The truth about vitamin C
You have an inbuilt metabolic disorder. We all do. We share this disorder with other primates (and guinea pigs). You cannot make your own vitamin C, but nearly all of the other 4,000 species of mammals on the planet can. (1)
Vitamin C is vital for life and evolution has helped us compensate for this “metabolic disorder” by using our red blood cells to transport and recycle vitamin C. Vitamin C is a precious and vital resource, and we are good at using it when we get it.
But do we get enough of it?
We are completely dependent on what we eat to get our vitamin C, and what we eat is looking increasingly like it is not good enough in terms of this vital nutrient. Not enough to experience the full benefits anyway. Vitamin C degenerates when food is stored, pre-cut, or exposed to heat. That plastic container of fruit salad may not give you the levels of vitamin C you expect! Much of our fruit and vegetables travel miles and is older than ideal before we eat it. A lot of the fruit we consume is in the form of juice, which may have been boiled to concentrate it, and our vitamin C levels may drag along the minimum levels at best (3).
Debate still exists as to what impact this may have on our bodies and the ageing process in the long run.
Is it really that bad to not get enough vitamin C?
Think of scurvy and you may think of Jack Sparrow, pirates, sailors – a disease belonging to the past. But shockingly, it is making a reappearance in an industrialised wealthy country like Australia. A thoughtful endocrinologist at Westmead hospital checked the vitamin C and zinc levels of some of her patients with slow-healing ulcers and discovered very low vitamin C levels – Yes, scurvy, in Australia, in our lifetime. Shockingly low vitamin levels are common in the modern population if you are relying on processed food and the “don’t cook, just eat” philosophy of modern lifestyles. This could be exacerbated if you are avoiding fruit – more common as people worry about fruit containing “too much sugar” and not replacing it with enough fresh vegetables.
Our basic ‘recommended’ requirements of 40mg of vitamin C per day is a public health level that was set to keep the general population from developing the symptoms of scurvy. However, there is much controversy and debate around the difference between adequate and ideal levels – something of interest to researchers, and to people pursuing optimum nutrition, health and longevity. We are able to store up to nearly 2000mg of vitamin C before we begin to lose it in the urine.
So is it useful to keep your body fully topped up with this extraordinary micronutrient?
Vitamin C is vital for the production of collagen and it is the reason why one of the symptoms of scurvy is bleeding gums. Higher levels of vitamin C may be protective in the skin and help preserve collagen production, (5) a vital part of anti-ageing protocols (preventing premature wrinkles). It is also a useful consideration for those with sports injuries or joint issues – anything that helps reduce inflammation and produce healthy connective tissue is useful for joint repair.
Rough bumpy skin (chicken skin) easily broken capillaries under the skin and generally, rough, dry, damaged skin and hair may all be signs of more subtle vitamin C deficiency. As a free radical scavenger, Vitamin C is also vital for repairing the damage done by UV rays to the skin. (2)
Vitamin C helps us absorb and use iron and copper in our cells – always spritz your spinach with some lemon! It also protects our cells from free radical damage throughout the body caused by pollution, smoking and sun exposure. But connective tissue runs deeper than reducing wrinkles, vitamin C also has a role in protecting arteries from damage that leads to atherosclerosis.
Low intakes of vitamin C are associated with low bone density. If you want to help protect against osteoporosis then keeping your stores of vitamin C topped up should be part of your strategy along with exercise and eating well. (4) Low vitamin C levels are also associated with fatigue.
Basically, this nutrient is manufactured by most animals in the world because it is so valuable.
Vitamin C is vital for life and acts as a protective agent throughout the body supporting healthy bones, healthy veins, healthy skin and reducing damage to cells and helping to protect us from chronic disease. Few of us walk through orchards and gardens eating freshly picked food daily and many of us are exposed to smoke, pollution and the general stresses that draw on our vitamin C reserves. 40mg a day may keep you free of scurvy but many of us want more for our bodies and health, and that means, amongst other things, more vitamin C.
(1) Cell Press. “How Humans Make Up For An ‘Inborn’ Vitamin C Deficiency.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 March 2008. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080320120726.htm>.
(2).Rhie G, Shin MH, Seo JY, et al. Aging- and photoaging-dependent changes of enzymic and nonenzymic antioxidants in the epidermis and dermis of human skin in vivo. J Invest Dermatol 2001;117:1212-1217.
(3).Effects of heat and storage on vitamin C content in fruit juice. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/dada/15f9006dba0f8ec4c74cbc041de87b8863f1.pdf
(4) Morton Barret et al Vitamin C supplement use and bone mineral density in post menopausal women. J Bone Miner Res. 2001 Jan;16(1):135-40.
(5) Peterkofsky B. Ascorbate requirement for hydroxylation and secretion of procollagen: relationship to inhibition of collagen synthesis in scurvy. Am J Clin Nutr 1991;54:1135S-1140S.