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Most of us know that vitamin C is an essential dietary nutrient. However, do we know 'why' it is vital and the consequences of not consuming enough in our diet? Wonder no more, as we explain everything you need to know about vitamin C deficiency, including what it is, common symptoms, its potential impact, and how to combat it.
A vitamin C deficiency stems from not eating enough dietary vitamin C. Vitamin C is an essential nutrient that the body needs to function correctly in various ways. Vitamin C, ascorbic acid, is found in fresh fruit and vegetables. Vitamin C-rich foods include citrus fruits, tomatoes, broccoli, sweet peppers and potatoes. Severe Vitamin C deficiency, known as 'scurvy', is a potentially fatal condition that was once a major issue for sailors.
Consuming enough vitamin C in our diet is vital, but what does vitamin C do exactly? First, our bodies need vitamin C to make collagen, which helps to grow, maintain and repair everything from our skin and hair to bones, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, teeth and gums. Vitamin C also helps our bodies absorb iron, which is essential for making the red blood cells we rely upon to transport oxygen and carbon dioxide to and from the lungs.
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant, neutralising cell-damaging free radicals and reducing inflammation. It also interacts with immune cells, encouraging the activity of bacteria-ingesting phagocytes and promoting the growth and distribution of lymphocytes, which increase circulating antibodies that fight off foreign substances like bacteria and viruses. For all these reasons, vitamin C is good for supporting immune health.
Vitamin C deficiency can initially present itself in the form of tiredness and weakness. If your vitamin C is too low over an extended period, it can cause severe complications. According to Patient, "If not diagnosed and treated, vitamin C deficiency can also lead to shortness of breath, nerve problems, high temperature (fever) and fits (convulsions).
Some early vitamin C deficiency symptoms can include the following:
● Muscle and joint pain
● Weight loss
According to the NHS, scurvy can occur when vitamin C intake is severely limited for at least three months.
Some of the symptoms of scurvy may include:
● Severe joint or leg pain
● Swollen, bleeding gums
● Loose or lost teeth
● Red or blue spots on the skin
● Skin that bruises easily
● Dry, brittle, corkscrew hair
● Rough, scaly skin
● Bright red hair follicles
● Slow healing wounds
● Iron-deficiency anaemia
Vitamin C deficiency is quite rare in developed nations. However, according to research published in Nutrients, "vitamin C deficiency is likely to be common globally — and particularly so in low-income groups and low-middle income countries." Significant risk factors for developing a vitamin C deficiency include a poor diet, drug or alcohol dependencies, smoking, eating disorders, pregnancy, breastfeeding, dialysis and severe digestive conditions.
There have been various studies of vitamin C's potential effects on sleep. Psychology Today reported that a 2009 study found that a twice-daily 100mg dose of vitamin C and 400 IU of vitamin E reduced episodes of obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA). One theory for this is that vitamin C could improve the function of the endothelial lining of blood vessels in people with OSA. Another 2013 study by the University of Pennsylvania posited that subjects who slept for fewer than six hours a night consumed lower levels of vitamin C than longer sleepers.
However, the jury is still out over whether vitamin C benefits sleep directly or not.
Eating a balanced diet full of foods high in vitamin C, namely fruit and vegetables, is the best way to treat and prevent a vitamin C deficiency. Your GP might also recommend taking vitamin C tablets. According to the NHS, "most people treated for scurvy feel better within 48 hours and make a full recovery within 2 weeks". However, a clinical referral for specialist treatment, support or advice may be necessary in some instances.
If you were not fully aware of the importance of vitamin C, you are now! Is it any wonder that your parents insisted you "eat your greens"? Well, it is now clear that the other age-old mantra, "an apple a day keeps the doctor away", really does bear fruit. Vitamin C is a vital nutrient for so many functions of the body, particularly collagen production and immune health. It takes months of vitamin C deficiency for scurvy to occur, but the potentially severe complications must not be underestimated and should therefore be avoided wherever possible.
Vitamin C cannot be produced or stored by the body, so we have to source it from our diet. Eating a balanced diet full of vitamin C food sources is the easiest and most effective way to keep vitamin C deficiencies at bay. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for UK adults is 40 mg of vitamin C daily. However, if you struggle to get enough vitamin C on board, vitamin C supplements can give you an added dose of this essential nutrient, whether in a convenient vitamin C capsule, vitamin C drink sachet or all-purpose multi-vitamin.
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