Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is a nutrient found in many of the foods we eat. It acts as an antioxidant to help slow down or prevent cell damage. It helps our bodies absorb iron from plant-based foods. It enables the immune system to work properly and protect us from disease. It is also needed to make collagen, a protein required for wounds to heal.
What happens if you don’t take in enough Vitamin C? A deficiency (less than 10 mg per day) of vitamin C can cause a sometimes-fatal disease called scurvy. It was common generations ago, but today, vitamin C deficiency is very rare in the U.S. Most people get enough from foods and beverages. Still, not getting enough of the vitamin can lead to anemia, bleeding gums, loosening or loss of teeth, infections, dry and splitting hair, joint pain and poor wound healing.
How do you know if you are getting enough vitamin C? Unlike most mammals, humans don’t have the ability to produce their own vitamin C. Instead, we must get it through our diet.
Raw fruits and vegetables are the best sources of vitamin C – including citrus fruits and juices, red and yellow peppers, broccoli, papayas, mangos, strawberries, kiwi, cantaloupe, jicama, potatoes and tomatoes. Cooking and prolonged storage of foods lessens the vitamin C content.
You can also get your daily dose of “C” from supplements and from foods and beverages fortified with vitamin C. Check the product labels to find out if the vitamin has been added and how much the food contributes to your daily requirement.
People who smoke need an additional 35 milligrams of vitamin C daily than nonsmokers. Smoke increases the amount of vitamin C the body needs to repair damage caused by free radicals.
If you do take a vitamin C supplement, be sure to not get more than 2,000 mg of the vitamin a day from foods and supplements combined.
Vitamin C has been credited with many health benefits over and above what it is naturally known to do. Are all of the claims true? Here is what scientific research has shown about the effects of vitamin C on our health.
The common cold – Although vitamin C has long been touted as a remedy for the common cold, research shows that vitamin C supplements do not reduce the risk of getting a cold. However, people who take vitamin C supplements regularly might have colds of slightly shorter duration and have somewhat milder symptoms. Using vitamin C supplements after cold symptoms start does not appear to be helpful.
Vitamin C and cancer prevention and treatment – People with high intakes of vitamin C from fruits and vegetables might have a lower risk of many types of cancer. However, taking vitamin C supplements doesn’t seem to protect people from getting cancer. Research on this topic is ongoing.
It is important to note: Vitamin C dietary supplements can interact with chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Therefore, cancer patients should talk with their oncologist before taking vitamin C or other supplements, especially in high doses.
Cardiovascular disease – The jury is still out on whether vitamin C helps protect people from cardiovascular disease or keeps it from getting worse in people who already have it. Researchers believe that the antioxidant content of foods high in vitamin C might be why people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables seem to have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
However, research suggests vitamin C combined with other nutrients might help keep early AMD from worsening. People who have or are developing the disease should talk with their physician about taking vitamin C supplements. Some studies show people who get more vitamin C from foods have a lower risk of getting cataracts. Further research is needed to clarify this association.
While there is much scientists still have to learn, one thing is clear: Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant with protective and healing properties.
(Editor’s Note: Rachel Kelly-Hornback D.O., is a Family Medicine physician practicing with Northwest Allied Physicians. Her office may be reached at 202-7770 or www.mytucsondoc.com)