Vitamin C (also known as ascorbic acid) is probably one of the most important vitamins to the human body and can be regarded as the foundation of the antioxidant system due to its ability to protect other antioxidants from oxidisation. As humans we have lost the ability to make our own Vitamin C, so it must be obtained from the diet. As it is a water soluble vitamin it is excreted from the body in around 2-3 hours, so eating Vitamin C rich foods throughout the day, or if supplementing, taking morning and evening (or a time release variety) is preferable to keep levels in the body topped up.
Vitamin C helps the body to absorb iron, is antiviral and antibacterial, helps to lower cholesterol, is a natural antihistamine, helps to make collagen and therefore keeping skin, tissues and joints strong and firm, works with B vitamins to convert food to energy and stimulates the immune system to produce T Cells that fight diseases and infections. It also helps to control cortisol levels (stress hormones) that can be a strong immunosuppressant. Vitamin C is also a potent antioxidant but is destroyed by light, heat, oxygen and smoking. It has been estimated that smoking even one cigarette can reduce the levels of Vitamin C in the body by 25mg. Conversely, a high intake of Vitamin C has been linked to better lung function in both smokers and those suffering from chronic lung disorders. We use up more Vitamin C when under stressful conditions, or if on the contraceptive pill, and taking aspirin can triple the rate of excretion.
As we must obtain our Vitamin C from the diet some of the best sources are watermelon, peppers, broccoli, watercress, blackcurrants, citrus fruits, tomatoes and leafy greens, with the richest natural source being rosehips. Vitamin C supplements are often combined with rosehip extracts as the bioflavonoids are said to enhance the antioxidant qualities and can promote absorption. In wartime Britain the Women’s Institute organised school children to pick rosehips and vast quantities of syrup were made to ward off scurvy when citrus imports were hard to come by (you can find my recipe for Rosehip Syrup here). When fruits and vegetables are picked the vitamin levels start to deteriorate immediately, so the shorter time between harvesting and eating the better. Due to a lot of our fruit and vegetables being imported much of the Vitamin C is lost in transport times. Also the vitamin content peaks when the crop is ripe, but a lot is picked before fully ripe and then artificially ripened later, meaning Vitamin C levels are low before it is even harvested. These factors combined with sometimes overcooking means it can be quite hard to obtain enough Vitamin C from our diet alone. This is why it is a good idea to supplement.
The UK RDA is based on what some say are not very accurate trials, that were too short term and too small. The RDA amount is set at only just enough to prevent signs of depletion (for example scurvy) which occurs at prolonged levels of <30mg, and doesn’t take into account lifestyle factors such as smoking, pollution, drinking, stress and also age, that means people will require different amounts, whereas Suggested Optimal Daily Amounts (SODA’s) say the level should be more like 500mg a day. It is said only about 5% of the population achieve this (from both the diet and supplements), with 85% getting between <30mg and 60mg (from diet alone) and 10% around 100mg (Dr Paul Clayton, Health Defence). It is estimated in Neolithic times our consumption was around 400mg a day. The Food Standards Agency has said the upper safe limit is 1000mg, but it has been documented that up to 5000mg appears to be safe. However, high levels for a prolonged period of time can cause a build up of uric acid and lead to kidney stones (Vitamin B6 and Magnesium whilst drinking lots of water can help counteract this).
In relation to the Immune System in 1995 Dr Hemila examined all studies where 1000mg or more of Vitamin C was given to patient’s suffering from colds. He found the vast majority of studies concluded the duration of the cold was on average reduced by one day. Studies supplementing with less than 1000mg tend to not be conclusive.
‘Tissue saturation’ is a way of giving a high level of immunity against common viruses such as the cold. As the cold virus must get inside cells in order for it to multiply and then infect more cells, if the healthy cells are saturated with Vitamin C the virus would not be able to survive and therefore not multiply. Elizabeth Lipski talks about ‘Vitamin C Flushing’ in her book Digestive Wellness where extremely large amounts of the vitamin are taken with the aim to ‘flush’ the body of toxins and strengthen the immune system through tissue saturation.
Vitamin C is also necessary for phytonutrients such as carotenoids, found in fruits and vegetables, to work within the antioxidant process. There needs to be significant levels of the vitamin in the body so when a carotenoid molecule becomes oxidised Vitamin C gives up its electrons in order to neutralise it. As Vitamin C is water soluble it can then be safely excreted from the body. Evidence of this is observed when studying smokers supplementing with beta carotene. In nonsmokers high intakes of beta carotene reduces the risk of lung cancer, but in smokers it seems to increase the risk, probably because levels of Vitamin C are so low in smokers bodies that when beta carotene becomes oxidised through the high levels of free radicals from cigarettes, it cannot then be neutralised.
Combinations of phytochemicals called indoles and sulforaphane, along with Vitamin C and other flavonoids that are all found together in cruciferous vegetables, has been found to help protect against many forms of cancer and Elderberries which are rich in both Vitamin C and bioflavonoids have been found to help fight infections and viruses by binding the spiky surface of virus molecules, stopping them from being able to penetrate healthy cells. The juice was even used to treat a flu epidemic in Panama in 1995 and has been a traditional folk medicine for many years.
The evidence from much research seems to identify that Vitamin C, whether boosting our immune systems, reducing cholesterol, ridding our bodies of free radicals, strengthening our skin and tissues through the formation of collagen, helping us deal with stress and helping to protect us from many forms of cancer, Vitamin C really is a hugely important vitamin in order to achieve overall optimal health. Supplementing with 500mg-1000mg per day, preferably in a time release dosage, will help ensure you get enough of this wonder vitamin.