Vitamin C deficiency, known as scurvy, is most often associated with pirates and ancient civilizations. The vitamin is so common today in food and supplement forms that a deficiency seems almost impossible. But your levels of Vitamin C depend on more than just the foods you’re consuming, which means that you can still be deficient (although it’s rare).
Why our bodies need Vitamin C
Besides the scurvy-fighting, antioxidant role of Vitamin C, our bodies rely on the nutrient for all kinds of essential functions.
Vitamin C is needed for the production of collagen, a vital component in the stability and elasticity of our connective tissue. While collagen affects your external appearance and complexion, it also supports the structure of your circulatory system. Without it, tissues begin to break down. Vitamin C may not be the secret to agelessness, but age certainly comes faster without it.
Vitamin C levels also influence our immune system, which means a deficiency leaves you especially vulnerable to illness and infection. The vitamin affects your body’s absorption of iron, the regulation of your metabolism of cholesterol, dopamine synthesis and energy production.
Some research shows that certain genetics dictate your ability to survive on a Vitamin C-poor diet. The haptoglobin 1 allele—which appears the most in populations from Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, Easter Island the Inuit population of Hudson Bay—has been shown to allow people to function on a diet with less Vitamin C. Meanwhile, people in the Midwest of the USA, Japan, India and North-Western Europe were all found less likely to carry this allele. This means these populations are more dependent on a Vitamin C-rich diet than their often island-dwelling counterparts.
Signs of a Vitamin C deficiency
Scurvy isn’t pretty. Besides being synonymous with yellowed, decaying teeth, scurvy also appears with early symptoms of bone pain, anemia, swelling and below-skin bleeding. Without Vitamin C enhancing your dopamine levels, depression and mood changes can also ensue. Scurvy can be fatal if left untreated and leads to problems with fetal brain development in pregnant women. Its later-stage symptoms include severe jaundiced, spontaneous bleeding, fever, neuropathy, convulsions and other issues you definitely don’t want to live with.
So how much Vitamin C do you need? Adults generally require 90 mg for men and 75 mg for women (about the amount of one medium orange and a few more fruits, or one and a half green bell peppers). But smokers especially require 35 mg more Vitamin C than non-smokers on a daily basis. Pregnant women also require 85 mg of Vitamin C, which rises to 120 mg during breastfeeding.
How to get more Vitamin C
Here’s the good news: it’s not difficult to get more Vitamin C. Most breads and cereals are enriched with Vitamin C, and it’s a prominent nutrient in all citrus fruits. But more than just fruits and grains contain this vitamin: Paprika, liver, oysters, tomatoes, carrots, bell peppers, broccoli, potatoes, cabbage and spinach are all sources of this essential vitamin.
Vitamin C supplements are also extremely common and easily accessible. They’re one of the most commonly taken vitamins among supplement users. Especially for individuals that require higher levels of Vitamin C or have unique dietary restrictions, supplements can provide exact dosages in a convenient form.
Factors other than just food
But your Vitamin C supply isn’t just about the food you eat. If people are exposed to transitional metals, like iron or copper, research shows that Vitamin C shifts from an antioxidant to a pro-oxidant. What does all that scientific lingo mean? The scurvy-curing characteristic of Vitamin C swaps sides in your body’s fight against free radicals, going from preventing oxidation of substances to actually accelerating it.
This leads to a surplus of free radicals that greatly outnumbers your internal amount of antioxidants. This opens the door for oxidative stress. In cases of oxidative stress, your cells get damaged rapidly—causing everything from premature aging to more serious conditions like aging and the acceleration of age-related conditions.
Symptoms of oxidative stress are full-body and look a lot like premature aging: wrinkles, grey hair, muscle and joint pain, headaches, susceptibility to infection and memory loss. It’s clear that Vitamin C is a crucial, if often unappreciated, nutrient for fitness enthusiasts and anyone who wants to age as gently, slowly and gracefully as possible.
Keep in mind that supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA. With such a huge variety of supplements available, it’s important to conduct thorough research to find the best option for your needs, from trusted supplement manufacturers.