By Karen Kier
Pharmacist on behalf of the UN HealthWise team
Scurvy is often a slang term used to refer to a mean or despicable person. The Scurvy Song also known as We’ve Got Scurvy is performed by artist Pink as a bonus track on the album Spongebob’s Greatest Hits as part of the television series Spongebob Square Pants. The song is written as a sailor’s shanty and was released in 2009. Scurvy is usually associated with pirates since sailors were susceptible to scurvy In a January 10, 2022 article published in Military Health System news (health.mil), the author Janet A. Aker reports that 2 million sailors died of scurvy between the 16th and 18th centuries. Historians have documented that scurvy has caused the most suffering throughout history related to vitamin deficiencies.
A lack of vitamins in the diet can increase the risk of disease, including a lack of vitamin C leading to scurvy. Scurvy was not only common among sailors, but was a major health problem linked to the Great Potato Famine of 1845 in Ireland. Since humans are not able to produce vitamin C, they must rely on their diet as an external source of vitamin C. This was confirmed in 1747 by James Lind when his controlled study evaluated diet as a remedy against scurvy. He was able to identify lemons and oranges as an effective way to prevent and treat scurvy.
So why bother with vitamins?
Vitamins are always a hot topic for advertisements on the internet, social media and the media. New advertisements promote the benefits of vitamins and supplements. Proctor & Gamble recently purchased the Australian effervescent vitamin product called VÖOST® and has a strong marketing campaign. Nature Made® is promoting a new product line called WellblendsTM, which combines vitamins with natural supplements.
On June 21, 2022, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) report on vitamin, mineral, and multivitamin supplementation to prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer. This report was an update of the previous report published in 2014.
One may wonder who is the USPSTF? The USPSTF was founded in 1984 to provide expert health advice. The USPSTF is an independent group of volunteer disease prevention and evidence-based medicine experts working to improve the health of people nationwide by making science-based recommendations for clinical preventive services. They evaluate scientific and clinical studies to provide objective recommendations. You may not realize how often the USPSTF guidelines are used to provide recommendations on screenings, including cancers (https://uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/recommendation-topics).
The recent vitamin report had three main takeaways based on science. After evaluating the literature, the group provided advice on beta-carotene (converted to vitamin A in the body), vitamin E and multivitamins in cancer prevention and heart disease prevention. The panel said that sufficient evidence from studies was available for beta-carotene and that science showed no benefit in preventing heart disease or cancer with supplementation. Likewise, the panel had sufficient scientific evidence that vitamin E had no benefit in preventing heart disease or cancer. The committee pointed to a lack of critical scientific evidence for any benefit with multivitamins for heart disease or cancer. Further studies would be needed to answer the question of the benefit of multivitamins.
Some vitamins have harmful effects linked to an increased risk of certain cancers. High doses of vitamin C and beta-carotene have been linked to an increased risk of lung cancer in smokers. Vitamin A (beta-carotene) and vitamin E are considered fat-soluble vitamins, which means that the body stores vitamins in fatty tissue. These vitamins can build up in the body and cause harm when higher doses are ingested. Too much vitamin E can lead to excessive bleeding as well as muscle weakness. Higher than normal doses of vitamin A can increase the risk of liver damage and are dangerous in pregnant women, causing birth defects.
Vitamin C, known as ascorbic acid, was discovered in 1912 and produced chemically in 1933. It comes in many different formulations and doses. In 1970, Linus Pauling said that vitamin C prevents and relieves colds. His statement was based on a study of children at a ski camp in the Swiss Alps. Its study has been strongly questioned due to numerous design flaws.
Studies continue to be published on the value of vitamin C in supporting the immune system, including its use in COVID-19. Studies did not find a benefit in improved outcomes with the use of vitamin C in the management of patients with COVID-19. A large meta-analysis (a study of studies with pooled data combined) published in December 2021 concluded that vitamin C had no benefit. A 2016 meta-analysis reported the lack of vitamin C supplementation to reduce or prevent the common cold.
The best advice continues to support getting vitamins and minerals from a healthy diet. Talk to your pharmacist about vitamins and supplementation products.
UN HealthWise offers COVID-19, including reminders, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Call the pharmacy for an appointment for other time slots. The UN HealthWise pharmacy offers Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines. Call the pharmacy for more information.
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