Soon after finding an engorged tick in my hair, during a recent visit to northern New South Wales, I found myself nursing a sore head in the waiting room of a busy ‘Integrative Medicine Clinic’.
This was not the first time I had experienced a tick bite, so, as a cancer patient concerned about infection, I was keen to be treated.
Why was I offered an infusion of vitamin C?
With my compromised immune system, I am susceptible to bacterial infections. As getting the best available treatment urgently has been drummed into me by my medical team, I do my best to avoid any kind of preventable illness. I had not heard of a vitamin C infusion as a first line of treatment, so asked for the evidence. I was told that the practice “uses vitamin C a lot, and has some really excellent results for all kinds of conditions”. The GP, too, was also unable to offer a plausible biological explanation. The infusion was to be administered by the practice nurse and was to cost $130.
This is not the only medical practitioner offering vitamin C infusions and other unproven interventions. A growing number of medical clinics, claiming to be ‘holistic’, ‘integrative’, ‘anti-ageing‘ or ‘health and wellness;’ centres, are offering a “comprehensive integrated approach to health and delaying aging based upon the biology of the neuroendocrine system, nutrition, fitness and supplementation.”
The word ‘vitamin’ was coined in the early 20th century from the Latin word ‘vita’, meaning ‘life’ + and amine, (because vitamins were originally thought to contain an amino acid). Small quantities of vitamins are essential to normal metabolism.
Vitamin C, found in abundance in fruits and vegetables, is necessary for maintaining healthy connective tissue. Once common among sailors, pirates and others on ships for extended periods, when perishable foods were no longer available, scurvy was caused by a diet lacking this vitamin. It is estimated that two-thirds of the 190,000 sailors enlisted in the Royal Navy during the Seven Years’ War might have died from scurvy. The first documented clinical trial, conducted in the 18th Century by Military Surgeon, James Lindt, related to vitamin C-containing citrus foods. In 1935, it was the first vitamin to be synthesised.
Advocates claim that vitamin injections help serious conditions such as cancer, Parkinson’s disease, macular degeneration, fibromyalgia and depression and can be also be used for ‘detoxification’. Even though this intervention lacks demonstrable efficacy, it is becoming popular, as a marketing creation touted as helpful for preventing illness, with both the ‘worried well’ and with some cancer patients. However, there is no credible evidence that routine vitamin infusions provide any meaningful health benefit.
Hundreds of citations in the US-based National institute of Health’s PubMed show that vitamin C has been extensively studied. Despite more than 50 years of research, the data are unimpressive – it does not even prevent or cure the common cold!
While, in many ‘third world’ countries, vitamin supplements have saved millions who are deficient in these essential nutrients, taking high doses “can do more harm than good”.
Australian advertising expenditure for complementary medicines exceeds $60 million per annum, with many high profile sporting heroes and actors claiming that vitamins give you energy and vitality. So it is not surprising that we are swallowing them by the bucket-load because we believe they are safe and effective.
This intervention is so very profitable for the doctors that they might not have your best interests at heart. If you feel you must self medicate, then bear in mind the recent rise in herbal liver injury. There is a government-funded hot line you can phone, for the cost of a local call, for advice; and make sure you tell your GP. After all, you have only one liver! Any GP who recommends vitamin C infusions is clearly confused about scientific evidence.
My advice is to avoid him or her!