Vitamin C and Health 

Vitamin C and Health 

Due to its function as an antioxidant and its role in immune function, vitamin C has been promoted as a means to help prevent and/or treat numerous health conditions. This section focuses on four diseases and disorders in which vitamin C might play a role: cancer (including prevention and treatment), cardiovascular disease, age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and cataracts, and the common cold. 

Cancer prevention 

Epidemiologic evidence suggests that higher consumption of fruits and vegetables is associated with lower risk of most types of cancer, perhaps, in part, due to their high vitamin C content. Vitamin C can limit the formation of carcinogens, such as nitrosamines, in vivo; modulate immune response; and, through its antioxidant function, possibly attenuate oxidative damage that can lead to cancer. 

Most case-control studies have found an inverse association between dietary vitamin C intake and cancers of the lung, breast, colon or rectum, stomach, oral cavity, larynx or pharynx, and esophagus. Plasma concentrations of vitamin C are also lower in people with cancer than controls. 

However, evidence from prospective cohort studies is inconsistent, possibly due to varying intakes of vitamin C among studies. In a cohort of 82,234 women aged 33–60 years from the Nurses’ Health Study, consumption of an average of 205 mg/day of vitamin C from food (highest quintile of intake) compared with an average of 70 mg/day (lowest quintile of intake) was associated with a 63% lower risk of breast cancer among premenopausal women with a family history of breast cancer. Conversely, Kushi and colleagues did not observe a significantly lower risk of breast cancer among postmenopausal women consuming at least 198 mg/day (highest quintile of intake) of vitamin C from food compared with those consuming less than 87 mg/day (lowest quintile of intake). A review by Carr and Frei concluded that in the majority of prospective cohort studies not reporting a significantly lower cancer risk, most participants had relatively high vitamin C intakes, with intakes higher than 86 mg/day in the lowest quintiles. Studies reporting significantly lower cancer risk found these associations in individuals with vitamin C intakes of at least 80–110 mg/day, a range associated with close to vitamin C tissue saturation. 

Evidence from most randomized clinical trials suggests that vitamin C supplementation, usually in combination with other micronutrients, does not affect cancer risk. In the Supplémentation en Vitamines et Minéraux Antioxydants (SU.VI.MAX) study, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial,13,017 healthy French adults received antioxidant supplementation with 120 mg ascorbic acid, 30 mg vitamin E, 6 mg beta-carotene, 100 mcg selenium, and 20 mg zinc, or placebo. After a median follow-up time of 7.5 years, antioxidant supplementation lowered total cancer incidence in men, but not in women. In addition, baseline antioxidant status was related to cancer risk in men, but not in women. Supplements of 500 mg/day vitamin C plus 400 IU vitamin E every other day for a mean follow-up period of 8 years failed to reduce the risk of prostate or total cancer compared with placebo in middle-aged and older men participating in the Physicians’ Health Study II. Similar findings were reported in women participating in the Women’s Antioxidant Cardiovascular Study. Compared with placebo, supplementation with vitamin C (500 mg/day) for an average of 9.4 years had no significant effect on total cancer incidence or cancer mortality. In a large intervention trial conducted in Linxian, China, daily supplements of vitamin C (120 mg) plus molybdenum (30 mcg) for 5–6 years did not significantly affect the risk of developing esophageal or gastric cancer. Moreover, during 10 years of follow-up, this supplementation regimen failed to significantly affect total morbidity or mortality from esophageal, gastric, or other cancers. A 2008 review of vitamin C and other antioxidant supplements for the prevention of gastrointestinal cancers found no convincing evidence that vitamin C (or beta-carotene, vitamin A, or vitamin E) prevents gastrointestinal cancers. A similar review by Coulter and colleagues found that vitamin C supplementation, in combination with vitamin E, had no significant effect on death risk due to cancer in healthy individuals. 

At this time, the evidence is inconsistent on whether dietary vitamin C intake affects cancer risk. Results from most clinical trials suggest that modest vitamin C supplementation alone or with other nutrients offers no benefit in the prevention of cancer. 

A substantial limitation in interpreting many of these studies is that investigators did not measure vitamin C concentrations before or after supplementation. Plasma and tissue concentrations of vitamin C are tightly controlled in humans. At daily intakes of 100 mg or higher, cells appear to be saturated and at intakes of at least 200 mg, plasma concentrations increase only marginally. If subjects’ vitamin C levels were already close to saturation at study entry, supplementation would be expected to have made little or no difference on measured outcomes. 

Cancer treatment

During the 1970s, studies by Cameron, Campbell, and Pauling suggested that high-dose vitamin C has beneficial effects on quality of life and survival time in patients with terminal cancer. However, some subsequent studies—including a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial by Moertel and colleagues at the Mayo Clinic—did not support these findings. In the Moertel study, patients with advanced colorectal cancer who received 10 g/day vitamin C fared no better than those receiving a placebo. The authors of a 2003 review assessing the effects of vitamin C in patients with advanced cancer concluded that vitamin C confers no significant mortality benefit. 

Emerging research suggests that the route of vitamin C administration (intravenous vs. oral) could explain the conflicting findings. Most intervention trials, including the one conducted by Moertel and colleagues, used only oral administration, whereas Cameron and colleagues used a combination of oral and intravenous (IV) administration. Oral administration of vitamin C, even of very large doses, can raise plasma vitamin C concentrations to a maximum of only 220 micromol/L, whereas IV administration can produce plasma concentrations as high as 26,000 micromol/L. Concentrations of this magnitude are selectively cytotoxic to tumor cells in vitro. Research in mice suggests that pharmacologic doses of IV vitamin C might show promise in treating otherwise difficult-to-treat tumors. A high concentration of vitamin C may act as a pro-oxidant and generate hydrogen peroxide that has selective toxicity toward cancer cells. Based on these findings and a few case reports of patients with advanced cancers who had remarkably long survival times following administration of high-dose IV vitamin C, some researchers support reassessment of the use of high-dose IV vitamin C as a drug to treat cancer. 

As discussed below, it is uncertain whether supplemental vitamin C and other antioxidants might interact with chemotherapy and/or radiation. Therefore, individuals undergoing these procedures should consult with their oncologist prior to taking vitamin C or other antioxidant supplements, especially in high doses. 

Cardiovascular disease 

Evidence from many epidemiological studies suggests that high intakes of fruits and vegetables are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. This association might be partly attributable to the antioxidant content of these foods because oxidative damage, including oxidative modification of low-density lipoproteins, is a major cause of cardiovascular disease. In addition to its antioxidant properties, vitamin C has been shown to reduce monocyte adherence to the endothelium, improve endothelium-dependent nitric oxide production and vasodilation, and reduce vascular smooth-muscle-cell apoptosis, which prevents plaque instability in atherosclerosis. 

Results from prospective studies examining associations between vitamin C intake and cardiovascular disease risk are conflicting. In the Nurses’ Health Study, a 16-year prospective study involving 85,118 female nurses, total intake of vitamin C from both dietary and supplemental sources was inversely associated with coronary heart disease risk. However, intake of vitamin C from diet alone showed no significant associations, suggesting that vitamin C supplement users might be at lower risk of coronary heart disease. A much smaller study indicated that postmenopausal women with diabetes who took at least 300 mg/day vitamin C supplements had increased cardiovascular disease mortality . 

A prospective study in 20,649 British adults found that those in the top quartile of baseline plasma vitamin C concentrations had a 42% lower risk of stroke than those in the bottom quartile. In male physicians participating in the Physicians’ Health Study, use of vitamin C supplements for a mean of 5.5 years was not associated with a significant decrease in total cardiovascular disease mortality or coronary heart disease mortality. A pooled analysis of nine prospective studies that included 293,172 subjects free of coronary heart disease at baseline found that people who took ≥700 mg/day of supplemental vitamin C had a 25% lower risk of coronary heart disease incidence than those who took no supplemental vitamin C. The authors of a 2008 meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies, including 14 studies reporting on vitamin C for a median follow-up of 10 years, concluded that dietary, but not supplemental, intake of vitamin C is inversely associated with coronary heart disease risk.

Results from most clinical intervention trials have failed to show a beneficial effect of vitamin C supplementation on the primary or secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease. In the Women’s Antioxidant Cardiovascular Study, a secondary prevention trial involving 8,171 women aged 40 years or older with a history of cardiovascular disease, supplementation with 500 mg/day vitamin C for a mean of 9.4 years showed no overall effect on cardiovascular events. Similarly, vitamin C supplementation (500 mg/day) for a mean follow-up of 8 years had no effect on major cardiovascular events in male physicians enrolled in the Physicians’ Health Study II. 

Other clinical trials have generally examined the effects on cardiovascular disease of supplements combining vitamin C with other antioxidants, such as vitamin E and beta-carotene, making it more difficult to isolate the potential contribution of vitamin C. The SU.VI.MAX study examined the effects of a combination of vitamin C (120 mg/day), vitamin E (30 mg/day), beta-carotene (6 mg/day), selenium (100 mcg/day), and zinc (20 mg/day) in 13,017 French adults from the general population. After a median follow-up time of 7.5 years, the combined supplements had no effect on ischemic cardiovascular disease in either men or women. In the Women’s Angiographic Vitamin and Estrogen (WAVE) study, involving 423 postmenopausal women with at least one coronary stenosis of 15%–75%, supplements of 500 mg vitamin C plus 400 IU vitamin E twice per day not only provided no cardiovascular benefit, but significantly increased all-cause mortality compared with placebo. 

The authors of a 2006 meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials concluded that antioxidant supplements (vitamins C and E and beta-carotene or selenium) do not affect the progression of atherosclerosis. Similarly, a systematic review of vitamin C’s effects on the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease found that vitamin C did not have favorable effects on cardiovascular disease prevention. Since then, researchers have published follow-up data from the Linxian trial, a population nutrition intervention trial conducted in China. In this trial, daily vitamin C supplements (120 mg) plus molybdenum (30 mcg) for 5–6 years significantly reduced the risk of cerebrovascular deaths by 8% during 10 years of follow-up after the end of the active intervention. 

Although the Linxian trial data suggest a possible benefit, overall, the findings from most intervention trials do not provide convincing evidence that vitamin C supplements provide protection against cardiovascular disease or reduce its morbidity or mortality. However, as discussed in the cancer prevention section, clinical trial data for vitamin C are limited by the fact that plasma and tissue concentrations of vitamin C are tightly controlled in humans. If subjects’ vitamin C levels were already close to saturation at study entry, supplementation would be expected to have made little or no difference on measured outcomes.