A potent antioxidant, vitamin C known to fight free radicals in the body and plays a vital role in overall health.
In fact, vitamin C is so important for our wellbeing that the University of Michigan’s Dr Mark Moyad claims ‘high blood levels of vitamin C may be the ideal nutrition marker for overall health’.
Keep reading to find out if you’re at risk of vitamin C deficiency, and discover what you can do about it.
Why Vitamin C is So Important
In addition to being a powerful antioxidant, vitamin C:
- Helps prevent cancers and enhances the effect of cancer-fighting drugs
- Lowers the risk of stroke and heart disease
- Quells inflammation in the body, lowering the risk of gout and other inflammatory conditions
- Promotes healthy skin and collagen formation
- Naturally slows aging
- Assists the body in the absorption of minerals such as iron
- Lowers stress levels
- Boosts the immune system
- Improves physical performance
Are You at Risk of Vitamin C Deficiency?
While severe vitamin C deficiency (known as scurvy) is pretty rare, evidence suggests that many people may have low levels of the vitamin. The US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that 31% of the US population do not meet the estimated average requirement for vitamin C.
Certain people are more at risk than others and include:
- Those dependent on drugs and/or alcohol
- Those who frequently go on highly restrictive diets
- Those who do not eat fruits or vegetables daily
- Those with a medical condition which affects their ability to digest and absorb food, like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
- Those who smoke (as smoking affects the absorption of vitamin C from foods and, because of its antioxidant effects, vitamin C is consumed more quickly in smokers too)
- Older people who may eat a less varied diet
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women
10 Warning Signs You Are Vitamin C Deficient
Concerned you might be vitamin C deficient? Here are some signs you should be watching out for:
1. Easy Bruising
Bruising, caused when small blood vessels near the skin’s surface (known as capillaries) break and leak red blood cells, is a natural and normal response to certain injuries like a fall or a knock.
While a certain amount of bruising is to be expected, excessive or unexplained reddish-purple marks on the skin may point to a shortage of vitamin C in the diet due to weakened capillaries.
The University of Michigan Health System states that even minor deficiencies of vitamin C can lead to increased bruising. They recommend that people who bruise easily should try to increase their intake of vitamin C to see if that has an effect, as consuming more vitamin C has been found to reduce bruising in those who aren’t already getting enough.
2. Slow Wound Healing
If you notice your cuts and scrapes are slow to heal, have a closer look at your diet. As vitamin C is essential to the formation of collagen in the skin – a new connective tissue that binds a healing wound, a lack will lead to slow healing.
This link has been given recognition in medical literature since 1937 when Harvard Medical School surgeons noticed that the spontaneous breakdown of surgical wounds occurred in patients with low levels of vitamin C.
Along with playing a role in collagen formation in healing wounds, vitamin C acts as a powerful antioxidant and immune system booster – both of which encourage faster healing.
3. Swollen, Bleeding or Inflamed Gums
Oral health problems, like swollen or bleeding gums or recurrent mouth ulcers, are often linked to suboptimal levels of vitamin C.
Low levels of the vitamin are linked with an increased risk of gum disease which can range from simple gum inflammation to major soft tissue damage!
If not addressed, low vitamin C intake can progress and eventually lead to scurvy, a disease characterized by bleeding, oozing gums and the loss of teeth.
4. Dry or Splitting Hair and Nails
A shiny head of hair and strong nails can often be a good indicator of a balanced diet. Likewise, a lackluster mane that is dry and splitting may highlight a problem.
Because hair is a non-essential tissue, nutrients such as vitamin C are sent to more important organs and tissues first, before making their way to the hair. So if you have less than ideal levels of the vitamin, you may find your hair is suffering.
Furthermore, vitamin C is vital for the absorption of iron – a deficiency of which can cause chronic hair loss and slow hair growth, along with brittle and concave nails.
5. Red, Rough or Dry Skin
One of the first signs of scurvy is rough and dry skin caused by a lack of collagen. Low levels of vitamin C are also linked to the common but harmless skin problem keratosis pilaris – characterized by the presence of small, hard bumps on the upper arms, thighs, buttocks and face.
The good news is that simply upping your intake of vitamin C rich foods can greatly improve skin tone and texture.
Studies show that diets high in vitamin C are associated with better skin appearance and less wrinkling. Other research demonstrates that vitamin C can offset some of the damage caused by the sun’s UV rays, thanks to antioxidant activity; and may inhibit water loss from the skin, preventing dry skin.
6. Frequent Nosebleeds
Over 90% of nosebleeds come from capillaries in the front of the nose. Because adequate vitamin C intake decreases the fragility of these small blood vessels, a lack of it may cause regular nosebleeds.
If you’re experiencing these frequently, or at least more often than usual, don’t dismiss an inadequate diet as the underlying cause.
If your deficiency progresses to scurvy, you can expect easily provoked bleeding from the nose and gums.
7. Poor Immune Function
The immune system, our body’s protection against infection and disease, is strongly influenced by the intake of nutrients, particularly vitamin C.
Several cells in our immune system need the vitamin to perform their tasks so naturally a deficiency leads to a reduced resistance against certain pathogens. Getting enough vitamin C means that our immune system will be in tip-top shape to reduce the risk, severity and duration of certain infectious diseases.
Despite popular opinion though, vitamin C may not ward off the common cold. While some studies say vitamin C may slightly reduce the duration of the illness (but not affect its incidence or severity), others show contradictory results.
Nevertheless, getting enough vitamin C is important for overall health, especially if you are under physical strain or already have insufficient intake of the vitamin.
8. Swollen and Painful Joints
Pain and swelling of the joints caused by inflammatory arthritis may be another sign you need to overhaul your diet.
A 2004 study, conducted in Great Britain, found that people who had low levels of vitamin C were three times more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis than those whose diets included foods rich in the vitamin.
9. Fatigue or Depression
Fatigue and low mood are symptoms of so many illnesses, so it can be hard to identify a specific condition based on exhaustion alone. But when coupled with other symptoms, it may help to identify a lack of vitamin C.
There is a well-known link between vitamin C deficiency and psychological state, say researchers. What’s more, studies of hospitalized patients (who often have suboptimal vitamin C levels) demonstrate a perceived improvement in mood after vitamin C supplementation – by up to 34%!
10. Unexplained Weight Gain
Too little vitamin C in the bloodstream leads to an increase in body fat and waist circumference.
In 2006, Arizona State University researchers found that the amount of vitamin C we absorb directly affects our body’s ability to use fat as a fuel source during both exercise and when at rest.
During the four week study, 20 obese men and women were put on a low-fat diet which contained 67% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C. They were also randomly given either a 500 mg vitamin C capsule daily, or a placebo.
At the beginning of the trial, those with the lowest concentrations of vitamin C in their blood had the highest body fat mass. As a steady amount of vitamin C was consumed throughout the study, blood vitamin C concentrations increased 30% in those taking vitamins and fell by 27% in the control group. As blood concentrations fell, so did the participants’ ability to oxidize fat – by 11%!
The bottom line is, if you’re looking to lose weight, make sure you’re eating your fruits and vegetables.
How To Fix Vitamin C Deficiency
If any of the above symptoms sound familiar, a visit to the doctor is in order! Treatment may include vitamin C supplementation or simply eating more vitamin C rich foods. You definitely don’t want to leave a deficiency in this vitamin unchecked as associated health issues can get much worse over time.
Long term problems from low levels of vitamin C include:
- High blood pressure
- Gallbladder disease
How Much Vitamin C Do I Need?
The National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements recommends that men over the age of 18 get 90 mg of vitamin C a day from their diet, while women need 75 mg (and higher if pregnant or breastfeeding). Smokers require an additional 35 mg per day to counteract the unhealthy effects of cigarettes.
It’s unlikely that you will overdose on vitamin C through diet, as it’s a water soluble vitamin with excess being excreted from the body through urine.
However, it is possible to get too much vitamin C from taking supplements which can lead to side effects like:
- abdominal bloating and cramps
Recent research has also found a link between taking vitamin C supplements and kidney stones. Men who take the supplements are twice as likely to develop kidney stones as men who don’t take any. Those who get their vitamin C from fruits and vegetables did not run this risk. It should be noted that women were not studied here.
Because it is easier, healthier and safer to get adequate vitamin C intake from a balanced diet, below are some of the best dietary sources of the vitamin.
Best Food Sources of Vitamin C
The following foods contain high levels of vitamin C:
Sweet red pepper, 1/2 cup – 95 mg
Orange juice, 3/4 cup – 93 mg
Orange, 1 medium – 70 mg
Grapefruit juice, 3/4 cup – 70 mg
Kiwifruit, 1 medium – 64 mg
Cooked broccoli, 1/2 cup – 51 mg
Sliced strawberries, 1/2 cup – 49 mg
Green peppers, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, cantaloupe melons, cabbage, cauliflower, potatoes, papaya, spinach and green peas are also good sources of the vitamin.
As vitamin C is sensitive to heat, light and oxygen, care should be taken when storing and preparing food to ensure the vitamin is preserved. Aim to eat your produce as soon as possible after chopping and peeling and enjoy a good mixture of organic raw foods rich in the vitamin, as well as foods that are lightly steamed (as opposed to boiled).
As you can see, once properly stored, a great many fresh fruits and vegetables contain impressive levels of vitamin C. So if you’re hitting your target of five to seven portions of fresh produce daily, you should have no trouble getting enough of this uber-important nutrient!