Sunday, January 27, 2013

Vitamin C Megadosing & the Nobel Disease

Cross-posted at

Anyone that has ever been to one knows that the gym locker room is a curious place as one often over-hears others' conversations (not to mention the strange predilection for some guys to feel compelled to walk around in nothing but a t-shirt).  

Last week I overheard two strangers talking about the cold season and how its especially bad this year.  Then one of them offered a solution: megadosing on vitamin C.  Oh boy, here we go; some dumbass is going to start offering some dubious medical advice to a stranger (at least I assume they're strangers to each other as one guy asked the others name when they departed).  His protocol was to basically take about 30,000mg of vitamin C over the course of the workday.  First you start out taking 500mg; an hour later, 1,000; another hour 2,000; and keep doubling until you get up to 16,000mg.

Sounds brilliant, right?

My favorite part was when he said "Yea man, its intense.  The thing is, you just gotta get through the nonstop diarrhea for about a day and you'll be good." 

Even if this treatment actually worked, would it really be worth dealing with 'nonstop diarrhea' for a day so that you can avoid a 24-hour cold?

Needless to say, I was skeptical.

The literature simply does not support the conclusion that mega-dosing on vitamin C will prevent or mitigate a cold.  This 2009 meta-analysis concluded: 
Our literature review revealed that vitamin C is not effective at preventing the common cold in the general adult population; however, it is effective at preventing colds when consumed regularly by athletes training in subarctic conditions. We also found that regular vitamin C consumption may reduce the duration of cold symptoms in both adults and children, but it does not decrease the severity of cold symptoms.
Seems pretty straightforward.  So its curious why these kinds of notions persist.

Vitamin C mega-dosing was first promoted by Linus Pauling, a Nobel laureate in chemistry.  I suspect that as soon as you saw his name attached to the Nobel brand, you probably thought (consciously or sub-consciously), 'well maybe there is something to it, after all, he is a Nobel laureate.'  

While a natural reaction, its important to remember that Nobel winners are obviously very intelligent, but not infallible.  Especially when they stray outside of their area of expertise.  Its easy to focus on the fact that he's a scientist with a Nobel, but a Nobel in chemistry (for his work on chemical bonding) is far afield from medical research.  Fortunately, his namesake institute at Oregon State University seems to recognize that Pauling's promotion of vitamin C isn't supported by the evidence.

Indeed, Pauling is certainly not alone in making dubious claims or promoting questionable (pseudo) science.  

Here are a couple examples on why you shouldn't take the claims of a Nobel winner for granted (here's a more complete list):
  1. Ivar Gieavaer - Won the 1973 Nobel prize for work on tunneling in superconductors.  I like how fellow Nobel winner Mario Molina (for work on the destruction of the ozone) characterized AGW critics: "...Molina said that critics aren’t usually the experts. Listening to them, he added, is like going to your dentist when you have a heart problem."
  2.  Brian Josephson - Won the 1973 Nobel prize for his work on semiconductors and superconductors.  But since (or perhaps before), he has apparently found psychic healing to be provocative.
  3. Luc Montagnier -  Won the 2008 Nobel prize for his work in discovering HIV and that HPV can cause cervical cancer.  He has since published a paper (in a journal he had just started) espousing the crackpot idea that DNA can teleport ghostly impressions of itself elsewhere.  Mmmhm.
  4. Kary Mullis - Won the 1993 Nobel prize for his work in improvements to the concept of the polymerase chain reaction.  This fellow seems to have achieved a hat-trick in unsupported or flat-out stupid beliefs: denial of HIV causing AIDS, disputes that anthropomorphic global warming is occurring, and is, shall we say skeptical of the big bang theory. 
  5. Isaac Newton - You've probably heard of him and his accomplishments.  However, you may not have heard that he was really into alchemy.  That's right, the idea that you can turn lead into gold.
As I was reading about these Nobel winners and their wacky unsupported side-hypotheses, I wondered if there might be a certain amount of hubris that accompanies becoming a Nobel winner.   It seems this phenomenon already has a name: Nobel Disease.  Sure enough, when I found Kary Mullis, I found some evidence of this:
I get tired of talking about the polymerase chain reaction, but I read a lot, and think a lot, and I can talk about almost anything.  Being a Nobel laureate is a license to be an expert in lots of things as long as you do your homework.
He seems to have forgotten that last part about doing the homework. 

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