Sunday, July 24, 2011

You Probably Have Scurvy

So, I just finished reading an informative, if terrifying book by journalist Mary Frost called Going Back to the Basics of Human Health.  I liked that it took a straight-forward, common-sense-first approach to health.  Her thesis is that, for thousands of years, our ancestors survived just fine on the diets that were available to them with nary a pill in sight.  Most of the problems we Westerners face today, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, according to Frost and many others, are just as much a result of what we're not getting as of what we're getting too much of.

She brings to light, specifically, the fact that many vitamin supplements are synthetic, not derived from foods, and therefore don't respond to our bodies in the way that, say, just a plain old fruit or vegetable would.

One food additive I've been avoiding this July is ascorbic acid, because it's often derived from corn.  As I mentioned in previous posts, Corn-Free-July is a very open-ended experiment, raising questions I hadn't originally thought to ask, and having unforeseen outcomes.  As it turns out, avoiding ascorbic acid has an added benefit, other than boycotting the unsustainable environmental and economic system from which it springs.

Now, first of all, let's backtrack to where ascorbic acid is often found.  For most purposes, its name is interchangeable with Vitamin C.  In fact, the word "ascorbic" is from the Latin prefix "a-" meaning no, and word "scorbutus", meaning scurvy, since scurvy is exactly what you get when you don't have enough Vitamin C.  When you see in the grocery store that your orange juice is "fortified with Vitamin C", it probably means (and correct me if I'm wrong here; once my research gets to the part where I'm looking at those little hexagonal molecule drawings, I'm a bit out of my element) that industrially-grown corn has been broken down into glucose, and then that glucose has been broken down further into ascorbic acid.

All right, so it's not naturally occurring in the oranges, but it's still derived from a plant, so how bad could it be?

Well, apparently, according to Mary Frost, vitamin C (and other vitamins, but I'm using the C example because it relates to corn) are actually complexes of many different components.  One of the components in vitamin C is ascorbic acid.  And many synthetic vitamin C supplements, in foods and in pills, contain only ascorbic acid and not the whole compound, so they're not really doing anything positive for your body at all.

Or are they?

Lab tests apparently show that rats fed just ascorbic acid don't get scurvy any more than rats given the full Vitamin C complex.  So I guess we're in the clear after all.

But wait.  We're talking about rats.  And here's another one of those facts that seem so obvious once you read them that you wonder why you didn't think of them yourself years ago.  I've run into dozens of these this July.   

Rats do not digest or metabolize foods in the same way that humans do.

Of course they don't!  We know that!  We've all read Charlotte's Web.

Rats can find nutrition in some weird stuff.

And, sure enough, in 1985, Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary published the finding that rats can convert ascorbic acid into the full Vitamin C complex, but humans can't, as proven by a study done on humans with scurvy who did not improve from the condition when they were treated only with ascorbic acid. (One can only hope that the scientists doing the study eventually took pity on these people and gave them the full complex before they died like Elizabethan sailors, but the article didn't say.)

According to Frost and the research she's done, too much ascorbic acid isn't just not good for you, it can actually be bad for you, since the acid will try to reform the vitamin C complex from other components thereof that your body has already stored, disrupting the delicate balance of chemicals and enzymes that were in your body to begin with.

And now we get to the good part.  All this is interesting in theory, but it's pretty easy to miss how it directly affects you.  I admit I read much of the book with a healthy dose of skepticism, and, I'm ashamed to say, a bit of self-righteousness:  I'm young.  I'm not overweight.  Do I really need to worry about all this?

Yes.  Yes I do.

Symptoms of a condition Frost calls "pre-clinical scurvy" or "marginal vitamin C deficiency" include "painful joints, bruising easily, and gums that bleed with brushing of the teeth".

For over ten years now, my dentist has been assuring me that my gums bleed because I don't floss enough.  Even though I floss every day.

Nobody flossed until dental floss was invented in 1815!  Heck!  Cavemen didn't even brush.

So, the next time you experience one of these everyday annoyances and blame it on your hygiene habits or the weather or something, eat an orange and see how you feel.

No comments:

Post a Comment