One of the most essential nutrients for the growth and development of the human body vitamin C. This is also known as ascorbic acid or ascorbate. This water-soluble vitamin cannot be made by the body and has to be obtained from the foods we eat.
Here are some of the significant functions of vitamin C:
- Helps treat scurvy (a rare nutritional deficiency disease)
- Helps with tissue repair and wound healing
- Plays an important role in collagen production (a protein that gives structure to the bones, tissues, skin, and ligaments)
- Brings down the intensity of common cold
- Reduces the frequency of infections
- Makes several important hormones and chemicals needed for the brain
- Helps in iron absorption
Since vitamin C helps in producing collagen, it is a popular and widely used in the beauty and cosmetic industry.
Vitamin C deficiency is quite rare in developed countries. However, a very badly chosen diet and factors like excessive smoking or drug abuse can result in lowered vitamin C levels in the body and result in a variety of health problems.
The Story Behind Vitamin C
Scurvy is a disease that has been known since the Egyptian and Greek times. It is caused by vitamin C deficiency and results in anemia, bleeding in gums, lowered Red Blood Cell count, and reduced healing rates. Scurvy can turn fatal if untreated.
The story of the discovery of vitamin C starts in the large vessels that carried Vasco da Gama and his sailors into the Indian and Pacific oceans in 1499. It is mentioned that Vasco da Gama lost two-thirds of his sailors to scurvy.
Similarly, Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer lost 80% of his crew while crossing the Pacific ocean in 1520.
Scurvy remained one of the biggest reasons for sailor-deaths between the 1400s and 1700s.
James Lind was a surgeon in the UK Royal Navy and he started experimenting by giving two oranges and one lemon to a group of sailors and comparing their health with the others who did not receive the same.
He noticed that the sailors who received the oranges and lemon did not fall sick and were healthier than the rest of the crew members. He published his work on this experiment in 1753.
After that, sailing crew members were regularly provided with fresh lemon juice as a way to prevent them from falling sick. Many ports also had fruit trees growing abundantly for sailors and crew members to consume fruits when they anchored.
Vitamin C was finally identified in 1932 and is one of the first vitamins to be made on an industrial scale.
Molecular Role Of Vitamin C- Getting Technical
Vitamin C cannot be made by the body and you will have to get it directly from the foods you eat.
Vitamin C is absorbed by the body in the form of ascorbic acid (80-90%) and dehydroascorbic acid (10-20%).
Once ascorbic acid enters the intestine, it is transported by a particular transport protein called Sodium Vitamin C cotransporter (SVCT). Such cotransporter proteins help molecules move from one place to another inside the body.
Now, these ascorbic acid molecules are transported into the cells in the body using another set of transport proteins and are then used up.
Dehydroascorbic acid uses a set of glucose transporters and enters the cells in the body. These are then converted to ascorbic acid and then made use of in the cells.
Did You Know?
Many people make a conscious effort to consume fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin C but do not enjoy the benefits. Do you know why?
Vitamin C is a gentle nutrient that gets destroyed very easily. Most of the common cooking methods kill vitamin C before it reaches your plate.
Vitamin C is destroyed by overexposure to light, heat, and air.
In a clinical study done in Nigeria in the year 2013, the vitamin C retaining capacity in peppers was studied. Peppers have 15.39 mg/25 ml vit C in raw form. The vitamin C quantity went down to 9.96 mg after just 15 minutes of cooking and to 5.43 mg after 30 minutes of cooking.
It is better to get your sources of vitamin C in raw form. However, if you want to cook, make sure you cook in low heat for minimal time and with as little water as you can. Vitamin C is water-soluble and hence when you boil food in lots of water and throw away the excess water, you are throwing out its nutrient value too.
The below-recommended values of vitamin C needed every day is put together by the Food and Nutrition Board (FNB).
What Happens When You Take Excess of Vitamin C
Since Vitamin C is water-soluble, it does not get accumulated in the body and cause excess toxicity.
However, very large doses of vitamin C can result in symptoms like:
- Headache and nausea
- Abdominal cramps
- Gastrointestinal disorders
- Warmth and reddening of the skin (flushing of skin)
- Sleeping trouble
Most experts do mention that it is not easy to consume extremely high doses of vitamin C only through diet.
Only excessive consumption of supplements can cause the above effects.
What Happens When You Have Vitamin C Deficiency
Some of the top vitamin C deficiency signs to be aware of are:
- Scurvy disease (when you consume less than 10mg of vitamin C per day for 1 month)
- Weakened tissues
- Joint pain
- Delayed healing of wounds
- Swollen and bleeding gums
- Anemia because of iron deficiency (vitamin C helps in iron absorption)
- Bone diseases in children
Non-Genetic Factors Affecting Vitamin C Levels
- Unhealthy diet - Unless you consume supplements and fortified foods, all your needs for vitamin C has to be fulfilled by the food you eat. When you do not include fresh fruits and vegetables every day, you could be inching closer to vitamin C deficiency.
- Ineffective cooking techniques - Even if you bring home fresh fruits and vegetables, if you are overcooking the ingredients, you can end up with vitamin C deficiency. Consume fruits and vegetables raw or use gentler flash cooking techniques.
- Smoking and passive smoking - People who smoke excessively or those in the vicinity of smokers end up with cell and tissue damage. These individuals are likely to require more vitamin C than non-smokers to match their body’s needs and might need to depend on supplements or vitamin C shots.
- Health conditions- There are instances of people with certain diseases (renal failure, cancer, cachexia) not being able to absorb vitamin C completely from food. Some diseases also require more vitamin C than what’s being consumed. Such individuals will need to compensate with supplements.
Sodium Vitamin C cotransporter (SVCT) helps ascorbic acid reach the cells in the body. There are two genes SLC23A1 and SLC23A2 and their variations that create changes in vitamin C absorption levels.
Recommendations for healthy Vitamin C levels
Maintaining healthy ranges of vitamin C will keep you strong, active, and healthy.
- Get most of your sources of vitamin C from raw foods. Salads and freshly squeezed juices are great choices.
- If you are cooking vitamin C rich foods, cook in low heat for a minimal time. Add as little water as needed to prevent loss of vitamin C in the water you discard.
- Genetic testing will tell you if you are likely to require more vitamin C than others around. If so, start with vitamin C supplements and fortified foods.
- Vitamin C is not stored in the body for a long time. Make sure you include some vitamin C rich foods daily.
- A simple blood test will tell your vitamin C levels in the body. Plan your nutrient intake based on this.
- Vitamin C is a water-soluble nutrient also known as ascorbic acid or ascorbate. This is available in many colorful fruits and vegetables.
- While excessive intake of vitamin C is not exactly fatal, vitamin C deficiency can lead to scurvy, increased risks of infections, bone and joint pain, and even death.
- Non-genetic factors like bad food habits, ineffective cooking process, excessive smoking, and the presence of few health conditions can lead to vitamin C deficiency.
- Genetically, some people may have lower absorption rates of vitamin C in the body and may need to compensate with supplements and fortified foods.
- A healthy lifestyle, varied food choices for every meal, and picking up fortified foods are all ways to keep up your body’s demand for vitamin C.