the comfort of home remedies

August 28, 2009

A vitamin C product from

I woke up this morning with a sore throat and knew that my annual end-of-summer/beginning-of-fall cold had arrived again. What preventative measures did I take this morning? Vitamin C, zinc lozenges, and lots of water. While good hydration is always a good idea, especially when getting sick, the efficacy of zinc lozenges is tenable (supporters here and here, controversy discussion here), vitamin C (in the customary large amounts) has been roundly been shown not to have any significant impact on the severity and length of cold symptoms.

I know all this, and yet I still down vitamin C tablets like there’s no tomorrow. I used to tell my students that I wouldn’t believe anything unless there was a peer-reviewed, double blind paper published about it. Well, those have been done and a verdict rendered (at least about vitamin C). But my anecdotal life evidence says otherwise. In previous years when I’ve felt the onset of a cold, I’ve downed tons orange juice and vitamin C tablets and felt like my cold went away quite quickly.

What seems to be at work here are two things: my selective memory and the placebo effect. My selective memory, of course, doesn’t bring back those times when I took vitamin C and didn’t get better right away, or when my sore throat turned into a three week hacking cough. Clearly, I’m remembering what I want to remember to support the remedy I’m naturally inclined to take.

Radiolab has a wonderful show about the placebo effect. If you have an hour to listen to a podcast, I’d highly recommend it. We all know what the placebo effect is and that it achieves positive results in many cases. (A particularly illustrative example in the show is where a man with Parkinson’s has a stimulating electrode implanted in his brain that the researchers can remotely turn on and off. They tell him they’re turning it on, although they’re not, and his tremors remarkably vanish, at least temporarily).

So here’s my case for taking vitamin C this cold season. 1) It will make you feel proactive about your cold. No one likes sitting around and having a cold hit them. We want to feel like we’re fighting it somehow! 2) The placebo effect might just trick your body into defeating (or think it’s defeating, but does the difference really matter?) that cold a little bit earlier. Either way, there’s very little harm and some potential psychological if not physiological benefits.

Of course, the placebo effect doesn’t really work if you know you’re taking a placebo. So try hard to forget those dry scientific papers and remember your mom making you drink orange juice and take vitamin C when you had a cold. Self deception is a wonderful thing.


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