The Strange Case of Dr. Pauling

By May 7, 2016 December 9th, 2016 Nutrition

The grandfather of vitamin C may have changed his viewpoint given the contemporary scientific evidence about this nutrient.

His list of scientific achievements is seemingly endless, and includes a Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Best known as one of the greatest scientists of all time, Dr. Linus Pauling was ranked as the 16th most important scientist in history. He was an unconventional thinker and researcher, even holistic in his approaches, often venturing into biochemistry, metabolism and brain function. He was one of the founders of the fields of quantum chemistry and molecular biology. Much of this was accomplished before age 30.

One thing the flamboyant Linus Pauling did not accomplish was finding a cure for the common cold and flu, something the pharmaceutical companies have not done either, despite pouring millions into research. But the perception that synthetic vitamin C in massive doses could accomplish this, instigated by Pauling, was enough to trigger the start of a worldwide dietary supplement craze, becoming a multi-billion-dollar industry, the primary beneficiary of which were the pharmaceutical companies that made the synthetic vitamins used in these products, as well as manufacturers and retailers. Vitamin C has always been the Cinderella product of the industry, the reason there have been hundreds of different kinds of chemical vitamin C products, almost all of which are essentially the same.

While Pauling made many scientific discoveries, vitamin C was not one of them. Some think his middle initial of “C” refers to the vitamin, but it’s really his middle name, Carl. (In 1928, during Pauling’s early scientific career, Hungarian-American physiologist Albert Szent-Györgyi isolated a substance from adrenal glands that he called ‘hexuronic acid,’ and later called ascorbic acid or vitamin C, the third vitamin to be discovered, for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize.)

Today the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recognizes ascorbic acid as vitamin C. However, vitamin C as it occurs naturally in food is a balanced complex with several other components. Most supplements contain only isolated high-dose synthetic ascorbic acid.

After World War II, influenced by wife Ava, Pauling became a peace activist, joining the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, chaired by colleague Albert Einstein, whose mission was to warn the public of the dangers of nuclear weapons. Enlisting support from hundreds of fellow scientists, Pauling tirelessly promoted the anti-war stance, forced governments to admit that nuclear explosions could damage human genes, and was an important part of the rapidly growing peace movement of the 1960s.

Pauling was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962, the only person to be awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes.

Prior to the 1960s, Pauling had positive personal experiences with taking dietary supplements, not common items of the day. He theorized extra vitamins might have important healthy biochemical effects unrelated to their prevention of deficiency diseases, and began touting the suspected benefits of synthetic vitamin C in very high doses. Because of his popularity, this received a lot of attention. Along with sales of a book on the subject, Pauling would be a major trigger for the growth of the dietary supplement industry.

A significant amount of research has been performed on synthetic vitamin C, along with foods containing this necessary nutrient. Overall, the studies show little to no benefits of synthetic C while the value of vitamin C in foods has been clearly shown to be vital for optimal health.

We know there may be some effect of taking certain doses of synthetic vitamin C, especially in the gastrointestinal tract. Stress can reduce the stomach’s production of hydrochloric acid, a primary factor for good digestion and absorption of other nutrients. Synthetic C is called ascorbic acid, and it can help acidify parts of the intestinal tract improving function in some people. For example, its acidic quality can improve iron absorption.

Currently, most synthetic vitamin C, like other chemicals used for dietary supplements and medications, are imported from China, where 80 percent of the world’s supply is manufactured.

Pauling coined the word “orthomolecular,” referring to vitamin C’s use in psychiatry (in treating the brain). In 1973 he founded the Institute of Orthomolecular Medicine, which was soon renamed the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine. He began studying the use of very high doses of synthetic vitamin C, among other nutrients, theorizing its value in preventing the common cold, and treating heart disease, cancer, brain disorders and other conditions.

Overall, the scientific community did not support Pauling’s ideas about high-dose vitamin C, and he was often severely criticized by colleagues. While studies already showed that people whose diets were rich in foods high in vitamin C — typically 200 mg per day — have a lower risk of heart disease, certain cancers and other diseases, clinical trials testing isolated doses of synthetic C have mostly failed to find any protective benefit against disease.

In a 2013 article in The Atlantic, pediatrician Paul Offit wrote that although Pauling was “so spectacularly right” that he won two Nobel Prizes, the scientist’s late-career assertions about the benefits of dietary supplements were “so spectacularly wrong that he was arguably the world’s greatest quack.”

However, it’s possible that were Pauling alive today, with new biochemical discoveries about how vitamin C works in the body, he would change his mind about high-dose use. For example, rate-limiting steps in metabolism now show that the body can only utilize less than 500 mg of a vitamin C supplement. This corresponds to the intestines’ absorption capabilities, and to studies showing levels above this amount can cause damage. In fact, a dose of 200 mg or less of ascorbic acid is 100 percent absorbed from the intestines with higher doses rapidly being less bioavailable. This also corresponds well to the amount of this natural nutrient contained in a vitamin C-rich meal that includes fresh fruits and vegetables.

As long ago as 1974, Pauling was quoted as saying that “the first 250 mg is more important than any later 250 mg. The first 250 mg leads you up to the level where the blood is saturated.”

Today’s Linus Pauling Institute recommends 400 mg of vitamin C for generally healthy adults based on the currently available epidemiological, biochemical and clinical evidence.

But rather than update their own personal outlook, many consumers seem strangely stuck in the past, on the earlier opinions of Linus C. Pauling rather than newly discovered information which Pauling himself would no doubt have responded to scientifically.

Another strange trend is the booming sales of synthetic vitamin C, especially by natural foods consumers who tend to avoid artificial chemicals. Despite studies showing the dangers of high-dose synthetic vitamin C, many people continue taking high doses daily, with many millions of others taking more than 500 mg each day. This chemical is also part of many other popular formulations, including multivitamins and food fortification.

Pauling’s radical shift in thought process, from one of highly intellectually calculating scientific reasoning to his mere speculation about vitamin C, made most of his colleagues see him as rather strange too. However, that same scientific thought process was apparently how his amazing mind worked, with unconventional being a word sometimes used to describe him.

A venture into the world of vitamin C may best be seen as his unfinished work. Had he lived longer than 93 years, who knows what he may have uncovered in relation to the “new” field of nutrition, at least, like his many great scientific discoveries, once he discovered all the things that were not true.


  • Ivan:
    Thanks for your clarification on Jon’s article. It’s very easy for any lay person (such as myself), to become confused when reading articles that tend to outline detailed prescriptive argument/comment that I believe can only be interpreted adequately by a content expert. I have always firmly believed that any natural item (part of GOD’s creation) is so far superior and more effective for the body than any man made item (whether or not that man made item’s production commenced from natural products or not), for a range of reasons, including the natural items have many other elements alongside them that are clearly there for a purpose in helping the body benefit. Very beneficial response.

  • Jon says:

    Thank you for the article and the history of Linus Pauling and vitamin C. It captures the ebb and flow of scientific understanding of vitamin C throughout the past 90 years. There are many important facts presented, which I think can be summed up as:

    1. vitamin C is an essential vitamin (required in our diet)
    2. absorption through the gut is the dose-limiting factor (the remainder is excreted in urine as it’s water soluble)
    3. the dose makes the poison (too much vitamin C, i.e. what Linus Pauling recommended, is bad for us)

    I do have an issue with the article too. It presents underlying mis-information, which is important for readers to understand. A common theme throughout the article suggests that “synthetic” vitamin C and “natural” vitamin C are somehow different. This isn’t the case – a molecule of ascorbic acid made in a lab is identical to a molecule of ascorbic acid made by a living organism. There is no difference. In fact, the industrial production of vitamin C starts with starch from grains. Starch is converted into D-glucose, which is then transformed into L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C) with a key step using a living microorganism to perform the reaction. Nature makes it a different way (a “biosynthetic” process) but the final product cannot be told apart from synthetic vitamin C. The idea that substances have some sort of essence, some vital spark, when they’re taken from a living organism as opposed to made in a lab is known as Vitalism, and was disproven in the 1800s (see for the original example.)

    The article does note that vitamin C from natural sources is a “balanced complex” while synthetic vitamin C is only ascorbic acid. This is true but is not relevant, since all the compounds in the complex (they’re called “vitamers”) interconvert under physiological conditions in the human body. The three vitamers are ascorbic acid, ascorbate ion, and dehydroascorbic acid. Ascorbic acid and ascorbate are simply the acid/base pair of the same molecule, and are one or the other depending on the pH (acidity) of the environment. Dehydroascorbic acid (DHA) is an oxidized form of ascorbic acid, and the conversion of DHA to ascorbic acid actually occurs in the lumen of the gastrointestinal tract. So, if you ingest synthetic vitamin C, you get the same mixture of compounds as what’s in the orange you eat.

    While these point may be tangential to the article as a whole, it is very important for understanding the fundamentals of the biology and chemistry of medicine. For those who take supplements, vitamins, drugs, etc, there is no inherent magic in a natural substance/compound. Don’t let advertising tell you otherwise. There may be better or worse quality supplements (worse because of contaminants or the like – remember, the supplement industry is not regulated by the FDA, so supplement makers are not required to prove what’s in their product. Only when a supplement starts hurting or even killing people will the FDA get involved.) There are not better or worse quality compounds (i.e. vitamins/drugs) – man made or nature made, they’re the same. The reason for supplements having synthetic vitamin C is a financial one. It’s cheaper to make it industrially than to isolate it from living organisms. There are other substances that the only practical way to get them is extracting them from the natural source (for example the anticancer drug Taxol, the antibiotic penicillin, and the statin drug mevastatin for lowering cholesterol.)

    ::getting off my soapbox:: Thanks for reading. I hope this benefits someone as they think about medicines and their health.

    • Jon:

      Thank you for your comment. While your points are quite important, I want to leave it clear that you do not actually offer a counterargument to the article. For example, while Dr. Maffetone does highlight the difference between synthetic C and natural C, he points out that the difference resides in the fact that natural vitamin C co-occurs with a variety of other nutrients, some of which you list in your comment.

      While your point about vitalism is interesting, I don’t see how it relates to the article. In paragraph 3 Dr. Maffetone plainly discusses how ascorbic acid occurs in the adrenal glands.

      So, how is it that Dr. Maffetone could be citing the benefits of Natural vitamin C (in the light of the fact that it co-occurs with other nutrients but synthetic Vitamin C doesn’t?)—without appealing to vitalism? Take for example the effects of fructose when consumed in a fruit as opposed to when a chemically identical fructose is consumed in the absence of the incredible array of vitamins and fibers that would be present in an orange.

      Now, let’s discuss how this relates to Vitamin C in particular. If you consume only ascorbic acid, (a) you acidify the GI tract (as compared to consuming a more balanced compound), which brings its own set of issues. This also relates to (b), that the process of interconversion requires the transformation of an acid to a base. The resulting acids remain in the body up until the point they are expelled. In both the transportation and expelling process, they tax the body’s pH buffering system. (The body would be taxed that much less if it had instead received, say, equal parts ascorbic acid, ascorbate ion, and DHA.)

      To give a more extreme example of a very similar acidification issue, let’s take glucose and lactate. The liver converts lactate back to a chemically identical form of the original glucose. If we use your rationale, it’s “true but not relevant” that say, drinking a sports recovery solution that’s 3% lactate is “less natural” than drinking a 3% glucose solution. But actually, it’s extremely relevant—not to whether the lactate that you ingest (or the glucose the liver transforms it into) is chemically identical to the lactate the body produces or the glucose found in a fruit—but rather to the net effect that drinking lactate instead of glucose has on the body.

      Similarly, the discussion of the benefits of the “natural Vitamin C complex” are extremely relevant when you consider the net effect that eating this natural complex has as opposed to eating straight ascorbic acid.

  • George says:

    So, if you have to summarise: should a generally healthy 50+ years individul take some natural supplements in order be in best form? I am becoming 54, past 2 months I had to work 140 hours a week writing a huge scientific project proposal. I am an alpinist and mountain guide who wants to climb 4 000 or 5 000 m peaks in August. I start my day with 2 glasses of water, half an hour later – 60 ml best quality Aloe Vera (which improves 3,5 times the vitamins absorption and cleanses my intestines, prebiotic, antidiabetic, antiinflamatory, 200 active ingredients including minimum amounts vit B12), half an hour later – Argi+ (5 gr. L-Arginine + 5 gr. antioxidant mix from 9 fruits and resveritol from red wine + selected vitamins) – a game changing product according to the medicine Nobel Prize winner 1998 for the influence of NO Dr. Murad. 30 min later – breakfast. In peak moments like past 2 months I additionally supplement with Q10, Ginko Biloba, Omega3, 500 mg L-Carnitine daily or 1500 mg pre long endurance training, Siberian Ginseng. I start this supplementation proces with 9 clensing program with lots of aloe, soya protein isolate, Garcinia Cambogia, Cr, green coffee-green tea fatburner. I feel great, I am focused, I am able to walk for 16 hours in the mountain. Under cardiologist controll I stopped all my high blood pressure medications and started this Clean 9 + 1 or 2 x day Argi+ – and my blood pressure did not rise. I am a firm believer in natural food supplements for elderly people especially if you are on the run or in the mountains with no fresh fruits and veggies. I train with R-R HRM with software coach guidance largely after the MAF method. But I am still overweight (being at this weight for the past 30 years) and some knee, Achilles problems (genetically shorter Achilles) and some swelling of the right ankle in the past year with unclear origin (Dopler of the blood vessels is OK). All blood and other tests are excellent. Do I miss something? Can I improve something? I have summarised some of my results in my blog here: Thanks in advance for your valuable comments. I appreciate this blog very much. Dr. Maffetone is my mentor since 2002!

  • Dave says:

    Hi Dr.-Your books and writings are very helpful.
    One of the things that Dr. Pauling worked was intravenous vitamin C for certain health issues such as cancer. He speculated and demonstrated that high doses of vitamin c would create the same effect on cancer cells as was seen with high doses of hydrogen peroxide. The medical establishment was always looking to dismiss anything proposed to cure disease other than drugs. Because of his stature they could not ignore, minimize his theory as easily as most. I believe it was the Mayo Clinic that agreed to test his theory. They supposedly did so and reported that high doses of vitamin c did not perform as he proposed and this made headlines. Dr. Pauling found that the test protocol used oral doses rather than the iv he used.

    Recently the Natural Academy Sciences has done the trail with iv and reported some positive results.

    I developed colon cancer, had a malignant tumor removed. The cancer had spread into my lymph system away and was classified as stage 3b. Several doctors including the surgeon, oncologists said chemotherapy was the only way to go at that point.

    I decided to use to immune boosting supplements and did the high doses of iv C after doing much research. It has been almost two years and all my scans and tests show no spread of the cancer to other organs as was expected to happen. While nothing can be proven by one case I have read about and spoken to people who have used this treatment successfully.

    best regards-Dave

  • John Campise says:

    I am fascinated by vitamin C history and biochemistry. Can you share the sources of your info here on vitamin C and Linus Pauling? I would like to read up more on the studies showing little to no benefit of synthetic C, and doses higher than 200 mg causing damage. Now that the last 10 years of research has shown that we were all wrong about 400 iu of vitamin D being enough for great health (because the studies showing “high doses” had no better effect than “low doses” were wrongly comparing 600 iu vs 400 iu), I am curious about whether the evidence that high C doesn’t work was correctly gathered. In George Goodheart’s book, “You’ll Be Better,” he writes that high doses of C cause dysfunction, and I believe him because what he wrote was based on astute clinical observation. But what if high C becomes a problem when vitamin D, and thus calcium (the body’s acid buffer) are functionally low by a magnitude of 10? Anyway, great article, and awesome blog. Thanks.

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