Everything You Need to Know About Vitamin C!

Most people know vitamin C as our ‘immune support vitamin’ – and it is, but it also is so much more! When the dreaded ills and chills season starts many of us reach for our trusty vitamin C supplements to give our immune system a helping hand.

But there is more to this mighty vitamin than meets the eye. If you thought vitamin C was only for winter, then keep on reading to see why we need it every day, all year round.

What is Vitamin C?

To understand vitamin C, it helps to know about vitamins in general.  Vitamins are natural compounds that we can’t live without.  They are necessary for the healthy functioning of our bodies.  They are classed as ‘essential’ because we can’t make them, we must get them from our diet.

When we don’t take in enough essential nutrients like vitamins (and minerals!), our bodies can’t carry out all the hundreds of chemical reactions it has to every second, of every day. This opens the door for ill health and increases the chances of becoming unwell.

We get vitamins and other essential nutrients from our diet – what we eat and drink. Vitamin C mostly comes from fruits and vegetables.  In its natural form in foods, vitamin C is known as ‘ascorbic acid’.  It usually occurs in relatively small quantities naturally, and is easily damaged by light, heat, storage and food processing methods. 

What does vitamin C do in the body?

What does vitamin C do in the body?

Vitamin C has a whole range of essential functions within the body:

  • Firstly, it’s an antioxidant – this means it helps to protect our cells from deteriorating – just like lemon juice prevents cut apples from browning.
  • It’s vital for the growth and repair of all our body tissues including skin, ligaments, joint tissue, tendons and blood vessels. It helps keep these structures from sagging and weakening. Without enough vitamin C, we get dry, thin, wrinkly skin, we may develop bleeding gums, sores that don’t heal, joints that are painful, and worst of all – cellulite!
  • Vitamin C helps your body to absorb the essential mineral iron. When you add fruit and vegetables to a meal, you can boost your iron absorption by up to four times. Iron is necessary for attaching oxygen to red blood cells that travel throughout the body supplying oxygen to every cell.
  • We need vitamin C for a healthy response to stress. Although we need a certain amount of stress to make us stronger (good stress), too much (bad) stress weakens the body. Our adrenal glands are responsible for making the hormones needed to deal with the effects of stress – both good and bad stress. When we’re under stress, the body uses up vitamin C extremely quickly. The more stressed you are, the more stress hormone (cortisol) is made and the more vitamin C is used up that needs replenishing.
  • Finally, Vitamin C also helps boost our immune system. Without it, we don’t make enough protective immune cells to fight foreign invaders that might make their way into our bodies.

What are the top sources of Vitamin C?

What are the top sources of Vitamin C?

Vitamin C occurs in all fruits and vegetables, but especially in:

  • Citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons, mandarins etc, with other great fruit sources including kiwifruit, blackcurrants, and feijoas;
  • The vegetables tomatoes, peppers, and broccoli.

Vitamin C is easily damaged when you are preparing food. Chopping fruit and vegetables, exposing them to air and cooking them all deplete their natural vitamin C levels. So the less time between chopping and cooking, and the less time you cook the food, the more Vitamin C you get.

You don’t lose all the essential vitamin C with heating or cooking, but you do lose a significant amount. That’s why the best way to eat fruit and vegetables is raw to get maximum vitamin C.

How much vitamin C do we need daily?

The recommended daily intake of vitamin C is relatively low and this is what is needed to avoid stark vitamin C deficiency.  The amount varies with age, gender and certain lifestyle stages like pregnancy and breastfeeding so an intake between 30-90mg a day is a basic minimum.  

A piece of fruit or serving of vege would typically provide around this amount of vitamin C. But should we only be eating 1 piece of fruit or vege a day for optimum health? No! We know we need more fruit and vege on a daily basis to get the optimal serving of vital nutrients and vitamin C is no exception.

Although severe vitamin C deficiency (or scurvy) is rare, many people don’t get as much vitamin C as they need through their diet.  Lots of factors deplete vitamin C levels in the body and increase our need for more.  Plus, when we are rundown or ill, our need for vitamin C is even greater.

Signs you’re not getting enough Vitamin C

Signs you’re not getting enough Vitamin C

You may benefit from more vitamin C if you notice any of the following:

  • Feeling tired or rundown a lot of the time
  • Bruising easily or noticing tiny red spots on the skin
  • Bumpy, rough, dry or damaged skin
  • Wounds that are slow to heal
  • Bleeding gums and wiggly teeth
  • Corkscrew shaped body hairs
  • Aches and pains in bones and joints
  • Poor immune health and catching infections easily or more frequently

When might you need more Vitamin C than others?

You may benefit from increasing your intake of vitamin C if you are someone who:

  • Smokes cigarettes
  • Drinks alcohol
  • Has a highly-processed diet
  • Is under a lot of stress
  • Exercises a lot
  • Is pregnant, particularly with high blood pressure
  • Takes certain prescription medication such as the oral contraceptive pill or inhalers for asthma
  • Has kidney or cardiovascular problems

Of course, as with any natural supplement, if you’re taking prescription medication or have a medical condition, check with your health professional first.

What about Vitamin C supplements?

Supplements are a helpful way to boost your daily vitamin C in addition to what you get in your diet. It’s convenient, easy and you know exactly how much you’re getting each time. 

They can be useful for fussy eaters who routinely avoid good natural sources of vitamin C.  And some forms are helpful for those who find the natural acid form a little too much for their systems.  These ‘buffered’ forms are called ‘sodium ascorbate’ or ‘calcium ascorbate’ instead of regular ‘ascorbic acid’.

When we’re under the weather, our bodies need more vitamin C and we can tolerate much higher doses. Plus, when we’re showing signs of not having enough vitamin C, like skin or joint issues, then a daily supplement helps ‘refill the tank’.  

Of course, you shouldn’t stop eating fruit and veggies just because you’re taking a supplement! If you did, you’d be missing out on a whole host of additional vitamins and minerals, not to mention important secondary plant compounds that are vital for health. One class of compounds called flavonoids naturally occur with vitamin C and improve vitamin C’s uptake and use in the body.

Are Vitamin C supplements only useful during winter?

No! This is probably the most common misconception about vitamin C.  We tend to think of winter as being the time when we’re more likely to need immune support. But in truth we need immune support all year around.  Winter is not the only time we get run down or catch passing bugs. 

Plus our whole body, including our skin, joints, and nervous system, need vitamin C to function at its best.  Stress is one of the number one reasons you’d need to increase your vitamin C levels as any form of stress uses vitamin C up incredibly fast.  Summer is also a crucial time for vitamin C support as it helps to protect skin from the damaging effects of the sun.

Are there any side effects when taking Vitamin C?

Vitamin C is generally a very safe vitamin to take and rarely causes any side effects.   However, too much at once may lead to a loose bowel or diarrhoea. It can be avoided by taking smaller doses more frequently throughout the day rather than single large doses.  It can also occur when you take in more than your body needs so reduce your intake until this effect stops.

Very high levels of vitamin C over a long time can deplete copper levels in the body. Copper is an essential nutrient so it’s a good idea to take a general multivitamin containing copper with high levels of vitamin C taken long-term.

Vitamin C may not be suitable for a very small number of people, such as those with an inherited condition causing excessive levels of iron in the body (haemochromatosis) or with certain health conditions that may increase iron to excessive levels.