07 September 2007

If only it were that easy to get rid of a cold

Vitamin CI have a cold. And being a guy, I am a crybaby about it. But even a simple cold gives a chance for some thinking about science.

Someone who stuck her head into my office said, "Drink some orange juice." While I like orange juice, the advice is wrong on two counts.

As far as I can tell, the idea that orange juice does anything for a cold can be traced back to Linus Pauling. Pauling was no doubt a clever person, judging by his measure in the world's universally recognized international cleverness unit, the Nobel Prize. Pauling won the prize for chemistry in 1954 and again for peace in 1962. But winning a Nobel prize is no guarantee against going off the rails, which Pauling did on at least one point in the 1970s or so.

For some reason, Pauling became convinced that megadoses of vitamin C could prevent colds. Apparently he was quite obsessive about taking vitamin C, particularly when there was the slightest symptom of a cold.

And what's a good source of vitamin C? Orange juice, of course.

But it doesn't work. There was no evidence that Vitamin C did anything for a cold that a kleenex or off the shelf cough suppressant couldn't do.

So that's the first way the advice is wrong.

The second thing is, even if Pauling was right (which he wasn't), orange juice still wouldn't be the way to go. Pauling didn't advocate just having vitamin C in your diet, the way that you might get from orange juice. No, he advocated megadoses: amounts many, many times over the recommended daily amount. And sometimes, you got to admit monks are onto something with that whole moderation thing. Huge doses of vitamins are not without their risks; it is possible to overdose on some. High vitamin c amounts are associated with diarrhea -- perhaps not life endangering, but still.

And that's how the advice is wrong twice.

We can't even get our wrong bits right.

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