The Nitty Gritty on Vitamin C

Antioxidants. Chances are, you’ve heard this term thousands of times because of their importance to overall health. Given the broad (and possibly overwhelming) selection on the market, it may be tough to figure out how to select the best antioxidant supplements to add to your daily regimen. Here’s where vitamin C comes in. You’ve certainly heard of it before; you probably even know that oranges are full of it. But, do you fully understand how this antioxidant powerhouse works and why you need it?

The Antioxidant Factor
Even in small amounts, vitamin C can protect indispensable molecules in the body such as proteins, lipids (fats), carbohydrates and nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) from damage by free radicals that can be generated during normal metabolism as well as through exposure to toxins and pollutants (1). Free radicals, by the way, are highly unstable atoms with unpaired electrons in their outer shells. For the non-chemists among us, that means these atoms really want to get one more electron in order to have a complete pair—this is called oxidation (the same process that causes iron to rust). While those are noble intentions, the way these free radicals generally go about getting that last electron is by stealing from atoms around them. Those atoms, in turn, will steal electrons from other atoms, creating a type of chain reaction (2). In a human body, this process can kill otherwise healthy cells and even can even cause tumors in the process.

So, where does vitamin C fit into all of this? Vitamin C is, as mentioned before, an antioxidant, which literally means that it “battles oxidation.” It works by kindly donating one electron to those greedy free radicals, so that they might leave your personal cells alone (stay away from my cells, free radicals!). Take enough vitamin C for a long enough time (that’s more than 83 mg a day) and your risk for lung cancer goes down—get ready—64% (1)! The key, though, is to take it every day; your body has no organ that makes or stores vitamin C (3). Free radical damage also accumulates with age, so it’s never too early to start piling on the vitamin C.

Other Health Benefits
As if all this isn’t enough for you to drop everything right now and run to the vitamin section, there are even more reasons to take vitamin C daily. It benefits your immune system by stimulating the production of white blood cells, primarily neutrophils, which attack foreign antigens such as bacteria and viruses. It also boosts the body’s production of both antibodies and interferon, the protein that helps protect us from viral invaders and cancer cells (4). In fact, in a recent study of marathon runners, skiers and soldiers training in the Arctic, doses of vitamin C ranging from 250 mg/day to 1 g/day decreased the incidence of colds by 50%. Overall, the preventive use of vitamin C supplementation is said to reduce the duration of colds by about 8% in adults and 14% in children (1).

It’s also required for the synthesis of collagen (1), which partly makes up that skin of yours. Healthy collagen levels mean that potential invaders get weeded out before they even get a chance to enter the body. On a side note, the degradation of the collagen in your body is a major aspect of skin aging—it leads to wrinkles and sagging. Can you guess what is the main cause of that degradation? It’s free radicals! By taking plenty of vitamin C (it’s also available in some topical skin creams), you can boost your immune system, prevent cancer and look young while you do it!

Vitamin C is also great for the heart. Studies suggest that it may protect against artery damage, keep arteries flexible and slow the development of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) (2). And, taking vitamin C (more than 700 mg/day) may even prevent coronary heart disease (1).

Get it, Got it, Good
You can get vitamin C from many different fruits and vegetables. Oranges are a crowd favorite, as well as most other citrus varieties. However, you can also get tons of the vitamin from tomatoes, strawberries (which pack a punch with 82 mg in one cup!), red peppers, broccoli and even potatoes (1). Supplemental vitamin C is also available in traditional tablets, chewable tablets, gummies and effervescent supplement powders. Whatever you choose, be sure that you’re getting enough—the Linus Pauling Institute recommends up to 400 mg per day for most healthy adults!

There is no real danger in taking more, say some experts. Since your body has no way to store vitamin C, once your blood is saturated with it, the excess is simply excreted. R.F. Cathcart, a clinical practitioner who has treated thousands of patients with vitamin C, believes each person should take the vitamin up to his or her “bowel tolerance” level. Simply put, this is the level just below the daily dosage that would cause you to have diarrhea (4). This number has been reported to reach upwards of 10,000 mg per day. In any case, there are several available vitamin C esters that are just as effective while being a bit easier on the stomach (1). The esterified form is also said to stay in your system longer and absorb into the system faster than the standard vitamin C. WF

1. The Linus Pauling Institute, “Vitamin C,”, accessed February 12, 2009.
2. University of Maryland Medical Center, “Vitamin C,”, accessed February 18, 2009.
3. Medline Plus, “Vitamin C,”, accessed February 12, 2009.
4. G. Null, The Antioxidant Vitamin,, accessed February 12, 2009.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, April 2009