.

The Chinese manufacture C under contract to companies which then sell it under their “brand” name. If a vitamin says “packaged and distributed by,” but not “Made in USA” or “Made in Canada,” its C component was probably made in China. The FDA does not test food supplements so you could be taking a useless pill with a possibly lethal additive put in to cheapen the process.

Or it could be an implanted nanotransmitter. At this moment, an agent in Guangdong could be whispering instructions right into your brain.

If you wake up one morning with an almost irresistible urge to shoot Chris Matthews suck a lemon and lie down. It will soon pass.




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