But before you rush out to stock up on chewable tablets or tangy powders, take a moment to learn what vitamin C actually is, the role vitamin C plays in your body, why you need it daily, and the best ways to take vitamin C in order to enjoy its laundry list of benefits.
What Is Vitamin C?
Are you laboring under the impression that vitamin C is synonymous with ascorbic acid? You aren’t alone. Most of the vitamin C supplements you find on pharmacy and health food store shelves are created from ascorbic acid, but ascorbic acid is actually only a small part of the entire complex of components that make up vitamin C.
Ascorbic acid is the outer protective layer of the vitamin C complex. It’s a bit like the bran—or outside covering—of a wheat kernel: the bran isn’t the entire kernel, but without it, you won’t get all the nutrients a wheat kernel has to offer. The same goes for ascorbic acid: it’s part of the vitamin C complex, but on its own, you won’t get the full benefits of the complete vitamin.
Ascorbic acid literally means “anti-scurvy” in Latin. You remember scurvy, the killer of ancient sailors and pirates alike? Yeah, it’s still around, but it’s incredibly easy to treat with foods high in vitamin C.
The components of vitamin C include:
- Ascorbic acid
- Bioflavenoids, or vitamin P
- Factor K
- Factor J
- Factor P
Vitamin C is water-soluble, meaning that whatever your body doesn’t use is excreted in your urine on a daily basis.
What Does Vitamin C Do in Your Body?
Vitamin C literally holds your body together.
All the miles of connective tissue in tendons, skin, bones, intestines, and blood vessels are made with collagen, and vitamin C is a fundamental factor in making collagen. In fact, a severe vitamin C deficiency—the illness called “scurvy”—is accompanied by loosened teeth as the gums deteriorate, wounds fail to heal because the body cannot produce new skin, old wounds open as scar tissue breaks down, you are easily bruised, and both internal and external hemorrhaging occurs as capillaries fail.
Besides holding you together, vitamin C is also the most powerful and readily available antioxidant in your diet. Antioxidants prevent the body from oxidation, which is, literally, rusting from the inside out. Antioxidants sweep up the free radicals that do so much damage to your cells and organs.
Vitamin C plays a vital role in neurotransmission, especially in the formation and metabolizing of dopamine, serotonin, and neuropeptides (the molecules that neurons need in order to communicate). A lack of vitamin C, then, can lead to mood and metabolism disorders.
Iron regulation is another of vitamin C’s important functions. Even if you are eating a diet high in iron or are taking an iron supplement, a lack of vitamin C means that your body cannot make use of the iron. While too much iron in the body comes with a whole host of unwanted side effects, most people are more familiar with the effects of too little iron, or anemia, which leads to lethargy and fatigue. You need vitamin C to keep your iron levels balanced and usable.
Both iron and vitamin C are needed for muscle tissue maintenance.
It also seems that vitamin C boosts the immune system and helps the body stave off colds and flu as well as far more serious problems like heart disease and stroke. Though a number of people claim to have cured themselves of cancer by using mega-doses of intravenous vitamin C, these claims are anecdotal for the moment and are not backed by scientific evidence.
In a nutshell, then, we see that vitamin C is crucial to your overall health in the following ways:
- Critical for collagen production
- Most powerful and available antioxidant in the diet
- Formation and metabolization of neurotransmitters
- Iron regulation
- Boosting the immune system
Scurvy: Just for Olde Timey Sailors and Pirates?
If you’ve ever heard of scurvy, you probably associate it with sailors and pirates of old, who sailed the high seas while subsisting mainly on dried meat and fish, stale bread, and alcohol.
Dying of scurvy was a pretty horrific ordeal, and it was just one of the ways sailors and pirates could look forward to a shortened lifespan. It took centuries for people to recognize that citrus fruits went a very long way to reversing scurvy’s symptoms and preventing the disease from occurring in the first place. Eventually, ships started carrying citrus fruits and fresh produce (and later, canned fruits and vegetables) in order to keep their crews from suffering from the dreaded disease.
You’d think that with all the abundance of food available in our modern Western world that scurvy would be just an unpleasant problem of the past, but it turns out that people still get it. The worst cases generally involve people lowest on the socioeconomic ladder, who cannot afford to buy (or who do not have ready access to) fresh fruits and vegetables. It also happens to people who choose to eat only a few types of foods that do not contain any vitamin C.
But it’s possible that many more people suffer from the beginning stages of scurvy, enduring its symptoms needlessly because of poor diet, alcoholism, or even heavy smoking. These people consume just enough vitamin C to keep them from progressing through to the later stages of scurvy, including death; however, they exist in a sort of low-grade scurvy condition, living with lethargy and fatigue, stiff and aching joints, swollen and bleeding gums, and even loose teeth in more serious cases.
It’s estimated that about 27 million people in the U.S. suffer from some stage of scurvy, meaning that they are not getting enough vitamin C in their diets. That percentage may climb as more modern doctors learn to recognize the specific symptoms of vitamin C deficiency. Arrr, don’t let yourself get scurvy, me hearty!
The Human Body Does Not Produce Vitamin C
While most mammals have the capability of producing vitamin C internally, a genetic mutation that occurred in both humans and guinea pigs makes us the exception. Instead of making our own vitamin C, we have to get our vitamin C from our food sources, and we have to get it on a daily basis.
Vitamin C is water-soluble, meaning that any excess is excreted through the urine because the body cannot store it in its fat supplies (if we could store it in our fat, that might make a very good argument for maintaining a little extra heft, right?).
How to Get Vitamin C
The absolute best way to get your daily dose of vitamin C is through a healthy diet. Fresh fruits and vegetables contain this vital nutrient, and munching through six or more servings of veggies a day will make your body happy in many ways.
Fresh and raw fruits and vegetables contain the highest concentrations of the vitamin, with kiwis, papayas, and any type of sweet or hot peppers topping the list. Citrus fruits—oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruits—are also high in vitamin C.
You can also get vitamin C in cooked vegetables, although the concentration will be less. Just be sure to steam vegetables as often as possible instead of boiling them, as most of the nutrients are lost when you pour the water down the drain. Soups are wonderful because you keep all those lovely nutrients in the broth.
When you consume vitamin C through a whole foods diet, you gain the benefits of the entire vitamin C complex—the complete set of compounds that make up the vitamin.
Supplementing with Vitamin C
If you’re worried that you’re not getting enough vitamin C, or if your doctor has told you your C levels are too low, taking a dedicated vitamin C supplement is a great way to enhance a healthy diet. C chewables are tasty little treats that are good for both adults and children, or try a vitamin C powdered drink that also includes supporting minerals like calcium, potassium, and magnesium.
For those interested in high-dose vitamin C supplementation, be sure that your source includes the full vitamin C complex for the best results. Acerola cherry powder or concentrate has one of the highest vitamin C concentrations of any fruit. Taking very large doses of ascorbic acid can lead to a loose bowel, although there do not seem to be any other negative side effects from high doses of ascorbic acid.
If you are interested in high-dose intravenous vitamin C, talk to your doctor or nutritional therapist.