What do guinea pigs and people have in common? They’re a couple of the few mammals that can’t produce one of the most essential nutrients we need—vitamin C.
This vitamin is used for a wide variety of bodily processes and functions—from helping our skin to our hearts. Furthermore, a vitamin C deficiency is often tied to increased chances of becoming sick. So, with all the benefits it imparts it’s kind of a surprise that our bodies can’t produce it on their own.
We’ll be looking at some of the most important benefits of maintaining proper vitamin C levels, and what you can do to ensure you’re staying on top of your intake.
Also known as ascorbic acid, ascorbate, or the band that plays that one song at every graduation, this vitamin’s first major usage was in the prevention and treatment of scurvy. Before we knew what vitamin C was, citrus fruits were seen as the common denominator. However, it’s importance as a nutrient has far outgrown its humble beginning as scurvy treatment.
Part of the reason that vitamin C has been thrown into the highest echelons of nutrient-stardom is that our bodies can neither produce nor store it. So, that means we have to be ingesting it either through food or supplements AND we have to be ingesting it on a regular basis since any excess that’s not used gets passed through our system.
Like the guinea pig, we’ve got to get our fill from the environment around us. And when it’s something as important as vitamin C, it quickly becomes crucial to be getting enough. But what exactly are the health claims?
In a famous claim by Dr. Pauling in the 70s, large doses of vitamin C were purported to have the ability to protect people from the common cold. A wrench has been thrown into that claim since then, based on several placebo-controlled trials, but the wonders of the vitamin haven’t waned in the slightest.
These are some of the most amazing of these benefits.
Yes—we did just say that vitamin C doesn’t do anything to protect us from the common cold. However, there is good evidence that shows that it can reduce the time we need to recover from this upper respiratory infection.
A recent review of several studies done on the topic found that vitamin C can reduce the duration of colds by 8% in adults and 14% in children. When it comes to the practical effect, this means a cold that lasts about a day shorter—since the illness usually lasts around 10 days.
It’s important to note that the dosage of vitamin C for participants was 200 mg, which is significantly higher than the recommended daily dose of 90 mg for men and 75 mg for women.
We’ll talk about how much vitamin C is enough down below, but for now, know that overdosing on it really isn’t an issue. The vitamin is neither produced nor stored in your body, so there’s nowhere for it to build up and cause issues. That’s why it’s usually recommended to take significantly more than the recommended daily allowance (up to 2,000 mg).
One of the greatest properties of vitamin C is its role as an antioxidant. This means several things, but it’s particularly important when it comes to avoiding chronic illnesses and strengthening the immune system.
In your body, there are harmful molecules called “free radicals.” These free radicals are created through your body’s normal metabolism, and by exposing yourself to environmental stressors. This means anything from ultraviolet radiation to air pollution.
These free radicals are harmful because they can damage cells and other genetic material. A buildup of these free radicals is called oxidative stress—something that’s been linked to many chronic diseases. This usually happens through excessive and harmful inflammation of these cells and tissues, which is why antioxidants are important when trying to decrease the chances of chronic illnesses.
Some studies have shown that vitamin C can increase your blood’s antioxidant levels by up to 30%, which in turn helps to combat inflammation—making vitamin C a necessary component of avoiding some chronic diseases.
While we’ve touched on certain immunity-boosting aspects of vitamin C above, this useful vitamin goes much deeper than that when it comes to protecting us from pathogens.
Vitamin C has been shown to enhance the production and function of several different white blood cells that help fight off infections. These include lymphocytes and phagocytes. But vitamin C also aids in the production of interferons which are cells created when pathogens are detected in the body.
The body’s cellular response to pathogens is also boosted by vitamin C through its effect on the activation of macrophages—natural killer cells as they’re known. Furthermore, T-cells are also aided by the vitamin.
Vitamin C also boosts the production of cytokines in your white blood cells. Cytokines are the communication proteins that are released from certain types of white blood cells and are then sent to other cells in order to promote an immune response—raise the alarm bells, in a sense.
And it goes even further than that.
Vitamin C activates enzymes in your body that go on to help build collagen—a protein found in your skin and connective tissues. These proteins help your body react to severe infectious diseases and also act as the first line of defense against attackers since they aid in wound healing. Your organs are also protected since vitamin C has a positive effect on mucous and fatty membranes that protect important bits, like the lungs.
Some studies have shown that vitamin C is able to help lower blood pressure in groups that have high blood pressure, and in other groups that don’t even have high blood pressure.
And although this was an animal study, vitamin C was also found to relax blood vessels that were carrying blood from the heart, which would help to further reduce blood pressure.
However, human trials have found that supplementing with vitamin C can reduce both systolic and diastolic blood pressures (the upper and lower values) in healthy adults. Nevertheless, vitamin C’s effects on blood pressure aren’t that well known yet, and it shouldn’t be solely relied on for treatment.
However, this also leads to vitamin C’s effects on lowering the risk of heart disease. Both the diminished blood pressure and other studies have shown that taking at least 500 mg of vitamin C per day can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease.
Gout, a type of arthritis, affects people who have too much uric acid in their bloodstream (a type of waste product).
At high levels of uric acid, it crystallizes in the joints and makes it difficult to move and painful—most often found in the big toes.
Several studies have shown that vitamin C can help to reduce the level of uric acid in the bloodstream, which can effectively factor into avoiding gout. Several studies have been done on this and the evidence appears to be strong, but more research is still needed.
Iron is an important mineral that helps to make red blood cells, transport oxygen throughout the body, and is also important for immune health and proper functioning.
It’s been found that vitamin C supplements can help your body absorb iron from your diet. Not all sources of iron are built equal. Plants, for example, have difficult to absorb sources of iron. However, vitamin C makes these difficult sources easier to absorb which means more iron for your body.
This can potentially be a way for people with anemia to introduce more iron into their diets.
Vitamin C can help the aging process in two ways.
For one, it helps to prevent wrinkles in old age. A study found that higher vitamin C ingestion was associated with lower chances of dry skin, fewer wrinkles, and a better skin-aging process. Even some studies on topical treatments of vitamin C have found potential in the vitamin.
But more importantly, vitamin C spells good news for brain health as well.
Due to its antioxidative properties, vitamin C can reduce inflammation near the central nervous system. This inflammation specifically can potentially increase one’s susceptibility to dementia. And to add to this, it’s been shown that higher vitamin C ingestion has been linked to protective effects on memory and thinking during the aging process.
As a water-soluble vitamin, our bodies are unable to produce or store this useful nutrient and so it becomes doubly important for us to get it as a dietary supplement. But what’s “regular basis” and how much intake of vitamin C is enough?
In order to maintain appropriate levels of vitamin C, adult men are recommended to take at least 90 mg per day, while for women the number stands at 75 mg. And for those who smoke, the amount should be upped by 35 mg.
Keep in mind that this is just the recommended daily allowance (RDA), and there are some studies that have shown that more is better—to a limited extent. For example, some studies on vitamin C’s potential benefits had participants ingesting 500 mg a day.
However, there is an upper limit.
Taking a crazy amount of vitamin C in one sitting won’t have serious consequences since it can’t be stored in the body. However, taking more than 2,000 mg in a day can have side effects including abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, and rashes. Furthermore, men who have a history of kidney stones and test high for the chemical “oxalate” should avoid taking vitamin C supplements. The vitamin can boost the formation of these stones, which is best to avoid if you can.
Just to get a rough grasp of how much the RDA for vitamin C is: it’s about 1 kiwi fruit or half of a cup of red bell peppers.
But like we know with scurvy, one of the best ways to get your vitamin C is through your citrus fruits. So, 1 cup of OJ equals your RDA for vitamin C. Other sources mainly include leafy greens, fruits, and vegetables such as:
Eating more veggies is sound advice almost all of the time, but it’s particularly important if you’re looking to gas up on your daily dose of vitamin C.
Making purees or shakes with fruits is always a good idea, or making smoothies and adding some protein powder if you’re looking to eke out some extra gains.
Other options are cutting some fruits up and freezing them as a snack in the summer, adding berries to your salads, cereals, or pancakes, and including a lot of raw vegetables in your salads and meals. Plus, simply going for a glass of vegetable juice throughout the day is a solid strategy as well.
If you’re keen for even more of this vitamin, consider taking a supplement—but make sure that the vitamin C supplementation is high quality.
It might seem counterintuitive, but you actually don’t want pure vitamin C since it’s very acidic for your stomach and also breaks down quickly. Specially formulated vitamin C supplements take this into account and offer a much greater bang-for-your-buck.
While vitamin C is absolutely crucial for a well functioning body and immune system, there are plenty more other nutrients that need to be taken care of for your body to be in tip-top shape. We’ll touch on some of these here.
Vitamin D (especially for those living in the Northern hemisphere during the winter) is extremely important. There’s a lot of people who are deficient in the “sunshine vitamin,” since shorter days and lack of supplementing really do vitamin D dirty. Foods that are a good source include salmon, tuna, and mackerel. And while it’s usually a good idea to get your vitamins from natural foods, vitamin D might be the exception if you’re forced into hibernation every year.
Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant, similar to vitamin C in that regard. This vitamin is needed in almost 200 chemical reactions in your body, with a lot of those being critical to immune system function. Be sure to gorge on almonds, sunflower seeds, and peanuts (most nuts, really) if you want to stay on top of your vitamin E intake—however, supplementing isn’t usually necessary for vitamin E.
Vitamin A is another immune-boosting, infection-fighting vitamin. It comes in two different forms; the first is from animal products and the second from plants—usually colorful plants. In terms of the animal variety, tuna is a fantastic source. And when it comes to plant vitamin A, make sure you’re getting enough dark leafy greens, pumpkin, carrots, or sweet potatoes.
When it comes to minerals iron is important, and we’ve already touched on it when it comes to its close relationship with vitamin C. However, selenium is another mineral that’s important to get enough of. Its ability to help your body prevent infections means that it’s a key ingredient in keeping illness at bay. It’s mostly found in meats and animal products, with a key exception being brazil nuts. Just one of these nuts offers more than 100% of your RDA, but overindulging can be an issue so be wary of eating more than a couple.
Another important mineral is zinc. Found most often in seafood, lean meats, legumes, and yogurt, zinc is necessary for the production of new immune system cells. It’s also a popular supplement in pill form.
While we’ve just spent over two thousand words telling you about the wonders of vitamin C, it’s important to remember that it’s just one of a multitude of nutrients that your body needs.
Getting a good variety of clean, healthy food is the key to maintaining your health and being able to fight off sicknesses faster. Vitamin C might be able to carry you over the finish line if all other things are equal, but you’re going to have to get most of the way to the finish line.
And getting to the finish line means consistently eating clean, sleeping enough, and exercising regularly. This will not only boost your immune function, but it’ll also offer holistic health that a single supplement will never be able to give you.
Maintaining a healthy routine with all of these key ingredients will also ensure that you’re mental wellbeing is taken care of. Clean food, exercise, and sleep all work to raise your mood and without this mental aspect, your physical health will also begin to wane as well.
Seeing your way to long term wellness is going to take both vitamin C—and everything else.