Humans are a slightly odd species. We continue to drink the milk of the wrong species of mammal past weaning age, many believe that we need to eat meat, fish or eggs every day, even though our teeth could hardly be a worse design for meat eating, and we can’t make our own vitamin C, which means we have to eat it every day to stay healthy. Some of us even have blue eyes (the natural eye colour for humans is brown), thanks to a genetic mutation that appeared a few thousand years ago in Denmark. I always knew I was a Viking.
Back to vitamin C, and our inability to make it from glucose – sometimes referred to as an inborn metabolic error. We share this unusual trait with Haplorrhini primates, as well as the guinea pig and the fruit bat, so we’re up there with the greats.
In 1979, Irwin Stone published a medical hypothesis entitled Homo Sapiens Ascorbicus, a Biochemically Corrected Robust Human Mutant. Stone himself had been researching vitamin C for years and was personally taking massive doses of it in an attempt to match the levels that the other 4000 species of mammal without our odd mutation are able to make continuously. High levels of vitamin C in the blood effectively eradicate viral infections – pretty relevant in our current Covid world. Evidently human-sized goats under stress can produce up to 100 grams (yes, grams, not milligrams) of vitamin C, which has led to the suggestion that humans should also be taking gigantic doses because our cells are effectively the same as those of the goat. Superficially, this makes a lot of sense – except that in the case of vitamin C, it’s erroneous. In many ways metabolically, humans just can’t be compared to goats.
Humans are supposed to eat plants that contain vitamin C, not vast doses of synthetic supplements (which is sadly what most vitamin C tablets are). Synthetic vitamin C can be made from boiling up coal tar with sulphuric acid, or these days, manufactured from genetically modified corn. Is this as good, or even remotely the same as, eating a wide variety of whole vegetables and fruit which contain not just vitamin C but the remaining 24,999 (approximately) antioxidants that we need? Clearly not. It’s true that humans can get away with taking vast amounts of synthetic vitamins, just as it’s true that eating burgers and chips, smoking and drinking vast amounts of alcohol doesn’t kill you right away. But it doesn’t mean that health is created via this path. Indeed, if you are prone to forming oxalate kidney stones, taking large doses of synthetic vitamin C will significantly raise your risk of this horribly painful condition.
What the vitamin C researchers in the 1970s could not have predicted was that in 2008, a paper published in Cell (21st March) would disprove the theory that humans should take massive vitamin C doses. Luckily for humans, our red blood cells have the ability to suck up the oxidised form of vitamin C (L-dehydroascorbic acid, or DHA as it is also known) and convert it straight back to the antioxidant form, which can then be transported via the blood stream to any cell that needs it. The other mammals without our genetic mutation can’t do this, probably explaining why they need to produce so much more of the vitamin than we humans need to eat in our diet.
Going further, researchers in the 21st Century have discovered that there’s a protein, known as Glut1, on mammalian cell membranes that is the primary transporter of glucose. Because the DHA molecule is a similar shape to glucose, this protein can also transport DHA, but in human red blood cells Glut1 strongly favours DHA transportation, not glucose. But what about the mammals that produce their own vitamin C? Lo and behold, whilst they have the Glut1 protein in all their other cells, they don’t have it on their red blood cells – they have a different one, which can’t transport DHA. In fact, the only mammals that have this specific protein on their red blood cells appear to be those which can’t make their own vitamin C. Fascinating stuff, but what does that mean for us?
Vitamin C is essential, and many health-conscious people make a point of taking extra supplementation (even if this is synthetic) thanks to the important work of Linus Pauling and other 20th Century researchers. However, thanks to more recent studies, the recommendation to only take supplementation that is made from whole-food sources, and not individual isolated and concentrated doses of one nutrient, is gaining traction. High doses of synthetic vitamin C supplements do not create health. Better health is gained via a whole-foods, plant-based, minimally processed diet with whole-food based supplements such as this one that contain all 25,000 (approximately) antioxidants, working synergistically together. This is what I do, and this is what I will continue to recommend. There’s no quick-fix. Health is gained through the combination of multiple factors – an excellent diet, exercise, stress reduction, joyful interaction with others – performed consistently over time.