The Importance of Being Holist: Vitamin C

The Importance of Being Holist: Vitamin C

Belief in the health-promoting abilities of Vitamin C borders on religious zeal.  From curing the common cold to preventing cancer, this vitamin has been ascribed life-giving power.  It is essential to good nutrition, but its main function is the growth and repair of tissues such as gums.  The NIH recommended daily allowance (RDA) is 90 mg for men, and 75 for women.  More does not make much difference in most people, as any excess not utilized to nourish cells is excreted.


Deficiency of Vitamin C and Health Consequences

Lack of adequate Vitamin C intake can result in blotchy skin, bleeding gums, loss of teeth, poor wound healing, joint pain, and anemia.  The condition afflicted whalers in the nineteenth century, who ate little fresh produce while at sea for months—and is known as “scurvy”.  This condition can be fatal.  In the U.S., most people consume enough Vitamin C in fortified foods and dietary supplements.  However, in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa (and among refugees in areas of conflict), this is still a major problem—especially in infants and children.  Babies with scurvy are often noted by doctors in clinics to appear in a “frog-like” position, with hemorrhaging around erupting teeth (per a report of the World Health Organization).


Biochemical Features of Vitamin C

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is water-soluble, and absorbed via the gastrointestinal tract.  Unabsorbed amounts not used by the body remain in the lumen of the bowel—which then attracts water from tissues that can cause diarrhea.  Collagen synthesis is one of its primary physiological functions, and is necessary for the metabolism of tyrosine (an amino acid).  This anti-oxidant vitamin also increases the absorption of iron (which is essential for healthy red blood cells).


Foods Rich in Vitamin C

Citrus fruits (e.g., oranges, lemons, and grapefruits), berries, and tomatoes are excellent sources of Vitamin C.  However, broccoli and spinach are also high sources if eaten raw.  Steaming and microwaving reduces the level of the vitamin in foods, since heat destroys Vitamin C.  Some young children have allergic symptoms on eating citrus fruits (especially oranges), but most outgrow it by adolescence.  The importance of Vitamin C should promote parents of these allergic children to ensure alternative sources are included in meals to compensate for the lack of citrus fruits in the diet.


Popular Culture and Cures Attributed to Vitamin C

Ever since Linus Pauling advised Vitamin C to treat head colds in the 1970s, popular opinion has upheld this viewpoint.  Some medical research has supported Pauling’s findings, while most clinical investigations have not substantiated his findings.  Meanwhile, popular viewpoints related to the curative powers of Vitamin C have led to scientific research on its anti-inflammatory properties.  An article in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2006 presented findings of a study on atherosclerosis and Vitamin C—and the authors suggested an anti-inflammatory effect was found.  On the other hand, a study by Lee et al in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition arrived at the opposite conclusion.


Nutritional supplement manufacturers make millions of dollars from the sale of vitamins in capsules and pills.  Therefore, it is in their interest to uphold the view in popular culture that high-dose Vitamin C has health benefits.   Likewise, the anti-oxidant effect of Vitamin C has been presented by motivational speakers as proof of this vitamin’s ability to prevent cancer.  Medical research continues worldwide in order to substantiate or refute these theories—but the truth remains unknown.

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