We live in an atmosphere with about 21 percent oxygen. Oxidation of our foods provides the energy we need to live, but there is a price. You can see the effect of oxidation if you watch your cut apple turn brown after it has been cut. The apple tissue is being slowly burned by combining with oxygen from the air. Too much oxidation is not as bad as being burned with a flame, but in the long run unless it is kept under tight control the end result will almost be the same. It is now believed by most research scientists that oxidative stress plays a major role in many diseases and in aging. Osmond and I pointed out that it probably also plays an important role in the etiology of schizophrenia. We suggested that the oxidation of adrenalin leading to adrenochrome was one of the factors, and the first treatments we used were niacin and niacinamide in large doses, and ascorbic acid in large doses; both are antioxidants. These early therapeutic trials led to our modern concept of orthomolecular psychiatry and medicine.

Adrenalin is discharged under any stress, unpleasant or pleasant. In Sweden Carlson showed that the discharge of adrenalin into the urine is the same whether normal subjects were shown horrible or humorous films. As part of the fight or flight mechanism adrenalin is needed: if a wolf chases a rabbit, the animal without enough adrenalin will lose the race. The rabbit will become a meal, or the wolf will miss a meal. However, adrenalin is very toxic and will kill by elevating blood pressure and therefore the body has several mechanisms for getting rid of it as fast as possible. One of the mechanisms is to convert it into adrenochrome. Under severe shock some men, but more often women, will have a massive heart attack and may die, even though their cardiovascular system was normal. This is due to the massive discharge of adrenalin converted into adrenochrome in the heart muscle, where the adrenochrome causes ventricular fibrillation. Adrenalin is intimately associated with oxidative stress.

Antioxidants are very reactive molecules that protect the tissues of the body against too much oxidation. They are called antioxidants. If you soak that piece of apple in vitamin C solution and then expose it to air it will not turn brown nearly as fast. The antioxidants combine with the products of oxidation, called free radicals, and protect the tissue against their toxic effect. The best water soluble antioxidant vitamin is vitamin C and the best fat soluble antioxidant is vitamin E, but many others are needed such as glutathione and selenium, and many are present in fruits and vegetables – the bioflavonoids. It should not be surprising that these antioxidants should be very valuable in protecting us against the ravages of oxidant stress and therefore ought to be helpful in helping the body cope with stress.

There is a definite relationship between the need for vitamin C and stress. In a series of elegant experiments Dr. Hugh Riordan found that policemen on night patrol used up massive amounts of vitamin C during their hours on night patrol. He gave them 10 grams before they went on patrol and when they came back he measured the amount of vitamin C in their blood. It was completely used up. He also found that it took many weeks of the same dose before they began to show they still had some after the stress of their work. Many years ago the amount of vitamin C in the adrenal glands of animals was used as a measure of the stress to which they had been exposed; under stress the amount decreased. When the stress was great the amount of C that was lost was also much more, and as Linus Pauling pointed out so many years ago, animals under severe stress make much more vitamin C in their bodies. Humans cannot make any vitamin C and they cannot therefore naturally increase it under stress. They are dependent on their food. However, few people realize that they should take more vitamin C when they are under any kind of stress. I consider vitamin C one of nature’s best anti stress factors. The impact of stress on vitamin C needs is described by Hickey and Roberts1.

Google on the Internet contains huge numbers of references to stress and vitamins, but on looking many of them over it is clear that there is no consensus. The vitamin companies produce the information that vitamins are needed to cope better with stress, and the antagonists of the need for extra vitamins including some of the universities proclaim that there is no need for extra vitamins with stress. My clinical experience over the past fifty years puts me on the side that is convinced that they are needed. I have seen too many patients recover and thereafter cope with severe stress when they are following a good nutrient program. There are no large-scale control studies; at least I did not see any. It is likely they will never be done as they would be too expensive.

Stress includes all the toxic factors that may damage us, from the infections: viruses, bacteria, protozoa, fungi; to malfunctioning endocrine systems, to trauma, to surgery, to wear and tear, and to a whole host of environmental poisons that nature never had to protect us from. And yet not only have we survived, we live longer. Each form of stress demands a different response. And I suspect that each form of stress has a different effect in increasing the demand for nutrients. How can we know that this is the case? Very simply, by studying what happens to the body under stress when the vitamins are supplied in optimum amounts; for example if a person is starving, suffering from calorie deficiency, it is logical to conclude that he or she needs more calories because only when these are supplied will he or she become normal again. If a person with pellagra is close to death, only by giving him the correct dose of vitamins will he recover, and we conclude that his body needed that amount of vitamin. If a person has Huntington’s disease and recovers when given two vitamins, E and B-3, then it is logical to assume that he needed these two particular vitamins. One no longer needs to assume that vitamins treat any disease. We need only to assume that when the deficiency of that vitamin is repaired by supplementation the body will be better able to fight that disease.

Optimum homeostasis is needed if the body is to cope well with stress. Stress increases the need for nutrients including vitamin C and the B vitamins, and perhaps others. When under stress, these deficiencies and dependencies have to be met by increasing the intake of the missing nutrients and must be given in optimum quantities. This will improve the ability of the body to deal with and to recover from stress.

1 Hickey S and Roberts H. Ascorbate. The Science of Vitamin C.