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Human beings need vitamin C to live. Go without it for a month or two, and the walls of your blood vessels will gradually break down. This condition—also known as scurvy—eventually leads to internal bleeding and sometimes death (Wijkmans, 2016).
That’s the most extreme case. But even minor vitamin C shortfalls may interfere with proper health and functioning. Also, some people—for example, those who smoke—may require more vitamin C than others (Carr, 2021).
What is vitamin C?
Vitamin C, which is also called ascorbic acid, is an essential nutrient. That means your body needs it but can’t make it itself, so you have to get it from your diet or from supplements. It’s also a water-soluble vitamin, which means it breaks down in water and the body can put it to use immediately. Water-soluble vitamins are usually not stored in the body and need to be replenished regularly in our diet (Carr, 2017).
In addition to it being an essential nutrient, vitamin C has antioxidant properties. That means it can prevent or counteract cell damage or dysfunction caused by free radicals, oxidative stress, and other toxins (Abdullah, 2021).
It also plays a critical role in many biological functions. It helps regulate the activity of your immune system, and can prevent or reduce harmful forms of inflammation (Abdullah, 2021). It also helps your body make collagen, which is the main ingredient in your connective tissues (Wijkmans, 2016).
What are the health benefits of vitamin C?
Apart from keeping you alive and in good working order, the beneficial effects of vitamin C may also help protect you from various ailments or illnesses. Here are a few reasons why it’s a good idea to consume vitamin C regularly.
Heart and blood benefits
Studies link proper vitamin C intake to healthier systolic and diastolic blood pressure scores. Some research, albeit preliminary, has also found that a high intake of vitamin C may lower your risk for heart disease (Carr, 2021).
Muscle and performance benefits
Research shows that vitamin C may prevent age-related muscle breakdown. It does this in part by protecting muscle fibers from damage and by supporting the cell structures that make up muscle. It may also support optimal physical performance (Takisawa, 2019).
Vitamin C plays a critical role in the healthy operation of your immune system. Without it, immune cells called cytokines don’t work properly. Your levels of inflammation can also become imbalanced.
These may be just two of many immunity-related problems that can crop up if you don’t get enough vitamin C. Some evidence links taking vitamin C supplements to shorter durations of the common cold, but there’s not enough data to say that vitamin C can prevent the common cold or other respiratory infections (NIH, 2021; Carr, 2017).
One big study looking at 11,306 people showed that supplementing with vitamin C did not lower the incidence of colds, but it did shorten the duration of symptoms by 8% in adults and 14% in children (Hemilä, 2013).
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Some evidence—albeit limited—shows that vitamin C may prevent several medical conditions. These include stroke, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some forms of cancer, mainly by curbing the damaging effects of free radicals. But more research is needed to establish these benefits (Abdullah, 2021).
Vitamin C helps your body take in or store other helpful nutrients. For example, vitamin C helps improve iron absorption (Abdullah, 2021).
Symptoms of a vitamin C deficiency
Your body doesn’t do a good job of storing or holding onto vitamin C. Because of that, you need to take it in regularly (Carr, 2017). A true vitamin C deficiency is pretty rare. Around 90-95% of adults get enough through diet alone and aren’t at risk for a vitamin C deficiency (Pfeiffer, 2013).
While extreme forms of vitamin C deficiency—a.k.a., scurvy—are uncommon in developed countries like the U.S., milder vitamin C deficiencies are not unusual. Roughly 7% of Americans may be deficient (Schleicher, 2009).
The risk is most significant among certain groups. These include (Maxfield, 2021):
- People who smoke
- People with an alcohol use disorder
- Older adults who eat a restricted diet and those who don’t have access to fruits and vegetables
- People with eating disorders
- People with GI disorders or type-1 diabetes
The symptoms of a vitamin C deficiency tend to emerge after 8–12 weeks of low intake levels. These symptoms are diverse and include poor wound healing, leg pain, skin or nail problems, swollen or bleeding gums, loose teeth, bruising, and red or purple spots on the skin (petechiae) (Maxfield, 2021; Marik, 2019):
Diagnosis of a vitamin C deficiency usually starts with a physical exam to check for the above symptoms. If your medical provider thinks you may have a vitamin C deficiency, blood tests can confirm this (Maxfield, 2021).
Treatment depends on the underlying cause of your deficiency. In most cases, you’ll need to take some kind of vitamin C supplement—something containing anywhere from 100 to 2,000 mg (Maxfield, 2021).
Sources of vitamin C
You can get vitamin C from two sources: foods and dietary supplements.
While many different foods contain a little vitamin C, fruits and vegetables are the best sources (Abdullah, 2021). In particular, the following foods have a high vitamin C content (Abdullah, 2021; Wijkmans, 2016):
- Citrus fruits, such as oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and limes
- Fruit juices, such as orange juice and grapefruit juice
- Green leafy vegetables
- Sweet peppers, such as red pepper
For example, a single orange contains about 80 mg of vitamin C. Meanwhile, a cup of chopped broccoli has about 70 mg (USDA, n.d.).
Vitamin C powders: do they really improve immunity?
There are countless vitamin C supplements for sale, including most multivitamins. Sometimes, one serving of these high-dose supplements has 1,000 mg of vitamin C.
The general recommendation is that people over the age of 19 should not consume more than 2,000 mg of vitamin C in a day. This is called the “tolerable upper limit” intake —the maximum amount of a vitamin or mineral people can consume without the likelihood of experiencing adverse health effects (NIH, 2021).
Research suggests that vitamin C is safe for most people—even in high doses (Carr, 2021). But there are reasons to be careful with supplement sources.
For example, high doses of vitamin C supplements may be risky for people with blood disorders. These supplements can also raise blood sugar levels (glucose) and may be problematic for people with diabetes (Abdullah, 2021).
Before taking a vitamin C supplement, you may want to talk with your medical provider to double-check that it’s safe.
How much vitamin C do you need?
That may seem like a straightforward question, but there’s more than one correct answer. For one thing, there appears to be a big difference in the amount of vitamin C your body needs to avoid deficiency problems and how much you need to take to optimize health (Carr, 2021).
Also, some groups may require more vitamin C than others. These include (Abdullah, 2021):
- Older adults
- Those with alcohol use disorders or anorexia
- Those on specialized or restricted diets (such as very low or no-carb diets)
- Those with kidney problems
- Those who smoke
As a result, recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) for the daily intake of vitamin C vary a lot from country to country. For example, France recommends that adult men and women aim for 110 mg/day, while the recommendation in the U.S. is 90 mg/day for men and 75 mg/day for women (Carr, 2021).
For other groups in the U.S., the National Institutes of Health (NIH) offers the following RDAs based on age (NIH, 2021):
- Infants 0 to 6 months: 40 mg
- Infants 7-12 months: 50 mg
- Kids 1 to 3: 15 mg
- Kids 4 to 8: 25 mg
- Kids 9 to 13: 45 mg
- Kids 14 to 18: 75 mg for men, and 65 for women
- Women who are pregnant: 80 to 85 mg
- Women who are breastfeeding or lactating: 115 to 120 mg
While those are the recommendations, some research suggests that aiming for 200 mg/day may optimize health without leading to any health risks (Carr, 2021).
Too much vitamin C: can you overdose on vitamin C?
Unless you have a diagnosed deficiency, most experts recommend that you try to get vitamin C from food sources such as the ones listed above (Abdullah, 2021). Eating five daily servings of fruits and vegetables should help you hit 200 mg (Carr, 2021).
If, for some reason, you can’t hit your daily vitamin C targets with foods alone, supplements can help fill shortfalls. But again, talk to your healthcare provider first (Abdullah, 2021).
Vitamin C does all sorts of important work in your body. Consider it another reason to eat plenty of healthy fruits and vegetables. If you’re not—or you can’t—you may want to talk with a healthcare provider about your risks for a deficiency.
- Abdullah, M., Jamil, R. T., & Attia, F. N. (2021). Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid). [Updated Jun 15, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Nov. 15, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499877/
- Carr, A. C., & Maggini, S. (2017). Vitamin C and Immune Function. Nutrients, 9(11), 1211. doi: 10.3390/nu9111211. Retrieved from https://www.cellularmedicines.co.nz/uploads/7/1/8/1/71817921/vitamin_c_and_immune_function.pdf
- Carr, A. C., & Lykkesfeldt, J. (2021). Discrepancies in global vitamin C recommendations: a review of RDA criteria and underlying health perspectives. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 61(5), 742–755. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2020.1744513. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10408398.2020.1744513
- Hemilä, H., & Chalker, E. (2013). Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub4. Retrieved from https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub4/full
- Marik, P. E., & Liggett, A. (2019). Adding an orange to the banana bag: vitamin C deficiency is common in alcohol use disorders. Critical Care (London, England), 23(1), 165. doi: 10.1186/s13054-019-2435-4. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1186/s13054-019-2435-4.pdf
- Maxfield, L., & Crane, J. S. (2021). Vitamin C Deficiency. [Updated Jul 18, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Nov. 15, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK493187/
- National Institutes of Health (NIH). (2021). Office of dietary supplements – vitamin C. Retrieved October 12, 2021 from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminC-HealthProfessional/
- Schleicher, R. L., Carroll, M. D., Ford, E. S., & Lacher, D. A. (2009). Serum vitamin C and the prevalence of vitamin C deficiency in the United States: 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 90(5), 1252–1263. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2008.27016. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6249652/#!po=87.5000
- Takisawa, S., Funakoshi, T., Yatsu, T., Nagata, K., Aigaki, T., Machida, S., & Ishigami, A. (2019). Vitamin C deficiency causes muscle atrophy and a deterioration in physical performance. Scientific Reports, 9(1), 4702. doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-41229-7. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-41229-7
- Pfeiffer, C.M., Sternberg, M.R., Schleicher, R.L., Haynes, B.M.H., Rybak, M.E., & Pirkle, J.L. (2013). The CDC’s Second National Report on Biochemical Indicators of Diet and Nutrition in the U.S. Population Is a Valuable Tool for Researchers and Policy Makers. The Journal of Nutrition, 143(6), 938S–947S. doi: 10.3945/jn.112.172858. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4822995/
- United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). (n.d.). Food Data Central: vitamin C. Retrieved November 5, 2021 from https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/?component=1162
- Wijkmans, R. A., & Talsma, K. (2016). Modern scurvy. Journal of Surgical Case Reports, 2016(1), rjv168. doi: 10.1093/jscr/rjv168. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/jscr/article/2016/1/rjv168/2412719
Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.