Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is an essential micronutrient that our bodies need to make important protein building blocks, create energy and produce certain mood-enhancing brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. It also plays an important role as an antioxidant.
We can examine the effects and benefits of vitamin C on the body through the experience of two patients I work with, a couple: Mary and James*.
Prior to seeing me, both Mary and James had experienced few health problems throughout their lives. Like many couples in their later years who seek my help, they're concerned with maintaining health longevity: prolonging health, activity and quality of life for as long as possible. Both are active; however, Mary is more diet-conscious than James. She enjoys a variety of fruits and vegetables and likes to experiment with whole foods recipes. James, on the other hand, prefers fast food. With his lowered intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, James is likely among the 35 per cent of North Americans who don't get enough vitamin C.
Vitamin C and Collagen
Mary and James' differences in eating habits are most pronounced when eating out. Mary usually orders meat or fish with vegetable sides: perhaps broccoli and roasted red peppers. Although oranges are often credited as being a source of vitamin C, Mary is getting 80 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C from her one cup serving of broccoli and a whopping 360 mg from her one cup of roasted peppers, giving her well above the 100-120 mg recommended daily intake of vitamin C for adults.
James, on the other hand orders a burger and fries. If he adds a few tablespoons of ketchup to his plate, he succeeds in adding only about 1-2 mg of vitamin C to his meal. Fortunately, James only needs about 10 mg of vitamin C a day to ward off scurvy, a deficiency disease common among 16th century sailors due to their low intake of perishable fruits and vegetables.
Characterized by fatigue, loose gums and joint degeneration, scurvy is a deficiency in a protein called collagen, which makes up about 30 per cent of the body's total protein, and is the building block for skin, bones, teeth, cartilage, heart valves, vertebral disks and even the cornea and lens of the eye. Vitamin C is an essential nutrient required for the synthesis of collagen and getting inadequate levels prevents our bodies from making this important protein.
By getting enough vitamin C for the day, along with the amino acids glycine and proline (which come from protein), Mary is supporting her body's essential tissues and preventing some of the common signs of aging due to the break-down of collagen, such as wrinkles, joint degeneration and osteoporosis.
The Recommended Daily Amount of Vitamin C
While it takes only 10 mg per day of vitamin C to ward off the debilitating symptoms of scurvy, 100-120 mg of vitamin C per day is the recommended daily amount for adults (140 mg per day for smokers) to support normal body demands, and to prevent mortality from heart disease, stroke and cancer. However, there is some evidence that consuming higher doses of vitamin C — around 500 mg to 1 g per day — may be beneficial for boosting immune function, increasing wound healing and preventing atherosclerosi, which is the hardening and narrowing of the arteries.
The Nurse's Health Study found that women who consumed the highest amounts of vitamin C, 200 mg per day or more, had the lowest risk of developing breast cancer among premenopausal women with a family history of breast cancer.
"Triage Theory", developed by nutrition researcher Dr. Bruce Ames, states that if the body only gets the minimum level of the vitamins and minerals it needs to perform specific tasks, it will "triage" them by performing only the bodily functions needed for short-term survival. However, when higher levels of these vitamins and minerals are consumed, the body may start to use them to serve longer-term goals, such as producing antioxidants and decreasing signs of aging.
Not getting high enough levels of the vitamins and minerals needed to perform these functions may not cause symptoms until much later in life. Someone like James, whose vitamin C intake for the day came mostly from the salad on his burger, may not notice the repercussions of inadequate amounts of this vitamin until decades later.
Food Sources of Vitamin C
Vitamin C, along with vitamin E and beta-carotene, are the main antioxidants the body gets from food. Antioxidants are chemicals that scavenge free radicals — chemicals either produced by the body as a result of normal energy production and functioning or from toxins and radiation in the environment. These free radicals create oxidative stress, which can damage DNA and cause inflammation — two mechanisms that lead to aging and chronic diseases, such as cancer.
Free radicals are unstable molecules and antioxidants like vitamin C stabilize free radicals by breaking them down so they don't harm our cells. One recent study showed that managing levels of inflammation is the main factor for thriving in our later years.
I would suggest that patients like Mary and James obtain their vitamins and minerals from whole foods like nutrient-dense vegetables and fruits — aiming for at least five cups of green leafy vegetables and colorful, non-starchy vegetables per day. In the case of James, this may involve striving to eat more broccoli, brussel sprouts, peppers, rose hips, parsley and citrus fruits, which all contain high levels of vitamin C per 1/2 cup. Obtaining vitamin C from whole fruits and vegetables, as opposed to sugary juices, is preferred.
Some studies have shown that supplementing with another 500 mg to 1 g of vitamin C a day to support immune function, lower inflammation, promote collagen production and increase antioxidant function, may be a good idea for older adults who have higher requirements for antioxidant and anti-inflammatory support.
Talk to your naturopathic doctor or health-care practitioner to determine whether additional vitamin C supplementation fits into your lifestyle demands and individual health goals.
*Note: Mary's and James' names were changed to protect their anonymity.
Dr. Talia Marcheggiani is a naturopathic doctor practicing in Toronto, Canada. She has a special focus in mental health, endocrinology and community medicine.
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