When you think of Vitamin C, I would guess that you might reminisce to memories from your childhood – downing a glass of orange juice each morning before school because it was “good for your immune system.” Vitamin C supplementation has come a long way from the iconic Flintstones chewable vitamins or a glass of Sunny-D drowning in nearly 27 grams of added sugar. While most people are familiar with Vitamin C when it comes to immune health, this vitamin plays a key role in many other functions that are oftentimes overlooked. This week we will discuss Vitamin C, its history, and why you should be adding it to your diet and supplement regimen.
Vitamin C’s claim to fame was preventing scurvy – a disease caused by a Vitamin C deficiency. In the early 17th century, many sailors in Europe began adventuring across the Atlantic to the new world. During their voyage, the sailors developed an array of symptoms including bleeding gums, spotting skin, joint pain, severe fatigue, and in many cases, even death. Decades later, a British military surgeon suggested the consumption of lemons, limes, and oranges as a cure for this mysterious illness – and it worked! For centuries, however, the cause of this illness remained unknown until scientists and doctors finally uncovered that a Vitamin C deficiency was the source of these symptoms. Because the sailors were out at sea for extended periods of time, they were unable to consume fresh fruits and vegetables (the primary source of Vitamin C), and therefore, became very ill. This discovery of what we now know today as scurvy led to the notion that the consumption of Vitamin C is necessary for human survival.
At one point in time, humans had the capacity to create Vitamin C naturally similar to the same way we are able to create Vitamin D today. However, through evolution, mutations were made to the gene responsible for coding the enzyme that manages the final step of Vitamin C biosynthesis. Now, we have to obtain Vitamin C through external means. Vitamin C deficiency is widespread throughout the world. 1 in 8 adults in high income countries have low Vitamin C levels and 1 in 14 adults are clinically deficient. Many attribute this widespread deficiency in the US to the standard American diet. Because many Americans consume a diet full of processed foods, individuals may go 5 to 6 days without ever consuming any natural whole foods, and therefore not absorbing any Vitamin C.
So what is Vitamin C and why is it important? Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin and essential antioxidant. Vitamin C is absorbed in the small intestine and high concentrations are stored in the brain, adrenal glands, eyes, leukocytes (a type of white blood cell), and our skin. The most notable function of Vitamin C is its role in immune strength. Vitamin C aids in building a strong immune system by playing a role in various cellular functions of the innate and adaptive immune system.
Beyond immune health, Vitamin C plays a key role in adrenal function. Our adrenal glands (the stress glands) have a neurological connection and adapt our bodies to different stress states. These glands have a high concentration of Vitamin C which plays a role in the creation of catecholamines – the hormones created by the adrenal glands that release neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline) during stressful fight or flight situations.
Vitamin C is maintained at high concentrations in the brain and in our neurons playing a critical role in brain function. In fact, the brain hoards more Vitamin C than any other part of the body with the intention of preventing free-radical damage and aging in the brain. Vitamin C is critical to cognitive function because it plays a role in the differentiation and maturation of neurons and in the formation of a protective coating. In a recent review of a number of studies on Vitamin C levels and cognitive function, researchers found a striking relationship between Vitamin C status and mental function. The study found that those who were cognitively intact had significantly higher blood concentrations of Vitamin C than those who were cognitively impaired.
So how can you be sure that you are getting enough Vitamin C into your body? The first place to turn is your diet. There are a variety of foods that are rich in Vitamin C: bell peppers, lemons, limes, oranges, sauerkraut, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and many more. In order to effectively absorb this Vitamin C, it is important to consume foods rich in iron, which boosts your body’s ability to absorb and use Vitamin C. Taking a supplement is a great addition to make sure you are getting the right amount of Vitamin C. We recommend taking between 75 and 90 grams per day. Stay tuned next week as we turn to the importance of Zinc.