Even as children, we've all heard of vitamin C: while its precise functions remained mysterious, we knew that it helps cure common cold and that it is contained in oranges. But now that we are all grown up, it's time to take our understanding of vitamin C to a new level!
First, let us ask a simple question: what are vitamins, anyway? A vitamin is an organic compound that our body needs and that we cannot produce enough of. “Organic” means that it contains carbon; for the rest, these compounds can differ greatly among themselves. Interestingly, not all vitamins are equally important to different mammals: for example, humans cannot produce vitamin C (ascorbic acid), but dogs do: thus, they do not need to eat oranges!
Vitamins come in two types: those soluble in water and those soluble in fat. Our fat tissues and liver can easily store fat-soluble vitamins for weeks, while those that are solved in water very quickly leave our body with urine and have to be constantly replaced.
Now let us turn to vitamin C in particular. As we’ve noted above, its chemical name is ascorbic acid; it is a water-soluble vitamin. The recommended daily intake amounts to 90 mg for men and 75 mg for women (more if you smoke), and at any given moment a healthy human body contains around 1-1.5 grams of vitamin C.
What it does for you
1) Youth and beauty. Ascorbic acid’s main function is to help produce collagen. Our tendons are largely made of collagen; thus, if your body doesn’t make enough of it, you may experience frequent ligament injuries. Moreover, collagen is a major component of the skin, which means that vitamin C helps keep you young (more details here.) And keep in mind that collagen is also necessary for wound healing!
2) Fight free radicals. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant, meaning that it helps to neutralize free radicals (highly reactive molecules that “steal” molecules from cells, damaging them). Apart from the anti-aging effect, this antioxidant property reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and some forms of cancer (see this study, for example).
3) What about treating colds? The idea that vitamin C helps cure common cold became widespread in the 1970, and older studies did seem to indicate that it worked. However, recent research has shown that vitamin C only helps prevent and cure cold among people under highly stressful conditions, such as mountaineers or polar explorers. As for the rest of us, don’t expect miracles from those ascorbic acid pills if you catch a flu.
But what happens if you don’t take enough vitamin C? If you’ve read novels set on ships, you know that sailors often suffer from scurvy – a nasty disease that makes your teeth fall out. Well, scurvy is a classic form of ascorbic acid deficiency (teeth fall out because collagen in the gums breaks down). While scurvy is very rare nowadays, people suffering from vitamin C deficiency will experience such unpleasant symptoms as dry skin and hair, slowly healing wounds, bleeding and inflamed gums… Besides, the whole immune system will be weakened, making such a person susceptible to various infections; and the risks are much higher for smokers.
Now that we’ve (hopefully) convinced you, go eat some oranges! But not just oranges: some of the best sources of vitamiin C include bell peppers, kiwis, pineapples, broccoli, strawberries, parsley, and spinach.