In the 15th and 16th centuries, Columbus, Magellan, Vasco da Gama and their sailors lived at sea for months at a time. On these challenging voyages, fresh fruits and vegetables were not available. As a consequence, the seamen suffered from malnutrition and the reality that 50% of the men onboard would not return home alive.
Because the men lacked vitamin C, many thousands of men died over the centuries from those seafaring expeditions. They initially complained of weakness and a general feeling of being sick Thereafter, their complaints included bleeding gums, red spots on the skin and wounds not healing. Later, the sailors noticed leg edema, decreased urinary output, numbness and pain in the hands and feet and other problems that led to their death.
Dr. James Lind, in 1747, discovered that eating citrus fruits prevented scurvy, the disease that plagued sailors on long voyages. Yet, it wasn’t until the early 1930’s that ascorbic acid (vitamin C) was identified as the active ingredient in citrus fruits. This discovery opened a new chapter in nutrition.
Vitamin C, ascorbic acid, is a water-soluble vitamin that protects the immune system and helps the absorption of iron from the intestine by protecting it against the scavenging free radicals. The immune system has a high level of vitamin C to defend itself against free radicals.
Vitamin C plays an important role as a potent antioxidant and supports the health of connective tissue. It has many functions and by acting as an antioxidant it reduces inflammation, helps maintain the blood level of vitamin E and protects the body against the harmful effects of free radicals
Free radicals are molecules with one or more missing electrons that circulate throughout the body hoping to steal one or more electrons from cells in the body. Such radical activity can damage blood vessels, eventually leading to heart attacks and strokes.
Vitamin C acting as an antioxidant gives up its own electrons to the circulating free radicles and by doing so neutralizing their damaging effects on the cells. Most of the time, vitamin C has the ability to recycle itself back to its original active form. Rusting might serve to demonstrate how free radicals do their damage.
Rusting is an example of the ruinous activity of free radicals (oxidative stress) which happens when the radicals seek to obtain one or more electrons for its own gain at the expense of the other. When rusting occurs, oxygen takes electrons from iron to satisfy its own needs leaving rust in its wake.
Vitamin C is needed to activate certain enzymes that are necessary to form and maintain collagen. Collagen is a protein and fundamental component of connective tissue, bones, tendons, skin and teeth. Collagen helps to mend fractures, form scar tissue and support capillaries.
The symptoms of scurvy noted above among the sailors can be attributed to a breakdown of collagen caused by a lack of vitamin C. Bleeding gums, loose teeth, red spots in the skin, leg and ankle edema are due to vitamin C deficiency.
Large amounts of vitamin C might interfere with anticlotting medications, increase the absorption of iron and interfere with insulin medication.
Research fails to support the notion that taking large amounts of vitamin C prevents or cures the common cold. However, smokers, burn victims, pregnant or breast feeding women may require extra vitamin C. Sources of this vitamin are citrus fruits and vegetables such as broccoli, peppers and tomatoes.
Vitamin C is a water soluble vitamin, an antioxidant that fights free radicals, prevents scurvy, helps iron absorption, supports the health of collagen and connective tissue and prevents infections It cannot be overstated; we benefit greatly from the actions of vitamin C.
- NIH; Vitamin C; Sept 18, 2018
- Linda B. Bobroff and Isabel Valentin-Oquendo; Facts about Vitamin C; U of Florida; Sept, 2017
- Am Chem. Society; Albert Szent-Györgyi’s Discovery of Vitamin C; 2002
- Anticaglia, Joseph R; Vitamin Basics; Doctor’s Column, HC Smart, 2019
- Carpenter KJ; The discovery of vitamin C; Ann Nutr Metab; Nov 26, 2012
This article is intended solely as a learning experience. Please consult your physician for diagnostic and treatment options.