Vitamin C plays a key role in many of the body’s functions. Your body can’t store this essential micronutrient, so you need to top-up every day.
What Is Vitamin C?
Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is a water-soluble micronutrient that your body needs, but that it can’t produce or store. The current recommended vitamin C daily intake for adults is 75 to 90 mg. The only way to keep your vitamin C levels up is to consume foods, drinks, vitamin C powder or other vitamin C supplements that contain the nutrient. Vitamin C is naturally present in some foods and added to others. Vitamin C rich foods include fruits and vegetables, like citrus fruits, kiwis, melons, berries, spinach, kale and broccoli.
Vitamin C is the immune system’s super vitamin, but its responsibilities extend far beyond that. Vitamin C also provides antioxidant support, stimulates production and function in white blood cells and performs countless functions within the body’s many systems.
Because the human body doesn’t store this water-soluble nutrient, vitamin C deficiency and depletion are not uncommon. In fact, in a study of nearly 16,000 people, researchers found that up to 23% had some level of vitamin C depletion. Certain factors, like alcoholism, anorexia, smoking or dialysis, increase a person’s risk for vitamin C deficiency. However, in general, anyone with poor eating habits is at risk.
Vitamin C Immune System Benefits
Vitamin C is well-known for its role in immunity. To really appreciate its value, it’s essential to understand the functions within the body that bring about these vitamin C health benefits. Here’s how vitamin C works with the body’s immune system:
Provides Antioxidant Support
Antioxidants are compounds that obstruct and minimize cellular damage caused by free radicals (unstable, damaging molecules) in the body. Vitamin C is considered the best water-soluble antioxidant.
Water-soluble antioxidants function (and flourish) in the fluid in and around cells, while fat-soluble antioxidants work in cell membranes. Because they work in different parts of the cells, water- and fat-soluble antioxidants support different functions. Water-soluble antioxidants, like vitamin C, combat free radicals directly to prevent oxidative stress—a process that leads to disease.
Nourishes White Blood Cells
White blood cells help protect the body from infections and disease. Because they’re constantly active, they need support to fulfill their role.
Lymphocytes are white blood cells that release antibodies and send signals to other immune cells when there’s an antigen present. Lymphocytes restore themselves slower than other white blood cells, leaving the body susceptible to infection. In a 2018 literature review, Dutch researchers described a growing body of evidence that vitamin C supports both the function and development of these slow-recovering cells, minimizing the window of opportunity for infectious agents.
Beyond protecting the body from infections and disease, there’s some evidence that vitamin C may reduce the unpleasant symptoms of allergic reactions. Oxidative stress likely plays a role in allergic reactions, which could explain why vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant, has a positive effect.
Encourages Production of Skin Cells
Your skin is your body’s first line of defense. It’s a physical barrier that protects against disease-causing microbes, as well as other sources of damage, like ultraviolet radiation and dehydration.
Normal, healthy skin has a high concentration of vitamin C. Research indicates that vitamin C levels are lower in damaged skin, but it’s not yet clear why. Scurvy, a disease that results from vitamin C deficiency, is associated with fragile, scaly skin, so it’s possible that a lack of vitamin C, even in less severe cases, leaves the skin more vulnerable to damage.
Vitamin C Uses
Now that we know how vitamin C works, let’s look at how we can use it for immune-boosting purposes:
Cold and Flu
Cold and flu are caused by different types of viruses, but vitamin C can help with both.
The common cold is a viral infection that affects the upper respiratory tract. It’s usually harmless, but most people suffer through seven to ten days of exhaustion, a runny nose, sneezing, coughing and a sore throat before they recover. Colds spread through direct or indirect contact with someone who is sick, so the best way to avoid catching a cold is to keep your distance and resist touching your face. Contrasting research shows that vitamin C may or may not prevent colds. But there’s evidence that taking vitamin C when you have a cold can shorten the duration of the infection.
Like the common cold, influenza is a viral infection that attacks the respiratory tract. It spreads from person-to-person, and the best way to prevent it is to minimize exposure to others—especially during flu season. In addition to shortening the symptoms in the same way it does for the common cold, there’s evidence that vitamin C may facilitate recovery by reducing the lung inflammation that’s characteristic of influenza.
Other Respiratory Illnesses
Pneumonia is a common complication of scurvy, indicating that vitamin C plays a role in protecting against the illness. Studies show that vitamin C may speed up recovery from pneumonia and other acute respiratory illnesses by clearing the lungs.
A clinical trial studying the relationship between vitamin C and the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is underway. The research team hypothesizes that because of its anti-inflammatory nature and its positive effect on cold symptoms, vitamin C may facilitate recovery in COVID-19 patients.
Wound Healing and Skin Conditions
Vitamin C benefits for skin can be achieved by ingesting vitamin c foods and supplements or by applying it directly to the skin (in the form of a vitamin c serum or cream).
The skin uses a lot of vitamin C, as the nutrient plays many roles. It helps in forming the outer skin barrier, producing collagen, counteracting skin oxidation and regulating the pathways that carry signals for cell growth and differentiation.
Melanocytes, the cells that produce the melanin that causes hyperpigmentation, can be targeted with depigmenting agents. There are two types: agents that are toxic to melanocytes and agents that interrupt the progression of melanogenesis. Vitamin C is an agent of the latter group—it impedes hyperpigmentation by interrupting the process through which areas of hyperpigmentation form.
Endorsed for its anti-inflammatory properties, vitamin C can reduce the severity of skin conditions that are characterized by autoimmune inflammation, like psoriasis..
Vitamin C is required for iron absorption. Vitamin c and iron work together to maximize iron’s positive effects. Health professionals often recommend pairing iron with vitamin C to improve uptake. Anemia (iron deficiency) is a serious condition that can be fatal in severe cases.
Additionally, people with anemia are susceptible to other illnesses. Taking vitamin C with iron is especially beneficial for people with low iron levels.
Vitamin C in Summary
It’s not a cure-all, but there’s no doubt that vitamin C is essential to good health. It’s typically touted as a tool against colds and flus, but the real benefit of vitamin C comes from taking it regularly to maintain overall wellness.