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updated: 5/1/2011 2:54 PM

Vitamin C may impact your heart

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Can vitamin C improve heart function in those with congestive heart failure? According to one study, the answer is yes.

Congestive heart failure happens when the heart is unable to supply enough blood to the body to meet the metabolic demands. CHF is often associated with heart valve problems, heart disease and high blood pressure. Symptoms include shortness of breath, especially with activity, leg swelling and a nonproductive cough. People with CHF may also report an increase in shortness of breath when lying down.

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CHF is relatively common and serious. In the elderly, about 10 percent of the population have symptoms. The annual medical costs for treatment exceed $36 billion nationally, and, when severe, significantly reduces the quality of life for many people. CHF usually worsens over time and the yearly mortality rate is about 10 percent.

One of the causes is believed to be excessive oxidative stress on the heart muscles. Oxidation damages the heart muscles and reduces the ability of the heart to pump blood through the body. It has been suggested that the use of antioxidants could reduce oxidative stress and ultimately help the heart to work better. Vitamin C is known for being a powerful antioxidant that is readily utilized by many tissues, including heart muscle cells.

Vitamin C is not really a vitamin. It is a nutrient that is essential for many metabolic pathways. Interestingly, vitamin C is made by most animals with the exception of bats, guinea pigs and the primate group that includes humans. Although a true deficiency of vitamin C is rare, it can result in the disease scurvy. Vitamin C's clinical role in people with increased oxidative stress has not been clearly defined, but in one excellent clinical study it may help CHF.

This study was done at the Kobe University Graduate School of Medicine in Kobe, Japan. It involved 19 patients with mild to moderate CHF. In this study, patients underwent heart catheterization and heart function were measured. One important measure was contractility, or how strongly the heart pumps blood. Contractility was measured before and after 2 grams of vitamin C were infused into the heart. After the infusion, the heart was able to work 20 percent better than before the vitamin C. For someone with CHF, such an increase is a remarkable improvement in function.

In an earlier study, done at the University of Toronto, intravenous vitamin C significantly improved heart contractility in people without CHF, indicating that vitamin C has an important role in overall heart function.

These types of clinical trials have not been done with oral vitamin C. However, several studies have demonstrated that oral vitamin C can improve how well the important interior cells of blood vessels work.

I believe that we have come a long way from just preventing scurvy. There is mounting evidence that vitamin C is important for many aspects of health.

• 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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