Why vitamin pills don’t work, and may be bad for you
We dose up on antioxidants as if they are the elixir of life. At best, they are probably ineffective. At worse, they may just send you to an early grave.
By Alex Riley
Dec 8 2016
For Linus Pauling, it all started to go wrong when he changed his breakfast routine. In 1964, at the age of 65, he started adding vitamin C to his orange juice in the morning. It was like adding sugar to Coca Cola, and he believed – wholeheartedly, sometimes vehemently – that it was a good thing.
Before this, his breakfasts were nothing to write about. Just that they happened early every morning before going to work at California Institute of Technology, even on weekends. He was indefatigable, and his work was fruitful.
At the age of 30, for instance, he proposed a third fundamental way that atoms are held together in molecules, melding ideas from both chemistry and quantum mechanics. Twenty years later, his work into how proteins (the building blocks of all life) are structured helped Francis Crick and James Watson decode the structure of DNA (the code of said building blocks) in 1953.
The next year, Pauling was awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his insights into how molecules are held together. As Nick Lane, a biochemist from University College London, writes in his 2001 book Oxygen, “Pauling… was a colossus of 20th Century science, whose work laid the foundations of modern chemistry.”
But then came the vitamin C days. In his 1970 bestselling book, How To Live Longer and Feel Better, Pauling argued that such supplementation could cure the common cold. He consumed 18,000 milligrams (18 grams) of the stuff per day, 50 times the recommended daily allowance.
In the book’s second edition, he added flu to the list of easy fixes. When HIV spread in the US during the 1980s, he claimed that vitamin C could cure that, too.
In 1992, his ideas were featured on the cover of Time Magazine under the headline: “The Real Power of Vitamins”. They were touted as treatments for cardiovascular diseases, cataracts, and even cancer. “Even more provocative are glimmerings that vitamins can stave off the normal ravages of ageing,” the article claimed.
Sales in multivitamins and other dietary supplements boomed, as did Pauling’s fame.
But his academic reputation went the other way. Over the years, vitamin C, and many other dietary supplements, have found little backing from scientific study. In fact, with every spoonful of supplement he added to his orange juice, Pauling was more likely harming rather than helping his body. His ideas have not just proven to be wrong, but ultimately dangerous.