Is Vitamin C all it’s cracked up to be?

by Deborah Rosenstein, School of Public Health

Happy February! To me, the beginning of February means three things:

1) It is temporally appropriate to watch the classic, Groundhog Day movie starring Bill Murray (currently streaming on Netflix!)

2) We are slowly, but surely working our way to warmer weather

3) We are well into the dreaded cold and flu season

While #1 and #2 are certainly exciting in their own right, it seems a bit more apropos to discuss #3. If you’re looking to protect yourself against the flu, getting vaccinated is a good option. Luckily, as University of Michigan students, we don’t have to go too far. UHS offers the flu shot for $42 (or covered in full for some insurance). You can even request an appointment online through the Patient Portal.

Staving off the cold is a bit trickier as no vaccine currently exists. For years, I’ve heard that Vitamin C is the best defense against the common cold, and for years, I never questioned the validity of what seemed like sage advice. Lately (you can blame my being in graduate school), I have been a bit more skeptical of where we obtain our health advice. Did a doctor ever tell me this? Did I hear it on the news? Is this advice passed down from generation to generation? Is there any science or evidence to support this claim?

I am a numbers girl by nature, so I decided to investigate the data behind the age-old Vitamin C advice. Of course, in the age of the Internet it is of no surprise that someone had already done the legwork for me.

Information is Beautiful has created a wonderful interactive chart, which looks at the scientific evidence for various supplements (data sourced from PubMed). You can sort by condition (such as infections if you are looking at colds) or you can look at everything all at once. Each supplement is in a “balloon” and the higher the balloon is to the top of the chart, the stronger the scientific evidence. Best of all, you can read the evidence yourself by clicking on the balloon.

Information Is Beautiful / David McCandless

Information Is Beautiful / David McCandless

The Vitamin C verdict…

When it comes to colds, it seems like Vitamin C is not the cure it is purported to be. In fact, it has conflicting evidence as to its efficacy in curing colds. Claims for Echinacea seem more promising. While completely unscientific, I have personally found Echinacea tea to work wonders for a cold.

But the apparent (and perhaps surprising) overall winner when it comes to colds – Zinc. Who knew?

My new weekend to-do list: get a flu vaccine, stock up on Zinc, watch Groundhog Day, and then I can consider myself ready to tackle the rest of winter.

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