Vitamin Spotlight: Vitamin C

There are a number of vitamins and minerals that are essential for your body to stay healthy. One of them is vitamin C. Here, we’re looking at the essentials of this vitamin, includings its benefits and purpose.

What is Vitamin C?

Also known as L-ascorbic acid, Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin found in foods and dietary supplements. While ascorbic or L-ascorbic acid is the most common form of vitamin C, there are other forms, including calcium ascorbate, sodium ascorbate and other mineral ascorbates. Unlike animals, humans can’t produce vitamin C within tissue or cells, so it’s essential that we obtain enough through our diet.

When you take vitamin C as a supplement, it produces tissue concentrations that your body regulates very closely. When you consume a moderate or average amount of vitamin C (around 30 to 180 mg per day), your body can absorb between 70% and 90% of it. But when you take too much vitamin C (over 1 g per day), your body can only absorb 50% at most, with the rest of the unmetabolized vitamin C excreted in your urine. Like many vitamins, more isn’t always better.

What Does Vitamin C Do for the Body?

When we think of vitamin C, we usually think of its necessity for fighting colds. While vitamin C does help support healthy immune function and may lessen the symptoms and duration of a cold, it does so much more for the body.

  • Wound healing. Without vitamin C, your body wouldn’t be able to biosynthesize collagen and certain neurotransmitters, and collagen is a necessary element of connective tissue, which assists in wound healing. Additionally, vitamin C helps repair and regenerate tissues.
  • Antioxidant powers. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that fights free radicals. While research isn’t conclusive yet, there are some studies that suggest vitamin C may help protect your body against developing certain cancers and cardiovascular disease.
  • Improved iron absorption. Iron is important for making healthy oxygen-carrying red blood cells, and vitamin C aids in its absorption in the body.
  • Scurvy prevention. Although rare in the U.S., scurvy can be a debilitating disease that causes fatigue and tissue weakness. Vitamin C is essential for preventing it.
  • Cholesterol management. Vitamin C has also been shown to help decrease LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol and triglycerides.

Along with getting vitamin C in foods, some people take topical vitamin C in liquid form for skin health due to its antioxidant properties. Topical vitamin C may help boost collagen production, treat skin discoloration from UV damage and brighten skin.

What Foods Contain Vitamin C?

For the most part, vitamin C is found in fruits and vegetables. While oranges and orange juice have vitamin C, there are a number of foods that have more vitamin C than this fruit. Fruits and veggies with high levels of vitamin C include strawberries, pineapple, mango, brussel sprouts, kiwi, papaya, cauliflower, broccoli, kale and bell peppers, among others.

Beyond fruits and vegetables, vitamin C can also be found in some fortified cereals, but it’s usually not found in grains. It’s important to note that vitamin C in food may be reduced or destroyed when cooked because the vitamin is water soluble. Prolonged storage can also reduce its levels of vitamin C. Instead of frozen vegetables and fruits, it’s best to eat them raw for maximum vitamin C levels.

What are the Side Effects of Vitamin C Deficiency?

Acute vitamin C deficiency can lead to scurvy, a disease that causes pain in the limbs, swelling, ulceration of the gums, loss of teeth, anemia, exhaustion and more. While this is a rare illness, it can be severe and even fatal. People with a vitamin C deficiency may experience some of these side effects of scurvy, including poor wound healing, gum inflammation and a poor immune system response to colds.

How Can I Tell if I’m Deficient in Vitamin C?

If you’re experiencing any of the side effects mentioned above, you may have a vitamin C deficiency. Some groups of people are more at risk of being vitamin C deficient. Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke can decrease vitamin C levels, so smokers may need more vitamin C than non-smokers. Infants who are fed evaporated or boiled cow’s milk may also develop vitamin C deficiency, as cow’s milk has little vitamin C and boiling it can destroy the vitamin levels.

Additionally, individuals with certain diseases, like cancer, chronic hemodialysis, end-stage renal disease or severe intestinal malabsorption, may require an increased amount of vitamin C as these diseases reduce the absorption of the vitamin.

If you eat a healthy diet and aren’t deficient in vitamin C, be wary of taking supplements. As vitamin C is water-soluble, your body won’t build up an excess amount. Instead, any excess will be excreted through your urine. However, there is still such a thing as getting too much vitamin C. Extremely high doses (over 2,000 mg per day) may contribute to the development of kidney stones and cause nausea, gastritis and diarrhea.

While everyone’s dietary needs are different, the general recommended dietary allowance for vitamin C among adults is 65 to 90 mg per day. Concerned you may not be getting enough vitamin C? Consider taking a DNA test, such as PathwayFit, which looks at which vitamins you may need to optimize. With the guidance of your physician, you can determine an effective diet for you.