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Find out all about vitamin C, including what it does, how much you need, where to find it, and who might need to supplement their diet.
Vitamin C is an essential vitamin, necessary for the healthy functioning of the body. Also known as ascorbic acid, vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin; our bodies don’t store it, so we must get enough from our diets. ¹
Vitamin C is found in lots of fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruits and juices, dark green leafy veg, peppers, and berries. ⁷ Vitamin C deficiency is rare, but can lead to scurvy. ⁸
Lots of animals can produce their own vitamin C,but humans, other primates, and guinea pigs can’t!
Vitamin C was officially discovered by Albert Szent-Györgyi, a Hungarian biochemist, in the 1930s. ⁹
We’ve already briefly discussed what vitamin C is and what it does, but let’s go into more detail.
The functions of vitamin C in the body include: 10 1
Two of the main compounds that helps us to do this are collagen and antioxidants – and vitamin C helps to make both!
Making sure you’re getting enough vitamin C through your diet can help to slow down this decline in collagen production.
Vitamin C also contains antioxidants that help to protect the skin. ⁶
Handpicked content: 10 best vitamins for healthy skin
One of the organs most affected by vitamin C are our blood vessels, which also help to distribute it throughout our bodies.
Vitamin C has been seen to help support the cells that line the walls of blood vessels as well as form their basement membrane (helps to send and receive signals).
Our blood vessels also help to distribute vitamin C and other nutrients throughout our body - they make quite the harmonious pair! ¹²
Vitamin C helps keep our immune system functioning normally in general, especially during and after intense exercise.
One of the ways it does this is by strengthening the skin to keep pathogens out and reduce oxidative stress. When pollutants make contact with the skin, they can contribute to producing free radicals (unstable atoms that can cause cell damage). The stronger the skin barrier, the better it can prevent this cell damage from occuring. ¹⁴
Being deficient in vitamin C can result in impaired immunity and higher susceptibility to infections. ¹⁵
Our nervous system is a complex network of cells and neurons from the brain and spinal cord to various body parts.
Vitamin C can be found inside the neurons in our central nervous system. In fact, these neurons contain some of the richest concentrations in human body tissues. ¹⁶
Heme iron is generally well-absorbed, whereas non-heme iron is slightly more difficult, especially if you are lacking in vitamin C.
Vitamin C helps our bodies absorb iron from plant sources like citrus fruits and green leafy vegetables. ¹⁸
According to the NHS, adults aged between 19 and 64 need 40mg of vitamin C every day. ¹ That’s the same as about a quarter of an orange. ¹⁹
Vitamin C is water-soluble, so it can’t be stored in the body. This means you need to replace it in your diet every day. ¹ ¹⁸
People at risk of scurvy include those whose diets lack fruits and veg, as well as alcohol abuse or smoking: they reduce how much vitamin C is absorbed by the body, increasing your need for the nutrient.
However, it is worth noting that vitamin C deficiency is very rare in the UK. ⁸
Is too much vitamin C bad for you? It could be.High doses of vitamin C may lead to diarrhoea and stomach cramps. ¹
However, the DHSC advises that doses below 1000mg a day is not likely to cause any harm. ¹
There are a few different types of vitamin C supplements you can take if you choose to take one, like:
If you’re taking a tablet or capsule, you’ll need to take your vitamin C supplements with water. Powders can be dissolved in water and mixed to make an easy drink – just sip away.
You can take vitamin C supplements at any time of day, but it’s best to pick a time that you’ll remember regularly.
Wondering which is best for you? Read our article on 10 of the best vitamin C supplements.
You should be able to get all the vitamin C you need from a balanced diet. But there are some people who should pay particular attention to their vitamin C intake, like:
Studies have shown time and time again that smokers tend to have lower vitamin C levels than non-smokers. ²¹
That also includes “passive smokers”, people who spend a lot of time with smokers and inhale their smoke, even if they don’t smoke themselves.
If you don’t eat many fruits, vegetables, or other sources of vitamin C, you may want to consider taking a vitamin C supplement.
Vegetarians and vegans may find it harder to meet the recommended iron intake through their diet. They’re more at risk of becoming iron deficient, and it’s increasingly likely if they don’t get enough vitamin C to help absorb their iron.
If you don’t eat meat, you should take extra care to include plenty of iron and vitamin C in your diet.
To increase iron absorption, you must eat iron-rich foods and vitamin C-rich foods at the same time. This is because vitamin C is water-soluble, meaning your body doesn’t store it for later: any excess is quickly excreted.
If you decide to take a supplement, beware – most of them are a vegan source of vitamin C, but not all! Some gummies will use gelatine (sourced from animals). Look out for the vegan leaf symbol on the front of our supplements to make sure you’re getting plant-based vitamin C.
Last updated: 9 February 2023
Joined Holland & Barrett: Jan 2018
Bsc in Nutrition, Registered Associate Nutritionist and Certification in Pre and Post Natal Nutrition
Donia started her career as a freelance nutritionist, later she joined Nestle as their Market Nutritionist to help support their healthier product range, before joining the team at Holland & Barrett in January 2018.
Donia has over 6 years experience as a Nutritionist and also works with clients on a one to one basis to support their goals which include weight loss, prenatal and postnatal nutrition and children’s health.