Forget Vitamin C: Take This Supplement When You Get Sick

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Reaching for vitamin C when sick has become standard practice for most of us whom have been fed the knowledge that extra helpings of vitamin C will abate our nasal congestion, soar throat, and chills. I’ve seen vitamin C supplements sell like hotcakes during the colder winter months when most people come down with a cold or the flu.  We eat up the wisdom of our parents, magazines, and our culture at large, adhering to the principles that word of mouth can provide us with guidance we need for the treatment of our health ailments.

However, word of mouth advice can certainly backfire! We should thank our lucky stars that we live in the modern age of science, which abounds with meticulously researched scientific studies that can set the record straight on the validity or falsity of word of mouth advice. A case in point would be the vitamin C myth. This myth has spread like a virus amongst virus infected folks; we have no scientific support that supplementation with vitamin C will improve symptoms of the common cold and flu.  In fact, most of us already have optimal levels of vitamin C in our bloodstreams and tissues and further supplementation would serve no purpose. A review of thirty randomized trials including over 11,000 adults found that vitamin C supplementation (at the RDI recommendation of 200 milligrams daily) did not have any effect at reducing the symptoms of upper-respiratory-tract infections.[i]  Taking vitamin C at the onset of symptoms had the same effect as taking a placebo; there was no reduction in the number of sick days or severity of symptoms upon taking extra vitamin C.

We already get plenty of vitamin C from fruits and vegetables like leafy greens, berries, oranges, fresh herbs, and tropical fruits, just to name a few examples of vitamin C rich foods. Unless you don’t eat any fruits and vegetables, most likely you don’t have vitamin C deficiency. For people who are chronically physically or mentally stressed or who don’t eat any fresh fruits and vegetables, taking vitamin C may be a good idea, but for the majority of us with access to fresh produce, taking vitamin C when we are sick results in no more than if we were to sip extra water or make ourselves a bowl of chicken noodle soup (another cold and flu myth!).

Do we have evidence that taking any other supplements will speed up the healing process when we are ill? We actually do! Instead of buying into the vitamin C myth, we should become educated on the widespread scientific support that zinc supplementation is an effective tool to boost our immune systems and help us avoid the terrors of an unrelenting cold.

Unlike vitamin C deficiency, zinc deficiency is surprisingly common.  This is especially true amongst vegetarians and vegans because zinc is generally not found in high amounts in plant foods and is most easily absorbed from seafood and meat.  Most of us would greatly benefit from taking a zinc supplement or a multivitamin that includes zinc because studies show that zinc deficiency can result in “dysfunction of both antibody-mediated and cell-mediated immunity and thus increases susceptibility to infection” as my father, Joel Fuhrman MD, writes in his book, Super Immunity.  Scientific investigation has shown that regular supplementation with zinc or regular consumption of zinc rich foods can improve the functioning of our immune systems and fight off both short-term infections and reduce our risk of cancer. The largest and most rigorously conducted analysis we have of the benefits of zinc supplementation has shown that zinc supplements significantly reduce the duration and intensity of the common cold and the flu.[ii] Zinc supplementation can also reduce our odds of getting sick in the first place, even once exposed to a virus.

Below you will find a list of vegan food rich in zinc. The current percent daily value for zinc is 15 mg per day.

1)   Pumpkin and squash seeds- both contain about 10 mg of zinc per 100g serving. I adore pumpkin seeds and add them to my salads all the time. Try adding them to yours and you may develop a pumpkin seed love affair!

2)   Dark chocolate and cocoa powder- I love that dark chocolate and cocoa powder made this list for obvious reasons. Unsweetened baking chocolate contains 9.6 mg of zinc per 100g serving and cocoa powder contains 6.8 mg per serving.

3)   Peanuts- a 100g serving of roasted peanuts contains 3.3 mg of zinc, so we all have good reason to combine peanut butter and chocolate for one uber-delicious helping of zinc. This list just gets better and better.

4)   Toasted wheat germ- you can find this product packed in jars and sold toasted at your nearest grocery store. Each 100g serving contains 17mg of zinc. Who knew wheat germ was such a zinc powerhouse?

5)   Raw sesame seeds- a 100g serving of sesame seeds contains 8 mg of zinc.  That’s a pretty sweet helping of immune boasting zinc if you ask me. Tahini butter is made from sesame seeds, so why not try making a whole-wheat wrap or sandwich with tahini butter? It just might add some scrumptious pizzazz to your sandwich.

Nuts, seeds, and beans, in general, are some of the best vegan sources of zinc. Whole grains also contain some zinc, but not as much as the foods listed above. In general, our best bet is to supplement with zinc in addition to seeking zinc rich foods.

*I must give a special thanks to my dad for providing me with the resources for this article. For more information on what to eat to boost our immune systems, fight the common cold and the flu and prevent cancer, check out Super Immunity. It’s so fascinating that I’ve read it multiple times!

[i] Douglas RM, Hemila J, Chalker E, et al. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2007; (3): CD000980.

[ii] Singh M, Das RR. Zinc for the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2011; (2): CD001364.

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