Health / 03.06.2020

What does vitamin C do?

By Niamh Leonard-Bedwell
You know oranges contain it, but you might not know its role in the body, or whether you’re getting enough of it
Image: iStock

By no means a niche nutrient, it’s been understood that vitamin C plays an important role in our health for many years, since biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi first isolated it in 1928. Before this discovery, people didn’t know why sailors – whose diets tended to rely heavily on meat and starch, and included no fresh fruit or vegetables – kept ending up with scurvy. Although one doctor noted that eating citrus fruit could help to treat scurvy, it wasn’t understood that a deficiency of vitamin C, found in high concentration in these fruits, had led to the illness. 

Today, it’s understood that vitamin C helps to support our immune system and it’s commonly found on its own in supplements, or mixed with other nutrients in multivitamins. Over the past few years, vitamin C has become an increasingly popular ingredient in beauty products, too, as it helps us fight against the damaging effects of sun exposure and pollution and reduces inflammation. So what exactly is vitamin C and how do our bodies use it to keep us healthy? 

What is vitamin C?

Vitamin C – also known as ascorbic acid – is a water-soluble vitamin. This means our bodies can’t store it and we need to make sure we get enough of it through our diet every day.

To get an adequate intake of vitamin C, aim to eat a wide range of fruit and vegetables. Most people already know that it’s found in citrus fruits, but berries, peppers, tomatoes, green vegetables and potatoes are also sources of vitamin C. Although it’s possible to achieve adequate levels of vitamin C through your diet alone, you might decide to top up with a supplement if you don’t always hit your recommended five-a-day. 

What are the health benefits of vitamin C?

Vitamin C has a range of important roles in our body.  It’s vital for the growth and repair of all our tissues, and it helps us absorb iron from plant sources, too. A powerful antioxidant, vitamin C also protects our cell membranes from damage caused by free radicals. There have been lots of promising studies to suggest that it might help to prevent different diseases and illnesses. 

Reducing common colds

In a 2017 study, researchers at the University of Helsinki found that taking up to 8mg of vitamin C daily could shorten the length of time you’d suffer with a cold. The same study found that for active people, taking a vitamin C supplement could halve the rate of colds. 

Preventing heart disease

Vitamin C also helps us to maintain healthy arteries. Research published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences in 2016 found that the vitamin can slow the progression of atherosclerosis – furring of the arteries – which can reduce blood flow.

What happens if you don’t have enough vitamin C?

Scurvy, caused by serious vitamin C deficiency, is rare and only occurs if you don’t have enough vitamin C in your diet for at least three months. However, you should increase your intake if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or have been unwell. Smoking also increases your risk of vitamin C deficiency, as it reduces the body’s absorption of the vitamin.

Which type of vitamin C supplement should I take? 

Available in tablet, capsule, chewable, effervescent, or liquid supplement forms, it can be confusing to know which type of vitamin C to choose. However, most readily available vitamin C supplements will come in the following varieties:

  • Ascorbic acid is the simplest and most common form of vitamin C.
  • Time-released vitamin C releases the vitamin slowly over several hours, which leads to increased absorption and longer-lasting action.
  • Ester-C is a more gentle form of vitamin C, which is the best bet if you have a sensitive stomach.
What does vitamin C do?
Article Name
What does vitamin C do?
Do you know how vitamin C supports your immune system? Here’s how it works, what else it can do, and how to get as much as you need.
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Healthy magazine
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