Dr Zsófia Clemens, brain researcher: Albert Szent-Györgyi was no doubt wrong on the issue: it’s no use taking vitamin C. Taking vitamin C supplements will not contribute to better health, even if it’s not easy to accept this concept in the scientist’s homeland. Vitamin C has actually become a symbol of healthy life, particularly in Hungary. The never proven mistaken theory that supplementation with vitamin C may prevent diseases has prevailed for decades now. Despite all scientific findings to the contrary, the vitamin C frenzy has in fact strengthened for the past few years. When, however, researchers began to realize that vitamin C administered orally was not effective even in a daily dose of several thousand milligrams, the idea came up that it would be, if administered intravenously in high doses. Nevertheless, it would not.
Brain researcher and neurobiologist Zsófia Clemens, scientific manager of the Paleomedicina group, recently published a comprehensive review on vitamin C in the scientific periodical of the Ancestral Health Society (AHS). We interviewed her, the leading author of the article, about the subject.
The article published in the scientific periodical Journal of Evolution and Health
Paleomedicina: Would you, please, sum up the most important findings of this comprehensive review?
Zsófia Clemens: If we really eat healthy food, then we get sufficient vitamin C from our nutrition. Of course, it must be explained first what we mean by a healthy diet. If, however, we don’t take care of what we eat, it’s all the same whether we take vitamin C supplements or not, because if taken in tablets or capsules, vitamin C is not effective at all. To begin with, it’s a wrong approach that we expect miracles from a single nutrient separated from its natural environment. When we eat, the food we take in is not in an isolated form. Thus, thinking about the effects of vitamin C, we have to consider numerous interactions that occur between vitamin C and all other nutrients, also taking into account absorption, biological availability, and selection. No research has been made into this question so far. However, owing to its complicated nature, such research would be rather difficult to carry out anyway. Perhaps it would be of no use either, as there has been no scientific study so far that indicated that orally or intravenously administered vitamin C indeed has a role in preventing any kind of disease or death. In the article, we go over what we know about the connection between various diseases and vitamin C today.
Paleomedicina: Yet we still read analyses that praise the useful effects of vitamin C in the case of certain diseases. How is it possible?
Zsófia Clemens: There is a serious problem with those analyses in so much as they they confuse the results of interventional and cross sectional studies. Therefore, it seems as if there was great disorder in the relevant scientific literature. However, there isn’t! The cross-sectional studies have all demonstrated that high vitamin C concentration in the blood is associated with better health, while the interventional studies have shown without exception that giving vitamin C to patients has no use at all. It follows from the results of the two approaches that whereas vitamin C is useful for health, it will not help prevent disease if given in an artificial form as a supplement. Researchers publishing articles in the scientific media most often make the mistake of drawing a causal conclusion from a correlation. And, for lack of personal experience with patients, predisposed vitamin C fans generally cite this mistaken view when proposing vitamin C supplementation. Evolution developed the route of vitamin C in the human body during millions of years. Vitamin C supplementation with pills goes against nature.
Paleomedicina: You have said even stickier things than that! Namely, that the source of vitamin C is not to be found in vegetables and fruits.
Zsófia Clemens: That’s right. Vitamin C that is present in plants behaves, from a biochemical point of view, entirely differently from that found in animal sources of food. We scrutinize these differences one by one in our article. What is the least known in this context is that even heat treatment affects plant and animal vitamin C in a different way. At this point, we should definitely move away from the long-time erroneous assumption that not all types of vitamin C break down under the effect of heat, but only those that we find in vegetables and fruits. And, of course, those that are there in supplements. This is one reason why it is recommended not to drop vitamin C into hot tea. Vitamin C found in animal sources has a remarkably high heat stability. If you eat steamed calf liver regularly, you won’t become deficient in vitamin C.
Paleomedicina: What other animal foods contain vitamin C?
Zsófia Clemens: Apart from liver, it is found in skin, marrow, and kidney. Vitamin C is present in a concentrated form in these organs, which heap it up. In addition, glandular organs have high concentrations of vitamin C. These foods, for example calf sweetbreads, were much appreciated by consumers in the past, but now many people are averse to them. Offal of this kind may contain even 50 times more vitamin C than the amount found in the blood.
Paleomedicina: You worked on writing the article for almost a year. How confident were you about your conclusions?
Zsófia Clemens: There were powerful indications. I must say that the researchers who have firsthand experience of the nutrition and diets of hunter-gatherer societies have all arrived at the same conclusion, that is, that vitamin C supplementation is unnecessary alongside the consumption of animal source foods. Dr Walter L. Voegtlin, the only clinician who applied the paleo-ketogenic diet before us, also came to the same conclusion in the 1970s. In addition, our own patients, whose condition we followed up for quite a long period, confirmed it, too. We have also had numerous negative experiences associated with taking vitamin C pills. For instance, a little girl with epilepsy who had been on paleo-ketogenic diet then for a longer period of time and whose condition we were following up, did not become seizure free until she stopped taking vitamin C. I regard empirically based knowledge and feedback from patients as very important, and believe that there is no successful counselling on vitamins without them. I would advise everyone not to accept any advice regarding vitamins from consultants having no clinical experience. Untrustworthy information gathered from the Internet that hasn’t been proved by clinical practice may easily mislead people lacking sufficient background knowledge. Taking vitamins is far from being as harmless as most people think.
Paleomedicina: You even came across quite a lot of opposing views on the part of the reviewers. To what do you ascribe that?
Zsófia Clemens: That was probably because the criticism came from persons with rusty minds. Otherwise it couldn’t be explained how obvious facts can be assessed in totally different ways. Once something is ineffective, then it is definitely ineffective, no matter how many times we test it. It doesn’t need to be overcomplicated. However, the phenomenon is quite well known. For instance, whereas drugs prescribed to reduce high cholesterol levels are useless according to all existing studies and cause various side effects, it is hard to find physicians or researchers who would publicly defend their negative opinion regarding the taking of medicines. These facts directly contradict to the views prevailing in present-day medical practice. Moreover, researchers are openly averse to a meat and fat diet. Sadly, even those who believe in the beneficial effects of paleolithic nutrition, often find themselves on the wrong track. We are exceptionally lucky in this respect because we are able to draw from a large sample of patients as well as many laboratory tests to establish correct and appropriate conclusions.
Paleomedicina: What motivated you to start the project?
Zsófia Clemens: When I started to look at the scientific literature on vitamin C, I didn’t find any consistency in it. What I saw was that chiefly alternative (naturopathic) medicine practitioners or physicians who sympathize with alternative medicine preferred to use vitamin C. As these trends came from the East, they are concerned with dietary patterns that are close to the vegetarian diet. They try to mingle this fruit-and-vegetable attitude with some isolated facts associated with vitamin C. The result is catastrophic. The final conclusions of their articles are usually meaningless, most of the time implying that although we have been doing research on vitamin C for nearly 100 years, unfortunately we still don’t know whether or not it is helpful in preventing cancer, myocardial infarction, or cold. People have a distorted image of vitamin C. They are provided information which is totally misleading. The situation is the same in Hungary. I wanted to see, not least for the sake of our patients, whether we have to give them vitamin C for complete rehabilitation or for maintaining their good health.
Paleomedicina: Is intravenous vitamin C also ineffective in cancer therapy?
Zsófia Clemens: What I can say briefly about it is that there is not a single study to show that vitamin C has ever crucially influenced the expected outcome of cancer. Give it orally or intravenously, vitamin C will not prolong the life of a cancer patient.
Paleomedicina: What about other vitamins?
Zsófia Clemens: There’s complete confusion in that area, too. However, the situation is less complicated than in the case of vitamin C. With vitamin D, B12, B6, magnesium, calcium, potassium, and iron we had an easy time. It was enough to go over the laboratory results. It was evident from the tests that these needn’t be supplemented either, because a strictly adhered paleolithic ketogenic diet would ensure the physiological level in all cases. But how to measure the amount of vitamin C is still an open question, and, in addition, it has turned out that if we measured it in the blood of patients and relied on this value alone, that wouldn’t reveal much information about their condition.
Paleomedicina: And what’s the truth about liposomal vitamin C?
Zsófia Clemens: Liposomal vitamin C dosing is based on the misconception that ideal absorption requires vitamin C to be given continuously. Nevertheless, it doesn’t. The Inuit are hardly ever in a position to have access to food containing vitamin C daily. At the same time, the Inuit, and all other people, equally have the capacity to accumulate vitamin C in certain cells and organs. This again runs contrary to a deep-rooted disbelief that vitamin C, as a substance that dissolves in water, leaves the body quickly.
Paleomedicina: Intravenous vitamin C, liposomal Vitamin C, Szent-Györgyi vitamin C – are all these absurdities? Ineffective and worthless?
Zsófia Clemens: Yes, they are.
Paleomedicina: Will they believe it to a brain researcher, here in Hungary, in the shadow of Albert Szent-Györgyi?
Zsófia Clemens: In Hungary, Szent-Gyögyi’s homeland, it is very difficult to accept this concept. Vitamin C, Albert Szent-Györgyi, the only Nobel Prize awarded for scientific research conducted in Hungary is part of our national identity and pride. It’s with nostalgia that we remember the times when our devoted parents put vitamin C into our tea when we were ill. We grew up with the belief ever since childhood that taking vitamin C is as vital and natural as breathing. In this way, our approach to it is emotional. Nevertheless, biology pays no attention to feelings or emotions. I would like add though, that our assumptions are not meant to hurt the scientific merits of Albert Szent-Györgyi, who, contrary to popular belief, did not discover but in fact isolated vitamin C, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for his biochemical discoveries associated with cellular respiration. Though Szent-Györgyi himself took large doses of vitamin C in his later years to fend off disease, he did it out of personal rather than scientific conviction, because he never did research of that kind.
Paleomedicina: When and how did you come across vitamin C?
Zsófia Clemens: When I was a child, I did not hear about any other vitamins. My parents, who were both physicians, gave it to me indiscriminately. Then at university, we learnt ascorbic acid synthesis as part of a subject called plant physiology, which seemed so complicated to me at the time that I felt it was impossible to learn. Otherwise, I don’t remember I ever stumbled on it again during my university years. Nevertheless, I was impressed by the nutritional habits of hunter-gatherer peoples, which they passed down to the coming generations for centuries. I was especially affected by the work of a Canadian researcher, Karen Fediuk, who investigated the eating habits of the Inuit from the point of view of vitamin C. Going back to an earlier question, that was the first scientific accomplishment regarding vitamin C that I considered logical and authentic. We received feedback and vice versa, which confirmed that vitamin C-related biology works in the same way with us, first-generation Central European champions of paleo-ketogenic nutrition. The human race is very homogenous. We are right when we consistently apply the principles of evolutionary medicine to our patients, and don’t let business govern our work.
The Paleomedicina approach is that of evolutionary medicine which has a wholly scientific basis. We do not use naturopathic methods and we distance ourselves from such methods. Our scientific papers published in international medical journals can be viewed here.