What is Vitamin C?
If you’ve come down with a cold recently, chances are your doctor told you to drink plenty of orange juice. This isn’t just because orange juice is a refreshing pick-me-up: it’s because it’s rich in vitamin C.
Found in citrus fruits, vitamin C (also known as ascorbic acid or l-ascorbic acid) is a staple ingredient in cold and flu medicines and beauty products with good reason: it plays a crucial role in boosting immunity and maintaining overall health.
This water-soluble essential nutrient is also a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, protecting your body from oxidative stress that can lead to signs of aging and disease. It plays a vital role in the production of collagen (which keeps your skin and joints healthy) and L-carnitine, an amino acid that can improve your concentration and athletic endurance.
Because it’s such a vital nutrient, vitamin C deficiency has serious implications: it can lead to poor immune function, unhealthy skin, heart complications, diseases like scurvy, severely lowered energy levels, and worse.
So how can you be sure you’re getting adequate amounts of vitamin C in your diet? Which foods with vitamin C should you be eating? And how exactly can it benefit you?
Benefits of Vitamin C
Vitamin C’s claim to fame is keeping your immune system strong so it can fight off infections like colds and the flu.
So how does it work? When you’re sick, the vitamin C stores in your body rapidly deplete. (x) This is because cells in your immune system—specifically, white blood cells called phagocytes and t-cells—use vitamin C to help them combat infection, which means it’s even more important to get extra vitamin C when you’re feeling under the weather: your immune system is counting on you to help it kick colds to the curb. (x)
While it can’t ensure you’ll never get colds again, it has been shown to shorten the duration of colds, meaning you’re more likely to feel better sooner if you stock up on C. (x)
In addition to lending your immune system a hand, vitamin C may also help with wound healing, and it has antimicrobial properties, making it a popular ingredient in natural cleaning solutions. (x)
Antioxidants are compounds that protect your cells from oxidative damage that leads to signs of aging and disease. This is where vitamin C comes in: it’s one of the most powerful antioxidants out there, and is especially beneficial for maintaining optimal heart and immune function. (x) There’s even emerging research that suggests vitamin C could have anticarcinogenic properties (x). Research suggests that vitamin C supplements are an effective tool to suppress lipid peroxidation during exercise (x).
Glowing, Healthy Skin
Take a peek at the label of any serum, lotion, or scrub that promises “glowing,” or “youthful” skin, and chances are you’ll find vitamin C in the ingredients list. It’s a beauty power player, working alongside vitamin E (another antioxidant) to reduce signs of aging like wrinkles, discoloration, and sagging skin–and it’s been shown to reduce skin discoloration caused by UV exposure. (x) (x).
Research suggests that vitamin C has a protective effect on heart health, especially when it comes to lowering “bad” (LDL cholesterol levels); one study found that taking 500 mg of vitamin C a day significantly lowered levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides (fats in your blood that build up and clog your arteries, leading to heart disease). (x) It could also protect you from fatal heart conditions—another study found that elderly patients deficient in vitamin C were more likely to die from strokes or coronary artery disease than those with vitamin C-rich diets. (x)
If you have high blood pressure, add a C supplement to your nutrition routine: it could help lower blood pressure by relaxing the blood vessels and promoting healthier circulation. (x) (x) Overall, those who take vitamin C supplements may have a 25% lower risk of developing heart disease than those who don’t. (x)
Anemia is a condition in which there aren’t enough red blood cells in the blood stream. Red blood cells contain a protein called hemoglobin, which carries oxygen throughout your body so your organs can function properly. But if you have anemia, your body doesn’t get enough oxygen, leading to extreme fatigue, paleness, dizziness, and shortness of breath.
Several health complications can cause anemia, but one of the most common is iron deficiency. In clinical trials, vitamin C has been shown to improve the absorption of iron by almost 70 percent. (x) If you’re anemic due to iron deficiency, make sure you take vitamin C with iron (which is found in red meat, fish, and leafy greens like spinach).
Following a vegan or vegetarian diet? Ascorbic acid supplements could give you a health boost: because you’re not consuming iron-rich meats, your risk of iron deficiency increases. Supplemental vitamin C could help ensure you absorb plant sources of iron more effectively.
Eases Gout Symptoms
Gout is a type of arthritis that causes extreme swelling in the joints, especially in the toes. It’s caused by an increase in blood levels of uric acid, a waste product that builds up and crystallizes, leading to painful inflammation.
Research suggests that a healthy vitamin C intake may help prevent gout and gout flare-ups by breaking down the buildup of uric acid. (x) One study that followed more than 46,000 men over the course of 20 years found that those with healthy levels of vitamin C had a 44% lower risk of developing gout. (x)
Protects and Supports Memory
Vitamin C doesn’t just keep your body healthy–it also protects your mind. Research is ongoing, but scientists believe oxidative damage may be one of the factors that lead to memory loss disorders, as low vitamin C levels have been found in patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia. (x) (x) (x) The good news is that antioxidants like vitamin C may help reduce the risk of developing age-related cognitive diseases–and could even improve memory and cognitive function in those with dementia. (x) (x)
Food Sources of Ascorbic Acid
It’s easy to get the daily recommended intake of vitamin C if you include these healthy foods in your diet:
- Oranges (1 cup): 95.8 mg, 160% DV (x)
- Strawberries (1 cup): 89.4 mg, 149% DV (x)
- Broccoli (1 stalk): 182 mg, 303% DV (x)
- Kiwi (1 cup): 164 mg, 273% (x)
- Yellow peppers (1 pepper): 341 mg, 569% DV (x)
- Papayas (1 cup): 86.5 mg, 144% DV (x)
- Brussels sprouts (½ cup): 48.4 mg, 81% (x)
Vitamin C Side Effects and Dosage
The Food and Drug Administration recommends the following daily vitamin C dosages to ensure optimal health: (x)
If you’d like to add supplements to your diet, different forms are available, including powdered versions (usually marketed as vitamin C powder or ascorbic acid powder), capsules, softgels, and drink mixes. Choose the form that works best for your diet and lifestyle, and remember to always talk to your doctor before adding any supplements to your nutrition routine.
If you stick to the recommended dosage, vitamin C is a safe supplement. Because it’s a water-soluble vitamin (meaning your body eliminates excess amounts in your urine), overdosing is highly unlikely, but not impossible–the upper limit is 2,000 mg a day; if you exceed that without physician supervision, the side effects of vitamin C overdose may include upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, cramping, headaches, and insomnia. (x) Other side effects include skin flushing, heartburn, and fatigue.
Talk to your doctor before taking vitamin C supplements if you’re on hormone therapy (especially if you take estrogen), if you’re undergoing chemotherapy, if you have kidney problems, or if you’re taking statins for high cholesterol or anticoagulants like Warfarin, as vitamin C may negatively interact with these medications. (x)
The Bottom Line
Vitamin C is one of the most important vitamins in your nutrition toolkit. A powerful antioxidant, it protects your heart, brain, skin, and immune system. It works wonders for your skin, alleviates inflammatory symptoms caused by conditions like gout, and can even act as a disinfecting agent in natural cleaning products. With a skillset like that, we think it’s safe to say that this vitamin is a supplement superhero.