August 2014

Vitamin C and Heart Disease

Vitamin C and Heart Disease

Probably the first nutritional deficiency disease to be recognized was Scurvy, and as early as 1720 fresh vegetables or fruits were found to cure the disease. James Lind, a physician in the British navy, demonstrated in 1757 that consumption of oranges and lemons could prevent the disease. As a result of his work, and the scurvy-free voyages of Captain James Cook, who adopted his principles, the British navy in 1804 made it compulsory to issue a ration of lemons or limes to sailors, who were from then on nicknamed "Limeys."

It was later recognized that Ascorbic acid or as you may know it better, vitamin C was the cure for Scurvy. Ascorbic acid is a sugar which occurs in many plants, and especially in citrus fruits. In these plants it generally takes the form of hexuronic acid. In the body ascorbic acid is reduced to dehydroascorbic acid and is involved in oxidation-reduction reactions. Unlike vitamins of the B complex, it does not act as a cofactor.

The symptoms of scurvy result from the fact that ascorbic acid is essential for the formation and maintenance of intercellular ground substance and collagen. This is especially important to us for on a day to day basis our blood vessels are subject to a great deal of wear and tear. As the arteries carry blood which is pumped through them under pressure small tears and rents occur. These arteries throughout our body and particularly those in our heart and brain are essential to our primary health and longevity. When an injury occurs, collagen is essential for the proper repair of these injuries.

In scurvy there is essentially a "total" or "significant absence" of vitamin C in the diet and the results are quite significant. It generally affects the large bone and blood vessels of the body; teeth loosen because dentin is absorbed and the gums become spongy and bleed quite easily. The skin and other tissues are also subject to bleeding and even hemorrhage. In a full-blown episode of scurvy this can occur easily even after a slight trauma.

Vitamin C is used to prevent and treat scurvy as well as a great variety of other disorders, including various dental problems. Today scurvy is no longer a major problem. However, what happens when there is a deficiency of vitamin C in the diet? What happens when there is some intake of vitamin C but it is insufficient to provide all of the support that the body needs to heal the injuries to the vessels of the arteries of the heart and brain. The answer is a heart attack or stroke.

Exactly how much of a deficiency of vitamin C causes heart disease, atherosclerosis and stroke is not clearly known at this time. Scientists who research this area believe that it is not how deficient a person's diet is on a specific day but rather how often and over what period of time the deficiency takes place. Simply said if your diet is only slightly deficient over a long period of time then injuries to some areas of arteries are not fully able to be healed correctly and over time the injury is not repaired efficiently. Hence layer upon layer of atherosclerotic plaque is laid down and healing is never really accomplished.

So it is not just how much of a deficiency exists, but rather how long the individual is deficient is also important. An analogy that is commonly used is damage to the streets and highways of your town. One a day to day basis the streets and highways become injured, potholes, cracks and damage occur. If the city road repair service comes out and fixes these injuries immediately they tend not to be a problem. However, if the city road repair service cannot or does not respond, whether it is because of lack of funds or other reasons the cracks, slowly become potholes and the potholes slowly become larger.

As each car or truck goes over the damaged area the problem worsens. You may look at the growing damage and at first it is negligible however, over time it may become annoying, then difficult and inconvenient. Finally, it becomes a hazard and ultimately may be responsible for an accident or even injury. Now it may well get the city road services attention. Now when the crew comes out to fix the damage it may take several people, the road my need to be dug up and you may be blocked and greatly inconvenienced.

Using this analogy we see that much the same thing happens with atherosclerosis however the problem occurs not because of the holes or injuries but rather because the body tends to want to repair them whether it can or not. To do this it fills the holes with cholesterol without repairing them fully and over time the cholesterol deposits grow and eventually cause a blockage of the artery. When that artery is in the heart we call this a "heart attack." When the artery is in the brain, we call it a "stroke." In either case as you probably already surmise the problem would not have to have happened if the diet contained adequate nutrients to facilitate early appropriate repair of these injuries.

In recent years there was a controversy regarding the practice of taking very large daily doses of vitamin C to prevent the common cold or other viral infections. Generally, medical research has not supported this notion. Many people believed that the intake of very large amounts of vitamin C over long periods of time might be harmful. This was believed even though vitamin C has had repeatedly been shown to have very low toxicity risk. There have, in fact, been many proponents of taking large amounts of vitamin C on a daily basis. Probably the best known proponent of taking high doses of vitamin C was Linus Pauling.

Controversy surrounded Pauling view even though he is the only man in history to win two Noble prizes for science. Pauling was for most of his professional life a staunch supporter of taking very high dosages of vitamin C. He himself took between 12 and 14 grams a day for most of his life. On the other hand, the Department of Agriculture’s RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) for vitamin C has been and still presently is only 60 mg a day. This conflict was noted in the press and by many educated medical doctors. Pauling was thrashed and criticized for his "excessive" recommendation which flew in the face of the RDA for vitamin C.

However, many supporters of Pauling believe that he eventually got the last laugh. He lived to 96 years of age and worked 12 to 14-hour productive days right up until the time of his death. One supporter of Pauling was overheard telling a group of people that, "Pauling outlived by many years most of the people who criticized him, most of his critics died years earlier and many of them died of heart attacks and strokes."

Many physicians and even the RDA believe that you can obtain an adequate daily intake of vitamin C from one glass of fresh orange juice each morning. They believe that this amount provides enough vitamin C for most purposes. However, if Linus Pauling was right, and his research along with the research of many other scientists, are now proving that the was, then the whole question of adequate versus inadequate intake levels of vitamin C is moot. Those people who have a very low dietary intake of vitamin C are putting themselves at risk for heart disease and stroke if they are not taking additional supplementation. Here we return full circle to scurvy. Scurvy was eliminated be a relatively small increase intake of vitamin C and Pauling and others believe that heart disease and stroke are simply the result of an overall vitamin C deficiency and that by increasing daily vitamin C levels heart disease and stroke cannot only be prevented but existing damage can also be reversed.

Your future depends on which of these groups are right. If the one glass of orange juice a day group is right, and this is all the vitamin C you need in a day that is great, but if they are wrong as Pauling believed are you willing to stake your life on it. Remember, vitamin C is essentially harmless even in extremely high dosages.

We are often asked if I take vitamin C every day, can I entirely eliminate my risk of developing a heart attack or stroke? The answer to this is simple while vitamin C is essential it does not act in a vacuum other nutrients are essential to decrease your risk of heart disease and stroke.