You wake up and, with a sinking stomach, feel that familiar throat scratch, sniffly nose, or achy muscles. You’re on the cusp of having a full blown cold, so what do you do? Clients tell me that their first inclination is to reach for a vitamin C supplement like Airborne or Emergen-C or to dive head first into a pitcher of orange juice. We’ve all probably reached for the vitamin C poster child that is Oj at some point in our lives when we want to boost our immune system. But does chugging these vitamin C-rich beverages actually help our bodies fight off a cold? In a nutshell, the research says no, Oj doesn’t help with colds, but vitamin C itself is a bit more complicated. I’ve got the takeaway on vitamin C for you below, plus 7 surprising high vitamin C foods for your cold.
Scurvy Sailors and Vitamin C
You may have heard of scurvy sailors: men at sea were eating mostly cured meats and bread, with little fresh produce. Eventually, they would start showing symptoms of a mysterious disease including bleeding gums, loose teeth, easily bleeding skin, dry, brittle skin and hair, and eventually, death. This disease, titled scurvy, was thought to be caused by a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in the sailors diets. Sailors were advised to eat citrus fruits to prevent the disease even before scientists had discovered why these fruits warded off the condition. Eventually, vitamin C was isolated and scientists discovered that scurvy developed due to a lack of this vitamin.
Even today, as a land-living individual at low risk for developing scurvy, vitamin C is an essential vitamin to include in your diet for several reasons. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that helps scavenge free radicals in our bodies and is important in the production of collagen (think skin and wound healing, explaining why the sailors experienced bleeding gums and brittle skin and hair). Keep in mind that vitamin C can be destroyed by heat, light, and time, which makes it “oxidized”. Once this happens, it is no longer a good anti-oxidant. For this reason, studies show that if you are really set on getting your vitamin C from juice, using frozen, concentrated juice preserves the highest amount of vitamin C if you’re storing it for any amount of time.
Orange juice may not be the best way to get Vitamin C
If you know my nutrition practice, you know that I am relatively anti-juice. Touted for years as a healthful morning beverage, I see it as just another concentrated dose of sugar. It sends blood sugar soaring and requires the body to pump out hormones to cope with the excess blood sugar and manage this whole process.
While Oj has some nutritional benefit (better than soda at least), I believe you are better off eating a whole orange than drinking its juice. There was a study in the ESPEN Journal, Clinical Nutrition that actually studied orange juice and the effect it had on the immune system. They found that drinking orange juice doesn’t help the immune system, at least as long as you are a healthy, well nourished person. This might be different if you’re vitamin C deficient, but it’s not likely unless you’re subsisting off of meat and bread only (like our scurvy sailor friends). Luckily, I have a great list of 7 surprising high vitamin C foods that are a better option than orange juice, whether you’re vitamin C deficient or not!
More is not always better
I know some of you have taken more than the 2000mg daily suggested maximum of vitamin C, but there’s a reason this is suggested max. Going above that amount in one day (or taking a mega dose in one sitting) increases the chances that you’ll experience some stomach distress, including cramping and diarrhea (some people call this “flushing”). While it’s true that vitamin C is a water soluble so excess will wash out of your body, it’s still unhelpful and potentially dangerous to take it at higher doses. As with all vitamins, minerals, and herbs, while some is good, more is not necessarily better.
Besides the potential for “flushing”, some folks will experience the formation of kidney stones at high doses of vitamin C. Vitamin C also enhances the absorption of iron so if you have any issues with iron overload, beware. While it increases iron, high doses of vitamin C can also decrease levels of copper in the body, which can interfere with appropriate levels needed for red blood cell formation and immune function. Excess C may wash out eventually, but it can wreak havoc in some folks before they urinate it out. Use caution and do not overdose on any vitamin, mineral or supplement.
The daily recommendation (RDA) for vitamin C intake daily is 65-75 mg for adult women and 75-90 mg for men. For reference, an EmergenC packet contains 1000 mg. Natural Medicines Database acknowledges the controversy in research on vitamin C treating the common cold and suggests that there is some evidence that high doses could decrease the duration of symptoms by a day or two. Still, the recommendation is not to exceed 3 grams (3000 mg) as this increases the risk of stomach upset and vitamin C related side effects.
Support your immune system holistically
If you really want to boost your immune system, there is great research on getting enough sleep as well as exercising daily. The best prevention of sickness is to treat yourself well every day (think: getting enough sleep, moving daily, eating a balanced diet), not taking massive doses of vitamin C or chugging Oj at the first sign of a tickly throat. That being said, there are some delicious and surprising high vitamin C foods for your cold that are event better than that Oj and vitamin C powder. The main perk of these foods over Oj and Emergen-C is that they are whole foods with the added benefit of their naturally occurring fiber, rather than the fiber-free juice or supplement powder. Enjoy eating these 7 surprising high vitamin C foods for your cold and your health!
7 Surprising High Vitamin C Foods For Your Cold:
- Hot Green Chili Peppers
These spicy peppers may not play a major role in your diet, but they are a surprisingly dense source of vitamin C with 242.5 mg of vitamin C in 100 g of pepper, and 91 mg in a quarter cup. The next time you’re making some guac or salsa, add those peppers for some heat and some vitamin C.
This tropical fruit boasts 228 mg of vitamin C in 100 g of fruit, and 377 mg per every cup. This pink fruit may be hard to find in grocery stores in northern locales, but boasts a sweet and fiber-packed flesh.
- Bell Peppers
Sweet bell peppers contain 128 mg of vitamin C per 100 g, and 152 mg vitamin C per cup of this brightly colored vegetable. Eat them raw with dips or lightly cooked in your favorite recipe–just remember that vitamin C decreases with heat, so don’t over-cook these for the biggest vitamin C boost. Try this incredible curry with bell peppers if you need ideas.
Whether you like curly, purple, or lacitano, kale is a surprisingly good source of vitamin C. Each 100 g of kale provides 120 mg of vitamin C and a loosely packed cup provides 19 mg of vitamin C. My quinoa apple power bowl calls for two cups of greens, which would get you at least 38 mg or more (depending on how densely you pack your cups of greens).
Another tropical fruit favorite, kiwi might be slightly easier to find in grocery stores up North in Seattle and is still a great source of vitamin C. With 93 mg of vitamin C in 100 g of fruit and 167 mg in a cup of sliced fruit, this fuzzy fruit’s secret green interior might be your new favorite way to get in your daily vitamin C.
Broccoli happens to be one of my favorite vegetables to add to dishes, due to their versatility and health benefits, but they’re also a great sneaky source of vitamin C. One hundred grams of broccoli has 89 mg of vitamin C, and a cup of broccoli has 81 mg of vitamin C. I love a simple roasted broccoli with rosemary to get in my vitamin C and greens.
A summertime classic, these sweet berries actually contain 59 mg of vitamin C per 100 g of the fruit, and 98 mg per cup of sliced berries. I don’t know about you, but I could easily eat a cup of sliced strawberries (maybe alongside my favorite vegan strawberry rhubarb cheesecake) to get my daily dose of vitamin C.
What do you use when you’re feeling a cold coming on? What is your favorite vitamin C source? Looking forward to hearing more about your experience!
Ginger Hultin,MS, RD, CSO
Thanks for visiting! If you’re like me: obsessed with eating, wine, going out and traveling, you’re in the right place. Champagne Nutrition® LLC is a Registered Dietitian-run concierge virtual practice helping clients look and feel better. On this blog, you’ll ﬁnd cocktails, mocktails, and plant-based recipes that are easy to make quickly at home and pack for leftovers on your adventures.