Dr. Kestner: Maybe you should become a limey?

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Since the mid-1800s, British sailors have often been called “limeys.” That is because they had a habit of eating limes and other citrus fruits while aboard ship for any length of time. This habit protected them from scurvy. It is not likely that you will ever encounter scurvy but you might be at risk of a related disorder.

Sailors historically have spent weeks and months aboard their vessels, often far from land. Prior to the mid-1800s, sailors on long voyages often fell prey to a disabling condition called scurvy. They would experience extreme weakness, begin to bruise easily and eventually begin losing teeth due to the disorder.

In May of 1747, a Scottish doctor serving aboard the Royal Navy vessel HMS Salisbury carried out an experiment that would eventually protect sailors around the world from the ravages of scurvy. Dr. James Lind had been seeking a cure for scurvy for years. His observations had led him to conclude that the food available to sailors was key to the disease.

When a ship would disembark on a voyage, there would be an assortment of food stored on board for the crew. The fruits and vegetables aboard would spoil within weeks. If the voyage lasted longer than a month, there were no fresh foods available. Lind observed the sailors that suffered most from scurvy were the ones who served on the longer voyages.

He conducted a simple but effective experiment to test his theory of possible solutions. He chose 12 sailors, each showing obvious signs of scurvy. They had bleeding gums, loose or missing teeth, multiple hemorrhages and generalized weakness and fatigue. He divided them into pairs, giving each pair a different food remedy. The remedies included cider, vinegar, seawater, oranges and lemons or a mixture of garlic, horseradish and mustard. While the sailors in the other groups showed mixed responses, it was very obvious that the pair that received the oranges and lemons improved the most dramatically.

Although it had been hypothesized that various foods were related to scurvy, this simple experiment led the way to concluding that citrus fruits would definitively prevent the disease.

At the time, the medical community did not know about vitamins. Food acidity could be measured and it was thought that the acid in the citrus fruits was responsible for the cure. Since limes are more acidic than oranges or lemons, ships began stocking limes aboard ships. Amazingly, it took the British Royal Navy 40 years after this experiment to generate an official policy of carrying limes aboard seagoing vessels. (And we thought our government acted slowly!)

We now know that the dietary acid that helped the British sailors was not just any acid, but specifically ascorbic acid, otherwise known as vitamin C. Except in extremely backward or impoverished areas, it is very uncommon to encounter vitamin-C deficiency severe enough to cause scurvy. However, modern research has demonstrated that even a mild deficiency of this very important vitamin may be related to health problems.

Ever hear of Linus Pauling? Some people call him a forward thinking, brilliant, innovative medical research hero. He is the only person to ever receive two unshared Nobel Prize awards. Pauling is the most renowned researcher of vitamin C in modern history.

According to the research of Pauling and others, vitamin C can be beneficial for a variety of health disorders. Think of vitamin C as protecting you from the four C’s: Coronary (heart) disease, Cancer, Colds, and Collagen (connective tissue) disorders.

Now before I give you the details of how vitamin C helps your body defend itself, I must also tell you that Pauling’s research is controversial. Although twice awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize award, some critics consider his research as little more than quackery. Are the critics correct, or are they being injudiciously protective of the U.S. government and the multi-billion dollar food industry? After all, if Pauling was right, then the current RDAs (Recommended Daily Allowances) are wrong.

I’ll have more about this story next week.

Dr. Mark Kestner

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