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What does Vitamin C Do in the Body + Vitamin C Needs and RDAs + Vitamin C Absorption and Body Tissue Levels

What is Vitamin C?

Vitamin C is the common name for ascorbic acid. People, along with other primates, guinea pigs, and birds, are unable to make vitamin C. Other animals and plants can make their own vitamin C from glucose.Vitamin C has long enjoyed popularity as a nutrition supplement and continues to be one of the most recognizable and sought after nutrients.


What are food and supplement sources of vitamin C?

When we think of good sources of vitamin C, citrus fruits instantly come to mind. However, other fruits and some vegetables such as strawberries, tomatoes and broccoli can make a significant contribution to our vitamin C intake (see Vitamin C in Food Table). Ascorbic acid (L-ascorbic acid) is a popular nutrition supplement and there isn’t an advantage to supplementing vitamin C extracted from plants or synthetic (laboratory made) forms. Supplement makers often ascorbic acid-mineral combinations (e.g. sodium ascorbate and calcium ascorbate) that are less acidic than ascorbic acid. These forms can help people who find ascorbic acid to be irritating to their stomach.



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Does vitamin C breakdown after fruit/vegetable harvest and during cooking?

Vitamin C is susceptible to breakdown during certain cooking, processing, and storage procedures (i.e., heat or cooking in neutral or basic medium). For instance, potatoes can lose nearly half of their vitamin C by boiling. Spinach can lose nearly all its vitamin C if stored for two to three days at room temperature. For practical purposes, citrus fruits and other vitamin C-containing fruits and vegetables usually are better dietary sources of vitamin C as they are generally eaten uncooked and shortly after harvestitamin C is the common name for ascorbic acid. People, along with other primates, guinea pigs, and birds, are unable to make vitamin C. Other animals and plants can make their own vitamin C from glucose.Vitamin C has long enjoyed popularity as a nutrition supplement and continues to be one of the most recognizable and sought after nutrients.


How much vitamin C is absorbed?

Vitamin C is fairly well absorbed from our digestive tract when consumed in typical dietary amounts. However, as the amount of vitamin C increases in our diet its absorption efficiency decreases. For example, a vitamin C intake of 180 mg (three times the RDA for an adult) is about 80 to 90 percent absorbed, while an intake approximating 5 g is only about ¼ is absorbed. However, 25 percent absorption of 5 g is still about 1.2 g of vitamin C. Much of this excessive vitamin C will be quickly removed from the body in the urine.


How much vitamin C do we need?

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamin C for adult men and women is 90 mg and 75 mg, respectively. During pregnancy and lactation the RDA increases to 85 and 120 mg for adult women. This is the level of vitamin C that will provide for good blood and organ vitamin C status for most adults and can be considered a minimum recommendation. Meanwhile an intake of 400 mg for healthy adults is recommended to ensure that the levels in the blood and cells are optimal. See DRI/RDA Table for minimum vitamin C recommendations.


Where is vitamin C found in our body?

Vitamin C is found in most of the tissue throughout the body with greater concentrations in the heart, brain, pancreas, adrenal glands, thymus, and lungs. Two of the most vitamin C-dense regions in the body are the pituitary gland and the lens of the eye. Vitamin C status in the body is typically assessed by measuring serum levels as well as the level of white blood cells. The former is more reflective of recent dietary intake while the latter is a better indicator of tissue stores. As vitamin C circulates in the blood it is vulnerable to kidney filtration and subsequent loss in the urine either as ascorbic acid or derivatives (metabolites) such as oxalates.


What roles does vitamin C play in our body?

Vitamin C has the ability to either donate or accept electrons. In doing so it participates in many metabolic processes. Perhaps its most famous role is its involvement in the production of collagen. However vitamin C plays a role in the production of other vitamin molecules including carnitine, norepinephrine and bile acids.


  • Collagen is a connective tissue protein and is found in teeth, bone, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, and arteries. Vitamin C is fundamentally involved in modifying specific amino acids in the collagen protein which ultimately affects collagen’s structure and function. Without vitamin C, the collagen that is made is relatively worthless.

  • Norepinephrine functions as a neurotransmitter in the brain and in organs to regulate their function as well as a hormone released from the adrenal glands during exercise and fasting. Among other operations norepinephrine is involved in the “fight or flight” response which helps us deal with stressful and threatening situations. Norepinephrine is made from the amino acid tyrosine and vitamin C plays a role in the conversion process.

  • Carnitine is needed to use longer chain length fatty acids for energy, as it basically chaperones these fatty acids into the mitochondria of our cells where they can be broken down for energy (ATP) production. The making of carnitine in the liver requires vitamin C among other substances.

  • Bile acids are produced in the liver and are vital for efficient fat digestion and absorption. Since, bile acids are derived from cholesterol, which in turn decreases the amount of cholesterol that circulates.

  • Vitamin C may play a role in lowering the risk of heart disease.

  • Vitamin C is also an antihistamine factor and an immune function supporter as well as involved in the making of thyroid hormone, serotonin, and steroid hormones.

  • Vitamin C enhances iron absorption from our digestive tract. This means that both iron and vitamin C would need to be part of the same meal for this to occur.

Is vitamin C a potent antioxidant?

Another role of vitamin C, which is receiving more and more attention today, is that of antioxidant. Antioxidants serve as lines of protection against free radicals, which are linked to diseases such as heart disease and cancer as well as aging. That makes vitamin C rich foods, such as citrus and strawberries functional foods.Antioxidants provide protection against free-radical activity that can lead to heart disease, cancers, and other medical concerns, so this role of vitamin C is more of a nutraceutical role. Not only does vitamin C serve as potent antioxidant it can also reactivate other antioxidants, namely vitamin E.

What happens if we don’t get enough vitamin C?

Poor consumption of fruits and vegetable sources of vitamin C as well as smoking can reduce vitamin C status in the body. This in turn can lower antioxidant protection and over time could reduce the efficiency of other vitamin C roles in the body. Meanwhile, true vitamin C deficiency syndrome is referred to as scurvy. For adults, scurvy will appear approximately one to three months after discontinuing vitamin C consumption. Medical signs and symptoms include impaired wound healing, fluid buildup in ankles and wrists (edema), swollen bleeding gums with tooth loss, fatigue, lethargy, and joint pain. In infants who are not breast-fed, deficiency can be recognized at around six months of age when the vitamin C stores transferred from the mother during pregnancy have been exhausted. Medical signs of this syndrome (Moeller-Barlow disease) include abnormal bone character and development, severe joint pain, anemia, and fever. The abnormalities in bone are directly related to the role of vitamin C in the proper manufacturing of collagen.

What happens if too much vitamin C is consumed?

If you set out to increase your vitamin C intake through the use of supplements, a couple of possible side effects and a practical issue should be considered. First, as discussed, as vitamin C intake increases, the efficiency of absorption decreases. This still leads to more vitamin C absorbed per day, but a proportionate increase in urinary loss of vitamin C and its metabolites also occurs. Perhaps one of the biggest concerns associated with consuming gram-size doses (“gram dosing”) is gastrointestinal discomfort since it is an acid. Also, large concentrated doses can promote diarrhea. Otherwise supplementation of a couple grams of vitamin C daily is pretty safe. The latest DRI Upper Limit is set at 2 grams for adults meaning that it is still generally without concern at this level.

Can vitamin C prevent or treat colds?

As an antioxidant and also an immune function potentiator vitamin C has been suggested for use in decreasing the incidence and severity of the common cold. Research to date suggests that vitamin C supplementation probably won’t decrease the incidence of colds; however it might lessen the severity, especially for some athletic populations. However, starting vitamin C supplementation at the onset of symptoms does little to decrease the severity.





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