In light of everything that has gone on around the world in the past 8 months, I’d like to talk about vitamin C. The sales of this supplement have gone through the roof in the US and elsewhere. Everyone is taking it!
But how does vitamin C work? Should you take it all the time? Is it really effective and, if so, what is the best way to use it?
Let’s dive in.
What does vitamin C do in the body?
Vitamin C (sometimes referred to as L Ascorbic acid) is a water-soluble vitamin that has over 200 roles in the body. It is important to say the least and the body cannot make it so we have to get it from our diet.
Here are just a few of its main roles. Vitamin C is needed:
- to make collagen. (Ease up on the bone broth… If you have the raw materials that you need, your body will make collagen on its own.)
- to make certain neurotransmitters (brain support).
- for wound healing.
- as an anti-oxidant (decreases inflammation).
- for the immune system (prevents many diseases including gout and cardiovascular disease).
- for the absorption of non-heme iron (this is iron from plant sources).1
- to help reduce high blood pressure.2
Best food sources: Is it really oranges?
Although there is vitamin C found in most plant foods, many people believe oranges are the best. While oranges are great and do indeed have lots of vitamin C, there is actually even a bit more in red peppers. Other great sources include other citrus fruits, kiwi, strawberries, Brussel sprouts and broccoli. The highest sources are actually superfoods like camu camu and ascerola cherries, but those are usually not as readily available at the grocery store.
How much do you actually need?
According to the RDA, adults need 75-90 mg/day. Of course, this is a generic amount for a generic person. There are lots of things that cause a person to need more or less.
It is easy to get enough vitamin C from your diet. For example, a small green smoothie with 3 oz of organic fresh spinach and 1 cup of organic strawberries has 84 mg of vitamin C (just in those 2 ingredients alone!).
An important caveat:
Absorption is a factor that must be considered when looking at vitamin C intake (or any nutrient for that matter). Every micronutrient is absorbed at different rates and also every individual has different factors that affect absorption. In general, 70-90% of vitamin C that is consumed is absorbed at moderate intake levels. At higher levels (over 1 g/day), only about 50% is absorbed.3
What happens if you are deficient?
Being deficient in vitamin C is pretty rare even if you’re on a mildly healthy diet. As I mentioned above, vitamin C is abundant in many fresh fruits and vegetables. Scurvy is the extreme deficiency disease, but again, rare today.
However, if you fall under 10 mg/day for even a few weeks, signs of deficiency can begin to show including: fatigue, gum inflammation, connective tissue issues, joint pain and poor wound healing.3 Cigarette smoking makes you more likely to have low vitamin C levels.
What happens if you get too much?
Too much vitamin C from food doesn’t really happen and won’t be a problem. The tolerable upper limit for vitamin C is 2000 mg, so you really don’t have to worry about anything if you’re just eating and healthy diet and/or taking a few hundred mg from a good quality supplement.
However, you can over supplement, especially if you’re not using whole food supplements. There are really 2 concerns with over supplementation… Initially, symptoms can include loose stool, abdominal cramps and other gastrointestinal issues. The initial symptoms will go away shortly after you stop over-supplementing. The next issue is more about long-term use. For that, keep reading in the next section.
Should you take vitamin C all the time to keep your immune system strong?
I don’t recommend taking vitamin C every day of your life. It will not be an adequate crutch to take the place of a healthy lifestyle. If you feel that you need constant immune support, it would be important to ask why. For example, if it’s because you’re under constant stress (which does indeed suppress the immune system), although supplementing for a time can be helpful, reducing the stress is the ultimate goal.
That said, assuming a truly optimal lifestyle is in place, if you want added immune support, cycle vitamin C with medicinal mushrooms. (My favorite is probably Fermented Mushroom powder, which is excellent immune support). You can do a month of vitamin C and then a month of the fermented Mushrooms.
#1 common myth about vitamin C:
Although in a general sense vitamin C helps with many functions in the body including supporting the immune system, evidence does not support it working to prevent the common cold. It can lessen the duration and intensity of a common cold but will rarely prevent it. The best way to prevent is through a healthy holistic lifestyle. This isn’t just about healthy food, but also reducing stress, getting good quality sleep and moderate amounts of exercise on a regular basis.
Best supplements for vitamin C?
I have 2 vitamin C supplements that I LOVE when vitamin C is needed. Truly Natural Vitamin C is a whole food superfood powder (great in smoothies) from camu camu, ascerola cherries and amla berries (180 mg/tsp). The PRL Vitamin C is a capsule (especially convenient for travel) is a powerful combination of botanicals but primarily amla extract. Both are excellent to have on hand.
1. Hurrell R, Egli I. Iron bioavailability and dietary reference values. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2010.28674F
2. Juraschek SP, Guallar E, Appel LJ, Miller ER. Effects of vitamin c supplementation on blood pressure: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012. doi:10.3945/ajcn.111.027995
3. Vitamin C Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminC-HealthProfessional/. Accessed September 27, 2020.