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updated: 12/26/2010 10:08 AM

Vitamin C may reduce complications after heart surgery

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A recent medical study discovered that intravenous vitamin C can reduce the risk of a serious heart arrhythmia after heart surgery.

A common complication of heart surgery is atrial fibrillation. This arrhythmia increases the risk for longer hospitalizations and death. Despite improvements in surgical techniques, anesthesia and postoperative care, the incidence of AF has not decreased. Vitamin C may reduce the incidence of AF by as much as 20 percent, according to the study.

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AF is the most common type of abnormal heart rhythm. It is the result of the two upper chambers of the heart quivering rather than contracting in a coordinated manner. AF accounts for 30 percent of hospital admissions and significantly increases the risk of stroke. After heart surgery, AF occurs in about 10 percent to 65 percent of patients, especially those undergoing surgery on the mitral valve. It is associated with increased mortality and longer, more expensive hospital stays.

After surgery, the increased risk of AF may be related to the increased oxidative stress on the heart. For the heart, the trauma of surgery as well as the healing process increases the metabolic demands leading to an increase in oxidative stress. Antioxidants that normally reduce oxidative stress become rapidly depleted during and after surgery. It can be almost impossible to replenish the depleted stores of antioxidants (like vitamin C) right after surgery because most people do not feel like eating.

Vitamin C is not really a vitamin because our bodies need a lot of it. It is an essential nutrient. The recommended amount of vitamin C is about 60 mg. This is enough to prevent scurvy. It is not nearly enough for optimal health. Animals, like humans, that do not make vitamin C need to consume almost 5,000 mg per day. In addition to being a powerful antioxidant, the number of physiological reactions involving vitamin C are numerous. Suffice it to say that without vitamin C, most life on the planet would cease to exist. It's that important.

In this study published in the medical journal Interactive Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery, 175 patients randomly received either vitamin C or a placebo intravenously before and for five days after surgery. Those in the vitamin C group had a 20 percent reduction in AF, shorter hospital stays and reduced costs. In contrast, 61 percent of patients receiving only a placebo developed AF and had longer hospitalizations.

How the electrical current travels through heart muscle closely resembles nerve function. AF can be thought of as a "heart seizure." After surgery, an increase in inflammation affects how the electrical current travels through the heart muscle and increases the risk for AF. Vitamin C may significantly reduce inflammation and the risk of AF.

Vitamins and nutrients are absolutely essential for health. With more research and clinical application, many of the complications of various surgeries can be reduced, leading to better patient outcomes and real improvements in medical care.

• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network.

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