When I first arrived at Bologna to go to medical school, I was quite poor. Indeed, I did not have enough money to buy healthy food.
My diet consisted of the following:
- Breakfast: Caffe’ Espresso, one or two, with several tons of sugar.
- Lunch: Pasta with a spoon of tomato sauce.
- Supper: Pasta with a spoon of tomato sauce.
I really didn’t mind eating little food, having had several experiences with poverty in my past.
It is true, however, I would walk along the boulevards of downtown Bologna, the city with the best restaurants in all of Italy, and gaze at the displays of food in the restaurant windows. Nonetheless, I kept studying and eating my pasta.
Then, one day, whilst brushing my teeth, I noticed something strange? My tooth brush had black material on it. I rinsed the brush in water and the black material turned red! It was obviously blood. I checked with a white piece of tissue paper and the blood appeared. The blood was coming from my gums.
The next day, I went to the student medical center. I met a young smiling Italian doctor and explained about the blood and the gums.
“Cosa stai mangiando?” (What are you eating?”) he asked me.
“E di piu?” (And what else?)
“Poveretto!” (Poor boy.) “Hai scorbuto.” (You have scurvy.)
I had never studied biochemistry, but I knew that scurvy was a disease of sailors who spent long periods of time at sea. I knew also that it was a sign of a deficiency of Vitamin C. But, in my ignorance, I had very little knowledge of Vitamin C.
The Italian doctor did not explain the biochemistry of Vitamin C in the cause of scurvy. He simply said I needed some.
“E’ male?” (Is it bad?) I asked.
“Non e niente.” (It is nothing.) he said. “Molto commune negli student.” (Very common amongst students.)
Bologna University is enormous. There were over 30,000 students. Obviously, there were many poor students. Unlike most American universities, we lived individually in the city of Bologna in rooms. One arrived with papers, including a medical exam, but after that presentation one lived alone in an autonomous world.
The young doctor gave me two vials of Vitamin C and told me to get a friend to inject one vial a week into my vein. I explained that I didn’t know anyone in Bologna. He smiled and injected one vial within a few minutes. “Torna in una settimana.” (Return in a week.) I thanked him and went back to my room. I spent the next week studying about Vitamin C.
WHAT IS VITAMIN “C”?
I learned that Vitamin C was called ascorbic acid and that it helped enzymes form different tissues in the body. Most animals did not need Vitamin C. They form it in their bodies. But monkeys and humans had to find Vitamin C in their food.
In 1747, a British naval officer, James Lind, did a famous experiment on his boat. Scurvy was a common illness of sailors. Dr. Lind had noticed that those sailors who ate lemons and oranges were not being affected. Dr. Lind decided to do one of the first “controlled” studies.
A “controlled study” is an experiment using two groups. One group gets a medicine and the other does not. If the results of the group getting the medicine are positive, the medicine works. The other group, the “control group” should differ from the group getting the medicine.
The “control group” is the “proof” of the experiment. Dr. Lind fed some of his crew lemons, and the others were free to eat the ordinary fare. After two months, many who were eating the ordinary food of the ship had scurvy. The men who ate the lemons were totally healthy.
Some people say this is why the Brits are called “Limey’s.” This planned experiment was proof that humans needed fruit or veggies in their diet to prevent scurvy and other malfunctions of their tissues.
As I studied the biochemistry of Vitamin C, I learned that this molecule did much more than prevent scurvy. Vitamin C is a molecule that helps two enzymes form a type of tissue called COLLAGEN.
Collagen is found everywhere throughout your body. It is found in all your arteries, veins, heart, lungs, intestines, joints, gums and skin and anywhere where a type of tissue, called “CONNECTIVE TISSUE” is found. “CONNECTIVE TISSUE” as its name implies, connects cells to each other. Without “CONNECTIVE TISSUE” we would be jelly! No collagen=no body–just jelly!
HOW IS COLLAGEN MADE?
The process of making collagen is extremely complex.
Like a carpenter building a three-storied house, your cells nail together molecules until three long and twisted three stranded molecules are formed. These long three stranded molecules link together with each other forming a tight and super strong net that holds all your cells in their proper places.
This process requires the use of Vitamin C as a helper to the enzymes or tools which are used to tie the molecules together. Without Vitamin C collagen cannot be made. Without collagen bleeding will occur anywhere in the body and healing will not occur.
None of our tendons, joints, disks between our vertebrates or any of our arteries could be made without collagen. If we were wounded, we could not form scars without collagen.
The first and major function of skin is to retain water within our body. This sounds like a simple task, but it is not.
The cells of the skin are fragile and easy to tear apart. They must replenish themselves quickly to keep the “skin membrane” intact. There is a constant turnover of skin cells in an never ending cycle as new cells form on the inside and old cells fall off on the outside.
To supply the energy for this factory of cells, nature has supplied the human skin with a special layer of blood and fat. This is called the “Sub-Cutaneous” layer. It has fat for energy and tiny tubes in the form of arteries to carry that energy to the layer of newly forming cells and tiny veins to carry the waste products away.
Between the upper outer layer and fat and blood layer lie pools of collagen in the form of molecules that are elastic. Vitamin C is essential for the production of these molecules.
These molecules keep the blood and water in, and the outside world away from the inner workings of the body. One of these collagen molecules is called Elastin. It gives skin its rubbery feeling and appearance.
When we accidentally cut our skin, these collagen molecules form fiber which we call “scars.” This complex interplay of molecules, blood, fat, cells and energy are only made possibly by the presence of Vitamin C. “Scurvy” or the breakdown of this complex system, shows us how vital one simple molecule can be.
One of the first scientists to recognize the extreme importance of Vitamin C was an American with the strange name of “Linus” Pauling.
The parents of Linus Pauling were a German father and an Irish mother.
Linus turned out to be a mathematical genius and soon won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for describing mathematically the way atoms bind together.
Like most geniuses, Linus Pauling did not restrict his studies. He wanted to know everything about living beings and, especially, their chemical behavior. Beyond, biology, he became involved in politics and received a second Nobel Prize for Peace.
Linus Pauling was the second of only two people who received two Nobel Prizes.
The first was Marie SkÅ‚odowska Curie who received two Nobel Prizes: One for Physics and One for Chemistry. Marie Sklodowska Curie (Curie was her husband’s name) was a Russian.
LINUS PAULING AND VITAMIN C
As Linus Pauling began to study Vitamin C he became amazed at the number of areas of human physiology where Vitamin C was essential for human health.
Here is a primary list of the areas where Vitamin C plays an essential role as taken from Wikipedia:
“Ascorbic acid performs numerous physiological functions in the human body. These functions include the synthesis of collagen, carnitine, and neurotransmitters; the synthesis and catabolism of tyrosine; and the metabolism of microsome. During biosynthesis ascorbate acts as a reducing agent, donating electrons and preventing oxidation to keep iron and copper atoms in their reduced states.
Vitamin C acts as an electron donor for eight different enzymes:
- Three enzymes participate in collagen hydroxylation. These reactions add hydroxyl groups to the amino acids proline or lysine in the collagen molecule via prolyl hydroxylase and lysyl hydroxylase, both requiring vitamin C as a cofactor. Hydroxylation allows the collagen molecule to assume its triple helix structure, and thus vitamin C is essential to the development and maintenance of scar tissue, blood vessels, and cartilage.
- Two enzymes are necessary for synthesis of carnitine. Carnitine is essential for the transport of fatty acids into mitochondria for ATP generation.
- The remaining three enzymes have the following functions in common, but have other functions as well:
o dopamine beta hydroxylase participates in the biosynthesis of norepinephrine from dopamine.
o another enzyme adds amide groups to peptide hormones, greatly increasing their stability.
o one modulates tyrosine metabolism.
In addition, Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) acts in the following areas:
3. IMMUNE SYSTEM
SUMMARY OF THE FUNCTIONS OF VITAMIN C
Vitamin C plays an extensive and intensive role in the functioning of the human body.
As we see in the cause of Scurvy, Collagen and related molecules form the “Soft Skeleton” of the human body.
Our body uses a framework of hard bone for primary support. Attached to the “Hard Skeleton” of bone is a “Soft Skeleton” of molecules and tissues which connect all our cells to the “Hard Skeleton” and to each other.
Some of these tissues are very hard, such as tendons, ligaments and fascia (layered fiber connective tissue) found between muscles, allowing the muscles to slide independently.
Some of these tissues are semi-hard but elastic. These tissues are found in skin and also in all our arteries and veins, and, of course, in our heart. Our heart is muscle attached to a semi-hard “Heart Skeleton” which maintains the shape of the heart.
This “Heart Skeleton” allows our four heart valves to function and control the flow of blood to our lungs and then to our body.
Our skin has collagen and elastin fibers within it, making it a tight but pliable bag around our entire body. Vitamin C is required for humans and other primates for the formation of this bag.
Without the skin the liquids within our body would escape and the external world, in the form of hard substances, such as branches or stones, would easily penetrate into our vital organs.
A good analogy of the function of collagen and elastin in our body, is the wooden framework of a house before the walls and roof are attached.
OTHER VITAL FUNCTIONS
Linus Pauling, in his studies of Vitamin C, noted that there was a relationship between Vitamin C and atherosclerosis or “heart disease.”
He found that the key PROTECTIVE MOLECULE to prevent atherosclerosis was “APO-LIPO-PROTEIN A-1.” This is the key molecule in the formation of HDL CHOLESTEROL, which is called “GOOD CHOLESTEROL.” When there are high levels of HDL CHOLESTEROL there is a reduction in the incidence of atherosclerosis.
According to Linus Pauling, Vitamin C increased the level of Apolipoprotein A-1 and, hence, increased the levels of HDL cholesterol or “Good Cholesterol.”
Other scientists have rejected this notion and, at the moment, there is no agreement whether Vitamin C increases or decreases atherosclerosis.
ROLE IN EVOLUTION
If we study the use of Vitamin C in the evolution of human beings, we can see that our ancestors, the primates or monkeys, lost their ability to form Vitamin C within their own bodies several million years ago. These primates were then compelled to spend their entire day in the jungles, eating fruit and veggies, in order to have sufficient Vitamin C to prevent illnesses and to survive as a species. We inherited that necessity.
Scurvy was only one of the major diseases that a deficiency of vitamin produces. Heart disease, perhaps cancer and also, neurological diseases are part of the many probable diseases that Vitamin C deficiency produces.
We can see that Vitamin C is used throughout the human body as a fundamental molecule, like oxygen, for the formation of the “Soft Skeleton” as also, in the form of an anti-oxidant, to prevent rapid aging and, perhaps, cancer.
As most geniuses, Linus Pauling, was way ahead of his peers, in seeing the pervasive role of Vitamin C in the metabolism and physiology of the human body.
All scientists agree that Vitamin C is indispensable in order to prevent many human diseases.
Today, the only areas of disagreement lie in which diseases Vitamin C may prevent; and how much Vitamin C a human should consume to prevent these diseases.
Those who follow the thinking of Linus Pauling, as I do, believe that the scope of disease prevention is wider than present day science has concluded.
In addition, the dosage or quantity of Vitamin C needed on a daily basis, is widely different.
Proponents of the Linus Pauling school of thought believe that “Mega Doses,” in the order of two to six grams daily, are required for the prevention of serious diseases.
Proponents of the conservative school of thought, supported by most government, believe that doses below 200 milligrams per day are all that is needed.
In the next article, I will discuss the dosages of Vitamin C that I believe are necessary for the prevention of disease and those areas of pre-mature aging that is so common in the human population today.
It is interesting to note that Linus Pauling died at the age of 93 from cancer of the prostate.