While most people would have a hard time naming good sources of most vitamins or what they are good for, most of them can easily tell you that citrus fruits are rich in Vitamin C and may even remember from history class that sailors were once given daily rations of limes to prevent scurvy. This is because Vitamin C is vital to the body’s ability to form collagen. When the body is deprived of Vitamin C, collagen is unstable, which leads to the spongy gums, loose teeth, weak bones and bleeding that are characteristic of scurvy. Milder deficiency can still result in bleeding gums, pinprick hemorrhages, and tendency to bruise easily.
One of the most common uses of Vitamin C is as an immune booster, especially during the winter when colds and flu make the rounds. Studies have shown that Vitamin C is highly concentrated in immune cells and is quickly depleted during illness or infection.
Another common use of Vitamin C is as an antioxidant. Certain highly reactive molecules, commonly called free radicals, in high concentrations, can cause damage to tissue and to genetic material. Antioxidants like Vitamin C work to keep those reactive molecules under control, preventing that damage and adding a layer of protection against cataracts and other illnesses.
A lesser known function of Vitamin C is that it aids in the absorption of iron. Adding Vitamin C rich foods to iron rich foods may be particularly beneficial to some individuals with anemia.
Vitamin C has another function that few people are aware of. The brain uses Vitamin C to synthesize some neurotransmitters, most particularly serotonin. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals in the brain responsible for carrying messages between nerve cells. Most people know serotonin as a feel-good chemical, but is also responsible for governing our daily rhythms and controlling stress and even some pain sensations. That’s not to say Vitamin C can replace antidepressants, but Vitamin C rich foods should certainly be part of everyone’s daily diet.
Most people know citrus fruits are high in Vitamin C, but citrus fruits aren’t the only, or even necessarily the best, sources. In fact, six foods contain more than 100% of the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin C, and none of them are citrus, though some are closely related to citrus fruits. These foods are: papaya, bell peppers, broccoli, brussels sprouts, strawberries, and pineapple. Other good sources include leafy greens, berries, cruciferous vegetables, melons, apples, pears, and bananas. As abundant as Vitamin C is in plant based food, provided you consume at least a few servings of fruits and vegetables per day, you should be getting plenty to avoid deficiency. However, tobacco and nicotine products can deplete Vitamin C. If you use any of these products, you should increase your Vitamin C intake. The National Academy of Sciences recommends an extra 35mg for these people, about half an orange.
Keep in mind that even low levels of heat can destroy Vitamin C and begins to decrease as soon as the fruit or vegetable is harvested, so these foods should be eaten fresh and raw as often as possible. Keeping the food cold will help to slow this process, so keeping the food in a cool place will help. Canning does not preserve the Vitamin C content.
As easy as it is to get enough Vitamin C, you may be wondering if it’s possible to get too much. Technically speaking, sure. It’s possible to get too much of anything. However, Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin. This means that excess is excreted in the urine rather than being stored in the body. In most people, it takes much more than is easily available from food to get too much. Some people have taken as much as 25 grams a day with no ill effect, while some individuals experience some gastrointestinal upset at levels as low as a few hundred milligrams. Symptoms include diarrhea, cramping, nausea, and occasionally kidney stones. If you experience any of these while taking Vitamin C, reduce your dose or discontinue use. Symptoms should subside in a couple of days.