Should You Really Take Vitamin C for a Cold?

We asked experts whether it pays to add vitamin C pills to your cart during cold season, along with the extra tissues, lozenges, and gossip magazines

vitamin ciStock/kenishirotie

The jury is still out on whether vitamin C can treat or prevent a cold, but a recent review of the scientific literature suggests that it does have some benefits. While supplementing with vitamin C may not prevent colds, according to the studies reviewed, there’s some evidence that taking vitamin C regularly can help us bounce back from a cold faster.

“Supplemental vitamin C may lessen the duration and symptoms of the common cold because of its immune-enhancing effects,” says registered dietitian Lisa Fischer, MS. “It’s not like if you take vitamin C, it’s going cure your cold, but it makes the body more capable of fighting off the virus once you have it.”

In addition to boosting the immune system, Fischer says vitamin C helps repair and regenerate tissue, protect against heart disease and certain cancers, aid in iron absorption, decrease LDL cholesterol (the bad kind), and plays a role in building collagen. It’s also an antioxidant that helps protect cells and DNA against free radicals and other harmful agents that can cause damage to cells. To reap the greatest benefits of supplemental vitamin C, Fischer says it’s best to make it a daily habit. “Any of the research that supports vitamin C says it’s best to take it continuously or consistently, rather than right before you feel like you’re getting sick,” says Fischer, who sees clients at The UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Massachusetts.

But don’t rush to order vitamin C pills just yet, as it’s better to get your daily dose from vitamin C-rich foods. According to Fischer, the additional phytonutrients and phytochemicals that foods contain aid in cancer prevention and fighting other diseases. The best dietary sources of vitamin C may surprise you. “A lot of people assume that vitamin C is found in fruit like oranges, but actually, some of the top sources are vegetables such as bell peppers, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and squash,” says Fischer. “The best sources from fruit would be papaya, strawberry, pineapple, orange, kiwi, and cantaloupe.” (These vitamin C-rich foods are natural fat burners.)

The only people who should rush to pop a pill, Fischer says, are those who are deficient in vitamin C (here are the silent signs you might be low on key vitamins). If you’re considering supplementation, studies show that consuming between 250 and 1,000 mg of vitamin C a day is considered safe, but more than that could lead to potential gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea and gastritis and other issues. “The higher doses of vitamin C, which would be considered anything above 1,000 mg or one gram, can interfere with the effects of blooding thinning medications including warfarin (Coumadin), oral contraceptives, barbiturates, aspirin, and acetaminophen (Tylenol), as well as chemotherapy drugs,” Fischer says.

Before taking vitamin C supplements, talk to your doctor to suss out any problematic drug interactions and determine the dosage that’s right for you.

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