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Not only does it help the normal function of our immune system including during and after physical exercise, it contributes to our normal collagen formation helping the normal function of major parts of our body including our blood vessels, bones and skin. And, by supporting our body’s normal metabolism it helps to reduce tiredness. If that’s not enough it also protects our cells from oxidative stress (see below).
So, as you can see, vitamin C has many health benefits but our bodies are made up in such a way that we can’t actually store it. That means we need to ensure we top up this vital vitamin through our diets or supplements.
By supporting various cellular functions of both the innate (first line of defence) and adaptive (or acquired) immune system, Vitamin C contributes to our overall immune defence. Vitamin C deficiency has been linked to impaired immunity and higher susceptibility to infections1 . For example, prolonged vitamin C deficiency can lead to scurvy, a pretty nasty condition characterised by general weakness, anaemia, gum disease and easily bruised skin. Luckily this condition is rare as most of us get enough vitamin C in our diets, but you may be more at risk if you are on an unusual or restrictive diet, eat very little food or have a poor diet and smoke2.
Collagen is the most common protein found in our bodies and is crucial to the strength of our bone structure and the elasticity of our skin. Importantly, when collagen levels are healthy, cells that contain collagen take on a youthful appearance. Vitamin C helps our bodies to synthesise collagen and the more collagen you have, the more your body is able to produce and maintain3.
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant and, as such, contributes to the protection of our cells from oxidative stress (an imbalance between the production of cells damaged by oxidisation free radicals*) and our bodies’ ability to counteract their harmful effects). When it comes to our skin, vitamin C can neutralise and remove oxidants such as those found in environmental pollutants and after exposure to ultraviolet radiation. This activity appears to be of particular importance in the epidermis, where vitamin C is most concentrated4.
*Free radicals occur naturally in the body as a result of chemical processes such as metabolism. They are, effectively, waste products of these processes which, when there are too many for our body to naturally counteract, become harmful to our cells, proteins and DNA. They have been linked to age-related changes in appearance such as loss of skin elasticity and wrinkles. Whilst free radicals are produced naturally in our bodies, lifestyle factors such as exposure to air pollution, smoking and alcohol can accelerate their production and, therefore, potentially increase the risk they pose.
Which food first comes to mind when we talk about vitamin C? You wouldn’t be alone if it were oranges or other citrus fruits. Would you be surprised if we were to tell you weight for weight strawberries, kiwis and green/red peppers have more? And when it comes to vegetables, broccoli and Brussels sprouts also contain more. But blackcurrants are the super heroes with almost four times as much.
Scottish Crop Research Institute Annual Report 2007
And we mustn’t forget herbs and spices are also rich in nutritional content, especially antioxidants which, as above, we know the body needs to protect against free radicals. In terms of vitamin C, Dill and Thyme are excellent sources.
There are certain key times when you should take different vitamins and minerals for optimum effect. This can help in terms of bioavailability (availability of the vitamins or minerals to the general circulation), and there are optimal times when the body will process and absorb them best. However, taking your supplements at the ‘wrong’ time doesn’t mean they won’t work. Vitamin C is water soluble, meaning it will dissolve and be more easily processed in water than in fat. This means you don’t need to take it with food and, as it’s not naturally stored by the body, it’s best to take it daily in small doses spread throughout the day. Larger doses will simply be expelled.
So don’t just reach for it when you’re under the weather. As you can see vitamin C is important for a whole host of other health reasons. As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. If you do need to add more vitamin C to your diet in the form of a supplement, remember, in the words of Dr. Dwight McKee, “It’s called holistic medicine but it’s more to do with avoiding the need for medicine.”
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