Would you know the signs of low vitamin C levels in yourself or your family?
Everyone knows that oranges contain vitamin C, but you might not know exactly how this vital vitamin works in our bodies – or if you’re getting enough.
Get the lowdown on this essential nutrient and find out how to meet yours and your loved ones’ daily vitamin C needs.
What is vitamin C?
Also known as ascorbic acid, vitamin C was first identified in the 1930’s by researcher Dr Albert Szent-Györgyi. Although it’s hard to imagine now – people would once get very sick or even die due to lack of vitamin C in their diets.1
Luckily, understanding of vitamins have changed, and vitamin C deficiency in the UK is very rare.
However, having low vitamin C levels is not uncommon, especially in people who don’t eat many fruits and vegetables for various reasons.
Vitamin C has a range of functions, including support for your immune system and maintaining normal skin health. Vitamin C also helps our bodies absorb iron from plant sources.2
Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin. This means our bodies can’t store it, and each time we urinate, we lose a little vitamin C. Our bodies can’t make it, either. Therefore, we need to make sure we have food or drink containing vitamin C every day to prevent us from running low.3
Why do we need vitamin C?
It’s an antioxidant
Vitamin C is also a powerful antioxidant that can protect our cell membranes from oxidative damage caused by free radicals.4
It supports immunity
The reason vitamin C is so intrinsically linked with the prevention of colds is because it really does benefit our immune system. In 2017, researchers at the University of Helsinki found that taking up to 8mg of vitamin C every day can shorten the length of colds.5
It is a beauty aid
Looking for a beauty booster? Vitamin C plays an important role in stimulating the production of collagen in our skin needed to give plumpness and elasticity to skin and reduce the appearance of wrinkles.6
Lack of vitamin C is also associated with dry skin and brittle hair.
It helps care for your teeth
Scurvy, caused by low vitamin C levels, used to be associated with sailors but there are reports the disease is making a comeback due to our poor diets and high rates of smoking which destroys vitamin C.
The first sign of scurvy is bleeding gums as there isn’t enough collagen to help keep gum cells together. This allows the bacteria responsible for gum disease to take hold more easily and could lead to tooth loss.
Ultimately, upping your vitamin C intake can help keep gums healthy, protecting you against gaining a toothless smile.
It helps absorb iron if you’re veggie or vegan
Going veggie can be a good move but there are some unique health issues linked to cutting out meat, including not getting enough iron. A lack of iron can lead to fatigue, anaemia and a weakened immune system.
The iron available in vegetarian sources, such as beans, lentils and dried fruit, is harder for the body to extract from food. Luckily, vitamin C helps you absorb them more easily. So why not try adding a small, brightly coloured salad to your meals, or having a glass of orange juice with dinner?
Read more: Benefits of Vitamin C
How to ensure you’re getting enough Vitamin C
To ensure you’re getting enough vitamin C, make sure you eat a wide range of fresh fruits and vegetables. You can find vitamin C in foods such as citrus fruits, berries, peppers, tomatoes, green vegetables and potatoes, especially new potatoes.7
It’s possible to get all the vitamin C you need by eating a healthy diet, but some people top up with a supplement, especially if they don’t always eat at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day.8
Adults need a minimum of 40mg of vitamin C a day.9 This is easy to get through a healthy diet with lots of fruit and vegetables, including red peppers and oranges.
Vitamin C deficiency symptoms go away quickly on you start getting vitamin C, whether through diet or supplements.
What are the best natural sources of vitamin C?
- Red pepper – you may be surprised oranges aren’t first on the list, but red peppers are the best source of vitamin C with 95mg per serving
- Oranges – oranges are still one of the very best foods with vitamin C with one orange packing 70mg per serving. Orange juice is more concentrated so has more – 93mg per serving
- Grapefruit juice – whether you love or hate the bittersweet taste, there’s no denying grapefruit juice contains lots of vitamin C at 70mg per serving. Grapefruits themselves have slightly less, with 39mg per serving
- Kiwi fruit – 1 medium kiwi contains 64mg vitamin C, which provides plenty for your daily needs.
- Broccoli – just a small serving of broccoli contains 51mg vitamin C
- Strawberries – a portion of strawberries comes in at 49mg vitamin C
- Potatoes – one of the more unlikely vitamin C rich foods, there’s around 17mg in a medium baked potato
- Tomato – a medium sized tomato also contains 17mg vitamin C10
What happens if you don’t have enough Vit C?
A serious deficiency of vitamin C is rare but can lead to scurvy, a disease once widespread among fruit-deprived sailors in the Victorian era.
Scurvy is only a risk if you don’t have enough vitamin C in your diet for at least three months.11
However, low levels of vitamin C aren’t uncommon. The early symptoms of vitamin C deficiency can include:12
- tiredness and weakness
- easy bruising
- dry skin and hair
- sore or bleeding gums
The following groups are especially susceptible to low vitamin C, and should be vigilant about vitamin C deficiency symptoms:13
- Those with drug or alcohol issues who may not have a healthy, balanced diet
- People with a serious aversion to fruit and vegetables
- Older people with a reduced appetite and who may eat a less varied diet
- Smokers are more at risk of a vitamin C deficiency, as smoking reduces the body’s absorption of the vitamin14
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women because they need higher amounts of vitamin C
Which type of vitamin C supplement is best?
It’s always best to get your vitamins from a healthy, balanced diet if you can.
If you want to take a vitamin C supplement, the choice can be bewildering. You can find it in tablet, capsule, chewable, effervescent, and liquid forms. Vitamin C is found in a lot of multivitamins too.
Most vitamin C supplements will come in the following forms:
- Ascorbic acid – vitamin C in its simplest and most common form
- Time-released vitamin C – this releases the vitamin slowly over several hours, providing better absorption and longer-lasting action
- Ester-C® – a more gentle form of vitamin C, ideal for sensitive stomachs
- Bioflavonoids – powerful plant compounds for added immune support
Vitamin C is well-tolerated by the body, and any excess not used is excreted in urine.
However, be careful not to overdo it. People taking too much vitamin C – 1000mg and over – may experience stomach cramps, diarrhoea and wind.15 These symptoms should disappear once you reduce your dose.
Last updated: 11 February 2021
Author: Bhupesh Panchal, Regulatory Affairs
Bhupesh started his career as a clinical toxicologist for Public Health England, advising healthcare professionals all around the country on how to manage clinical cases of adverse exposure to supplements, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, industrial chemicals and agricultural products. After 7 years in this role and a further year working as a drug safety officer in the pharmaceutical industry, Bhupesh joined Holland & Barrett as a Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate in 2019.
In his spare time, Bhupesh likes to cycle and has been learning to speak Korean for several years.
3 https://www.hsis.org/supplements/vitamin/ https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/vitamin-c/