During the 16th - 19th centuries, when trade and warfare were mostly done via sailing ships, it was assumed that half of the sailors would die of scurvy on any given trip. This was not a pleasant way to go - starting with weakness and tiredness, it rapidly descended to gum disease, hair loss, bleeding, and finally, death.
Vitamin C - or the lack of it - was behind this awful disease.
Also known as ascorbic acid, vitamin C is an essential nutrient for various processes in the human body. As it’s not produced in the body, it must be brought in via the diet. It’s found in citrus fruits (eg. oranges, limes, lemons, grapefruit), kiwi fruit, broccoli, sprouts, strawberries and raw bell peppers.
James Lind, a Scottish surgeon in the Royal Navy, is credited as discovering that eating citrus fruit was the answer to scurvy, back in 1753. Unsurprisingly, bureaucracy and lack of urgency got in the way, and it wasn’t until health reforms in 1795 that the Royal Navy started routinely giving lemon juice to sailors.
(The words ‘lemon’ and ‘lime’ were rather interchangeable at the time, leading to the phrase lime-juicer being coined to refer to sailors in the British Royal Navy. This later became limey, and was taken to refer to any British person, often by those in the US.)
Thankfully, we hardly ever see scurvy any more, although it can be spotted in developing countries where malnutrition is prevalent. It takes at least a month of little or no vitamin C for symptoms to occur.
Enough about the bad side - vitamin C is a versatile, highly important nutrient, with a number of benefits when it’s introduced to the body in a healthy way. Let’s dive in and see what it can do.
What is vitamin C actually good for?
Vitamin C is a cofactor in many enzymatic reactions - which means it’s a key player in many chemical reactions around the body.
This includes the synthesis of collagen - the structural protein that makes up connective tissues in the body. It’s found in tendons, fat, ligaments, and cells around the body. It’s the substance that gives structural integrity to these areas, and is important in giving skin its texture and shape. Healthy collagen levels in the skin can give it a stronger, more youthful look.
Vitamin C’s part in this is causing the synthesis of hyaluronic acid, which helps boost collagen production in the body. An increased level of collagen in the body can also be linked with higher levels of keratin, the building block of healthy hair and nails. (Other potential benefits for healthy hair are through the fighting of adrenal gland fatigue - a common cause of hair loss).
Similar mechanisms are used for wound healing and the creation of scar tissue to protect the site of the injury. That’s why slow wound healing can potentially be a sign of a vitamin C deficiency.
Speaking of skin, did you know vitamin C can play a vital role in sun protection? While sunscreen is of course the number 1 method for protecting the skin from the harmful effects of direct sunlight exposure, pairing it with healthy levels of vitamin C can supercharge its utility. The antioxidant properties of vitamin C can help block free radicals produced by exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet light. This effect can be enhanced with vitamin E, which strengthens its protective properties.
Vitamin C’s antioxidant properties, helping to reduce the amount of free radicals in the body, have another important effect: fighting cancer. While it isn’t an effective treatment for cancer, antioxidant-rich foods and supplements are linked to lowering the risk of getting certain types of cancer.
Finally, vitamin C also helps the body to absorb iron from food and supplements.
Can Vitamin C cure the common cold?
And then, of course, there’s the cold. We often take our health for granted, cursing our lack of orange consumption when the cold weather hits and brings coughs, sneezes and sniffles. But the link between this vitamin and a miracle cure for the cold isn’t concrete. Popular theories about ‘mega-dosing’ vitamin C just aren’t backed up by science.
As we’ve always known, there’s currently no cure for the common cold. But vitamin C is highly concentrated in immune cells, and gets quickly depleted as your body reacts to an infection when the cold hits. So - supplementing your vitamin C intake probably won’t reduce the risk of you catching a cold, even though it plays a part in having a strong immune system. But it may help restock your stores of it during an infection. Therefore it may speed up your recovery, and reduce the severity of symptoms. Definitely worth a try.
What happens if you have too much vitamin C?
So scurvy is the result for a chronic lack of vitamin C - what about the opposite? Well, large doses may result in gastrointestinal discomfort, headaches, insomnia, and flushed skin.
There are other risks involved, but these are only likely when taking far above the recommended dose (2000mg or more). We’d recommend you stick to a sensible diet and supplement regime, and you shouldn’t have any problems.
Vitamin C is one of the Nourishments available in your personalised vitamin stack. Our vitamin C is sourced from camu camu, the Amazonian berry of the camu camu tree - a fruit with one of the world’s highest concentrations of vitamin C. Why not add it to your programme today?