With a rush of new cases of scurvy diagnosed recently in Australia – are you at risk of a vitamin C deficiency?
Vitamin C facts and fiction
Almost every report focuses on the need to eat more foods rich in vitamin C, without understanding why some of these foods might have little or none left by the time you eat them. Nor do they mention other things preventing your body absorbing this vitamin from food or supplements.
Without knowing the facts, you too may end up with scurvy during a time of plenty.
Vitamin C facts
What is vitamin C?
It’s an essential, water soluble vitamin (also known as ascorbic acid). The body needs it to survive but can’t make or store it. Any excess VC that your body doesn’t need is excreted in your urine.
What does it do?
It helps the body by:
- forming and maintaining the basic building blocks (collagen, ground substance and teeth etc)
- fighting infection, through producing antibodies, lymphocytes, interferon and other immune promoting properties
- preventing oxidation
- fighting allergies
- healing wounds
- normalising cholesterol levels
- absorbing and using iron.
What are the main dietary sources of vitamin C?
Fresh plant foods are the major source, however the amount of this vitamin decreases from the moment it’s picked, as well as when it’s exposured to light and heat (cooking). Theoretically red berries, leafy greens and orange fruits can provide a good food dose of vitamin C but the key is they need to be freshly picked and eaten raw for maximum amounts of this vitamin. Because large shops and supermarkets relying on cool-stores to warehouse their produces until needed; berries, leafy greens and fruit from these sources may not have enough vitamin C required to meet our daily needs. Coupled with the growing trend for Australians to eat less than the recommended daily allowance of fruits and vegetables, is it any wonder that scurvy is on the rise?
When we need more vitamin C (eg if we’re fighting an infection, have acute allergies or recovering from trauma) even with the best foods, it can be challenging to get the medicinal dose required.
What stops you absorbing or using VC?
A number of common substances can interfere with absorption and utilisation of vitamin C. Some common culprits include:
- natural or pharmaceutical diuretics
- high iron or copper in your body
When do we need more vitamin C than normal?
We have an increased need especially when we’re:
- stressed (physically or emotionally)
- fighting an infection
- experiencing an allergic reaction (eg hay fever)
- recovering from burns, ulcers or other wounds
- regularly drinking alcohol, smoking or using recreational drugs.
What are the signs and symptoms of vitamin C deficiency?
A VC deficiency should be investigated if you’re frequently experiencing:
- bleeding – gums, bruising for no known reason etc
- iron deficiency
- swollen gums or tongue
- aching joints
- ongoing fatigue
- slow healing wounds
- repeated infections
Always see your medical professional to rule out other medical causes
Is it best to get vitamin C from diet or supplement?
If you don’t regularly eat raw, fresh fruit and vegetables, it’s advisable to take a maintenance dose (about 500 mg per day) of ascorbic acid or similar supplement.
For acute infections, allergies or other persistent symptoms the adult dose ranges from 500 to 1,000 mg, three to five times a day depending on the symptoms. If using vitamin C powder, remember to mix it with cold rather than hot water, as heat will reduce its potency.
As the body can’t store this vitamin, taking smaller but more regular doses is the way to go. Don’t forget to avoid tea, coffee, alcohol or diuretics for two hours before and after taking a supplement or eating a meal that is rich in vitamin C.
If you’re taking vitamin C in a liquid form or eating a lot of fruit, don’t forget to brush your teeth afterwards to protect them from the acidity.
Can you take too much VC?
Most warnings about adverse reactions and interactions relate to very high doses (often up to 100,000 mg given intravenously by integrative physicians).
Some people (perhaps as many as one in ten) are sensitive to vitamin C, and may not be able to tolerate more than 30 to 100 mg/day, before getting loose bowels.
Diarrhoea is a sign that your body has enough vitamin C. In an anecdotal experiment (while studying naturopathy) only one out of 30 students had this low tolerance. Most could take a divided dose of over 5,000 mg without any reaction, and a few needed to take more than 30,000 mg to cause a bowel response. Individual needs vary.
Who should be cautious about taking medicinal doses of vitamin C
People with high levels of oxalates in their urine (usually associated with kidney stones) should stick to food doses of vitamin C, unless they’re under the supervision of an experienced practitioner.
If you have high blood pressure, avoid the sodium ascorbate form of this vitamin, and as always with new medicines or supplements, always monitor blood pressure daily. If there is any significant rise in your blood pressure, stop taking the supplement and see your doctor.
There is conflicting research about diabetes and vitamin C. Most diabetics benefit from taking a moderate dose (to improve wound healing etc) but all insulin dependent diabetics should closely monitor their blood sugar when taking new supplements or medicines.
If you take blood thinning medications or have any pre-existing problems with forming blood clots, sonly take vitamin C supplements under the guidance of a medical practitioner.
Are you getting enough Vitamin C or are you a candidate for scurvy?
Read more clinical notes on nutrients