Do Vitamin C and Zinc Really Help Battle Colds?

We are men of action, even in those rare situations when we're powerless. We cheer for perennially cellar-dwelling teams and switch lanes in heavy traffic despite numerous studies that show both lanes deliver you to your destination at roughly the same time (assuming there's no accident). We. Must. Keep. Moving.

This need for control explains why, when we're hit with that deflating pang of an impending cold, we try to solve the problem. We pound O.J. or Emergen-C, pop echinacea, order chicken soup, and suffer through those taste-bud-tainting zinc lozenges.

You already know there is no cure for the common cold. Still, do the so-called remedies actually do anything? Can we, effectively, control the outcome by some degree?

Let's look at echinacea and chicken soup first. According to dozens of studies, echinacea doesn't do squat. Sorry. As for chicken soup, its protein, carbs, and liquids can give your body strength, which may help you recover more quickly, but its eye-popping amount of sodium can dehydrate you, the very opposite of doctor's orders. When you're sick, it's best to stick with low-sodium fare, be it lean meats, whole grains, veggies, or fruits.

According to scores of studies, vitamin C and zinc can't stop a cold from coming on, but if you start taking either one as soon as symptoms strike, it may shorten the duration of suffering from about four days to three. Eureka!

Still, both come with their own controversies.

In a majority of the zinc studies, subjects were given pure forms of the supplement, not the commercial lozenges (read: weaker, processed). Until more evidence emerges about drugstore brands, it may be worth your while to pop actual zinc pills from the vitamin aisle. (You can also load up on grass-fed steak and oysters—both are full of the mineral.)

With vitamin C, the "debate" is over how much to take. Many holistic gurus push megadoses of more than 1,000 milligrams (we're looking at you, Emergen-C), but most in the medical community call bullshit on such high dosages because the body can absorb only about 400 milligrams a day; we simply pee the rest out. So no need to chew through those horse-pill-size supplements. Your normal diet usually provides about 100 milligrams. To get to 400, just have a handful of strawberries. They—not citrus—pack the most C.

—Mike Dawson is a magazine writer and editor and a regular contributor to Details.

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