Friday, September 16, 2011

The Voyagers’ Vitamin–Part 2

The Adhesive Factory

So what exactly makes Vitamin C such a vital nutrient?

That’s a difficult question to answer because the arena of this vitamin’s operations is so vast. But, to give you some idea, first the big picture. Of the various types of proteins in our body, collagen is the main protein in the connective tissue that connects and supports all other bodily tissues. There are more than 20 types of collagen in the body – in skin, bone, tendons, muscles, and cartilage, even teeth and it is the scaffolding that supports the internal organs. More than 30% of the body’s protein and more than 75% of the skin is made up of collagen.

Actually, the Greek root of the word says it all – collagen is derived from the Greek “kolla”, which means glue. In other words, collagen is the adhesive that holds the body together. And without vitamin C, the body cannot make collagen.

Take away that adhesive and the body will literally fall apart and ultimately die – which is exactly what happens in scurvy, and why the disease in its final stages is so devastating. But the flip and reassuring side of that frightening fact is that it takes just a quarter cup of lemon juice a day to completely reverse this life-threatening condition!

Now, to fill in the details. Vitamin C is required for at least three hundred metabolic functions in the human body So, other than helping to make collagen, vitamin C is also needed for

· Growth and repair of all bodily tissues

· Healing of wounds

· Repair and maintenance of cartilage, bones, and teeth

· Functioning of the adrenal glands

But all of this does still not include one other very important function….

Lord Protector of Health

Ever since Dr. Linus Carl Pauling advocated consuming large doses of it to prevent all kinds of diseases, Vitamin C has been in the limelight of medical research and the centre of controversy about what it can and cannot do in terms of preventing and treating disease. Some of the latest studies suggest that though much of what Dr. Pauling recommended might not be borne out by research, Vitamin C is indeed one of the body’s most powerful bastions against ill health.

Its disease fighting abilities works on two fronts. First of all, it shores up the body’s own natural immunity by participating in the production of infection-fighting white blood cells and boosting interferon levels the extent that when a disease attacks, while your body may not able to stave off the attack, it will recover much faster. It also enhances the disease-fighting ability of drugs including those used in the treatment of cancer.

Secondly, vitamin C is a renowned and mighty antioxidant and so, its ability to both fight and reduce the risk of many serious ailments has been borne out by research. So, some of the latest studies suggest that Vitamin C could play an important role in reducing the risk of

1. Cardiovascular disease - Vitamin C has proven to be effective both in reducing the risk of and in the prevention of coronary artery disease. This is because it is effective in lowering blood pressure and may also help reduce the bad cholesterol while increasing the level of the good cholesterol.

2. Many types of cancer including cancers of the breast, stomach, lung, oesophagus, cervix, oral cavity, pancreas and rectum

3. Cataract and other aging related eye diseases like degeneration of the retina.

Thirdly, vitamin C also collaborates with other antioxidant vitamins like vitamin E, A and niacin (vitamin B3) so that their combined synergistic effect is far more than if each of these vitamins were working alone.

Naturally, with such an impressive sweep of capabilities, this vitamin has been the cynosure of all eyes, nutritionists’ and health enthusiasts alike. (It is the most popular nutritional supplement consumed in the world today.) Equally naturally, some of that attention is sceptical and cautionary, warning about the need for further research to corroborate many of the over enthusiastic claims made about what this vitamin can do, especially in the area of treating and preventing serious diseases. But even the most cautious and conservative agree that vitamin C is one of the cornerstones of good health.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Voyagers’ Vitamin– Albert Szent-Gyorgyi’s Amazing Discovery–Part I


What does shipbuilding and the invention of navigational compass have to do with Vitamin C?

A lot, actually.

The world knew about scurvy for thousands of years. Susruta and Hipoocrates and Pliny described the disease as did the Ebers Papyrus and the Talmud. But it was only during the age of the great sea explorations that began with Columbus’ voyages when scurvy became the dreaded scourge that mercilessly decimated ship’s crews.


It was because till then, sea voyages were short, since the ships and navigational techniques did not stretch to accommodate longer trips. But during the fifteenth century, the technological advances in the design of the compass and in shipbuilding made possible larger ships and more sophisticated navigational techniques that would allow seafarers longer sea voyages. It also meant that ships’ crews had to go for longer periods of time on food that was mainly “salt pork, biscuit and grog” – in other words, without fresh fruits or vegetables. It is estimated that over a million seamen may have died in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from scurvy, earning it titles like the “explorer’s sickness” and “the plague of the sea”.

Naturally, the terrible devastation instigated a search for cures, but it was sporadic and lacked the backing of the governments of the seafaring nations. In 1617, John Woodall, the first surgeon-general to the East India Company wrote “The Surgeon’s Mate”, considered to be the pioneering treatise in the practice of naval medicine. In this, he clearly states that scurvy could be treated by “the juice of vegetables and fruit”, which included lemons and oranges! But despite this, no systematic and sustained effort to find a cure for scurvy was made and ships’ crews suffered terribly. It was only in 1741, when of the 1955 sailors aboard a British convoy of seven ships on a mission to harass Spanish shipping in the Pacific Ocean, only 145 returned, that the British authorities were shocked into action.

Even so, the answers came more than ten years later. In 1753, James Lind, a Scottish doctor, conducted clinical trials that proved that including lime juice in the diet prevented scurvy. In spite of this, it took another almost another forty years for Lind’s findings to be “officially” accepted and in 1795 it became mandatory for British sailors to carry limes on long voyages. (The nickname of “limey” for the British is a result of this practice!)

Of course, even then, the medical community did not know that it was the deficiency of vitamin C that caused scurvy and that the reason why fruits like lemons and oranges were so successful in treating it is because they contained very high amounts of this vitamin. In fact, the concept of a vitamin was first developed only in 1912 by the Polish-American biochemist Casimir Funk. And it was almost two decades later, in 1928, that two teams, one American and one Hungarian, discovered vitamin C. (At the time, it was called ascorbic acid, arising from its anti-scorbutic action or ability to prevent scurvy). It won the Hungarian team of two scientists, Szent-Györgyi and Joseph Svirbely the Nobel Prize for chemistry. ……