Home > Health & Wellness > Health Library > High-Dose Vitamin C (PDQ®): Complementary and alternative medicine - Patient Information [NCI]
This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Vitamin C (also called L-ascorbic acid or ascorbate) is a nutrient that humans must get from food or dietary supplements since it cannot be made in the body. Vitamin C is an antioxidant and helps prevent oxidative stress. It also works with enzymes to play a key role in making collagen.
When taken by intravenous (IV) infusion, vitamin C can reach much higher levels in the blood than when it is taken by mouth. Studies suggest that these higher levels of vitamin C may cause the death of cancer cells in the laboratory.
A severe deficiency (lack) of vitamin C in the diet causes scurvy, a disease with symptoms of extreme weakness, lethargy, easy bruising, and bleeding. The lack of vitamin C in patients with scurvy makes collagen thinner in texture; when vitamin C is given, collagen becomes thicker again.
High-dose vitamin C has been studied as a treatment for patients with cancer since the 1970s. A Scottish surgeon named Ewan Cameron worked with Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling to study the possible benefits of vitamin C therapy in clinical trials of cancer patients in the late 1970s and early 1980's.
Surveys of healthcare practitioners at United States CAM conferences in recent years have shown that high-dose IV vitamin C is frequently given to patients as a treatment for infections, fatigue, and cancers, including breast cancer.
More than fifty years ago, a study suggested that cancer was a disease of changes in connective tissue caused by a lack of vitamin C. In the 1970's, it was proposed that high-dose ascorbic acid could help build resistance to disease or infection and possibly treat cancer.
Later studies showed that the levels of vitamin C that collect in the bloodstream depend on how it is taken.
Vitamin C may be given by intravenous (IV) infusion or taken by mouth, although much higher blood levels are reached when given intravenously.
Laboratory studies and animal studies have been done to find out if high-dose vitamin C may be useful in preventing or treating cancer.
Many laboratory studies have been done to find out how high-dose vitamin C may cause the death of cancer cells. The anticancer effect of vitamin C in different types of cancer cells involves a chemical reaction that makes hydrogen peroxide, which may kill cancer cells.
Laboratory studies have shown the following:
However, not all laboratory studies combining vitamin C with anticancer therapies have shown benefit. Combining dehydroascorbic acid, a particular form of vitamin C, with chemotherapy made it less effective in killing some kinds of cancer cells.
Studies of high-dose vitamin C have been done in animal models (animals given a disease either the same as or like a disease in humans).
Some of the studies showed the vitamin C helped kill more cancer cells:
However, other animal studies have shown that vitamin C interferes with the anticancer action of certain drugs, including the following:
Several studies of high-dose vitamin C in patients with cancer have been done in recent years, including the following:
Studies of vitamin C alone
Studies of vitamin C combined with other drugs
Studies of vitamin C combined with other drugs have shown mixed results:
Intravenous high-dose ascorbic acid has caused very few side effects in clinical trials. However, high-dose vitamin C may be harmful in patients with certain risk factors.
A drug interaction is a change in the way a drug acts in the body when taken with certain other drugs. High-dose vitamin C, when combined with some anticancer drugs, may cause them to be less effective. So far, these effects have been seen only in some laboratory and animal studies. No clinical trials have been done to further research these drug interactions in humans.
See Question 5 and Question 6 for more information on combining vitamin C with anticancer drugs.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved the use of high-dose vitamin C as a treatment for cancer or any other medical condition.
Because dietary supplements are regulated as foods, not as drugs, FDA approval is not required unless specific claims about disease prevention or treatment are made.
The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.
Editorial changes were made to this summary.
Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.
PDQ is a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH is the federal government's center of biomedical research. The PDQ summaries are based on an independent review of the medical literature. They are not policy statements of the NCI or the NIH.
Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about the use of high-dose vitamin C in the treatment of people with cancer. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.
Reviewers and Updates
Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") is the date of the most recent change.
The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine Editorial Board.
Clinical Trial Information
A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Clinical trials are listed in PDQ and can be found online at NCI's Web site. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
Permission to Use This Summary
PDQ is a registered trademark. The content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text. It cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless the whole summary is shown and it is updated regularly. However, a user would be allowed to write a sentence such as "NCI's PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks in the following way: [include excerpt from the summary]."
The best way to cite this PDQ summary is:
National Cancer Institute: PDQ® High-Dose Vitamin C. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/cam/highdosevitaminc/patient. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>.
Images in this summary are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use in the PDQ summaries only. If you want to use an image from a PDQ summary and you are not using the whole summary, you must get permission from the owner. It cannot be given by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the images in this summary, along with many other images related to cancer can be found in Visuals Online. Visuals Online is a collection of more than 2,000 scientific images.
The information in these summaries should not be used to make decisions about insurance reimbursement. More information on insurance coverage is available on Cancer.gov on the Coping with Cancer: Financial, Insurance, and Legal Information page.
More information about contacting us or receiving help with the Cancer.gov Web site can be found on our Contact Us for Help page. Questions can also be submitted to Cancer.gov through the Web site's Contact Form.
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)—also referred to as integrative medicine—includes a broad range of healing philosophies, approaches, and therapies. A therapy is generally called complementary when it is used in addition to conventional treatments; it is often called alternative when it is used instead of conventional treatment. (Conventional treatments are those that are widely accepted and practiced by the mainstream medical community.) Depending on how they are used, some therapies can be considered either complementary or alternative. Complementary and alternative therapies are used in an effort to prevent illness, reduce stress, prevent or reduce side effects and symptoms, or control or cure disease.
Unlike conventional treatments for cancer, complementary and alternative therapies are often not covered by insurance companies. Patients should check with their insurance provider to find out about coverage for complementary and alternative therapies.
Cancer patients considering complementary and alternative therapies should discuss this decision with their doctor, nurse, or pharmacist as they would any therapeutic approach, because some complementary and alternative therapies may interfere with their standard treatment or may be harmful when used with conventional treatment.
It is important that the same rigorous scientific evaluation used to assess conventional approaches be used to evaluate CAM therapies. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) are sponsoring a number of clinical trials (research studies) at medical centers to evaluate CAM therapies for cancer.
Conventional approaches to cancer treatment have generally been studied for safety and effectiveness through a rigorous scientific process that includes clinical trials with large numbers of patients. Less is known about the safety and effectiveness of complementary and alternative methods. Few CAM therapies have undergone rigorous evaluation. A small number of CAM therapies originally considered to be purely alternative approaches are finding a place in cancer treatment—not as cures, but as complementary therapies that may help patients feel better and recover faster. One example is acupuncture. According to a panel of experts at a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Consensus Conference in November 1997, acupuncture has been found to be effective in the management of chemotherapy-associated nausea and vomiting and in controlling pain associated with surgery. In contrast, some approaches, such as the use of laetrile, have been studied and found ineffective or potentially harmful.
The NCI Best Case Series Program, which was started in 1991, is one way CAM approaches that are being used in practice are being investigated. The program is overseen by the NCI's Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM). Health care professionals who offer alternative cancer therapies submit their patients' medical records and related materials to OCCAM. OCCAM conducts a critical review of the materials and develops follow-up research strategies for approaches deemed to warrant NCI-initiated research.
When considering complementary and alternative therapies, patients should ask their health care provider the following questions:
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM)
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) facilitates research and evaluation of complementary and alternative practices, and provides information about a variety of approaches to health professionals and the public.
CAM on PubMed
NCCAM and the NIH National Library of Medicine (NLM) jointly developed CAM on PubMed, a free and easy-to-use search tool for finding CAM-related journal citations. As a subset of the NLM's PubMed bibliographic database, CAM on PubMed features more than 230,000 references and abstracts for CAM-related articles from scientific journals. This database also provides links to the Web sites of over 1,800 journals, allowing users to view full-text articles. (A subscription or other fee may be required to access full-text articles.) CAM on PubMed is available through the NCCAM Web site. It can also be accessed through NLM PubMed bibliographic database by selecting the "Limits" tab and choosing "Complementary Medicine" as a subset.
Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine
The NCI Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM) coordinates the activities of the NCI in the area of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). OCCAM supports CAM cancer research and provides information about cancer-related CAM to health providers and the general public via the NCI Web site.
National Cancer Institute (NCI) Cancer Information Service
U.S. residents may call the NCI Cancer Information Service toll free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) Monday through Friday from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm. A trained Cancer Information Specialist is available to answer your questions.
Food and Drug Administration
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates drugs and medical devices to ensure that they are safe and effective.
Federal Trade Commission
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforces consumer protection laws. Publications available from the FTC include:
Last Revised: 2013-05-28
If you want to know more about cancer and how it is treated, or if you wish to know about clinical trials for your type of cancer, you can call the NCI's Cancer Information Service at 1-800-422-6237, toll free. A trained information specialist can talk with you and answer your questions.
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