Pharmacist Cormac Harte writes about Vitamin C and its many benefits.
Vitamin C, or Ascorbic Acid, has to be one of the most well-known of the vitamin groups. It is one of many essential nutrients required by humans. Most other species produce it internally, but somewhere along the line, a few animals including humans, lost this ability and so have to consume it from external sources. It is water-soluble, and excess amounts consumed are excreted from the body rapidly in urine. This isn’t a bad thing as it means it’s difficult to overdose or absorb dangerous amounts of Vitamin C. On the other side, it means we must consume it regularly to keep our levels “topped-up” and remain healthy.
Vitamin C is needed for many metabolic functions in the body. One of its main functions is in the production of collagen, an essential component in connective tissues of the body, such as tendons and muscles. It also plays a role in wound-healing and in preventing bleeding from capillaries.
Vitamin C has strong anti-oxidant properties enabling it to help eliminate free-radicals in the body. Excess free-radicals can have an impact on cardiovascular disease, blood pressure and diabetes among others. It has long been thought that Vitamin C contributes to a healthy immune system. There is strong anecdotal evidence for its beneficial effects in warding off ‘colds’ and viruses, but as yet, there is no conclusive clinical evidence. It certainly couldn’t do any harm to eat a few extra oranges if feeling under the weather.
Long before humans knew what vitamins were, they were aware that if they didn’t eat fruit and vegetables they would fall ill. In the age of sea exploration, sailors in particular, could spend long periods from dry land and run short of these foods. In a diet absent of Vitamin C, symptoms of deficiency would occur in about four to six weeks. This is the onset of a disease called scurvy. The body produces an unstable form of collagen unable to perform its function. Brown spots appear on the skin, the gums deteriorate and bleeding begins from mucous membranes. This further leads to open wounds forming, the loss of teeth and eventual death. Luckily, death due to scurvy is almost unheard of in modern western society. Ingestion of large quantities of vitamin C can cause stomach upsets, but the body rapidly eliminates the excess.
An interesting study was undertaken in the 1920s into the Innuit (Eskimo) peoples. They seemed unique in that their diet appeared to contain no fruit/vegetables at certain times of year, but they never succumbed to scurvy. It was found that through minimal cooking of their animal food sources, along with the consumption of nearly all meat parts of the animal, in particular the liver, the Innuits were consuming close to the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin C. Most western cultures choose to eat the muscle parts of animals, cooked thoroughly, which contain almost no Vitamin C.
By the late 18th century the British navy was issuing lemons and limes to its sailors, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that Vitamin C was actually officially identified and labelled.
So, how much Vitamin C do we need and where do we get it from? The recommended daily intake can vary depending on which association you ask, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommend an intake of 45mg per day, and who could argue with them? Fresh fruit and vegetables would be the best source of it. Indeed, most people think of oranges when they think of Vitamin C. However, many other fruits contain more than the citrus fruits, including blackcurrants, strawberries, and kiwi fruit. The highest content seems to be found in the Kakadu Plum and Camu-Camu, but good-luck finding these in the supermarket. Vegetables such as red/green peppers and broccoli provide good amounts too. It can be obtained from animal sources such as liver, but other meats contain little. And not forgetting cereals fortified with vitamin C. As cereals become more enriched and fortified, I look forward to the day when man can exist solely on cornflakes with all other foods deemed unnecessary.
Vitamin supplements containing Vitamin C are also available. They frequently come as tablets which dissolve in water to form an orange flavoured drink or as a chewable tablet. Some cold and flu relief brands also incorporate it into the product. Taking a supplement is an individual choice, but should only be done to supplement a balanced diet and not to replace it. Choosing fruit as a source of vitamin C, rather than a tablet, has so many more benefits than I can possibly describe here. As always, speak to your pharmacist to help choose a suitable supplement particularly if taking other medication.
Cormac Harte M.P.S.I.
Tel: 052 6121205