Good old vitamin C. There when you need it during the colder months when the sniffles start to make an appearance. But if you thought it was only good for supporting your winter immunity, then we have great news for you! Vitamin C is a must-have nutrient for when the weather is warmer too.
We talked to Kelly McGillivray, in-house Naturopath and nutrition expert, about its role in supporting skin health & immunity, and what other benefits this humble nutrient can bring you year-round.
Absolutely! It’s easy to think of vitamin C just in terms of winter wellness and yes, it is great for supporting our immune system. But the truth is we need it all year round – every day in fact! There are two key reasons for this. One, vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin which means we don’t store it for long in our body. Two, humans are one of the few creatures on earth that can’t make it naturally in our bodies. For these two reasons alone, it is essential we get it wherever we can every day for health.
Plus, we don’t just get sick in winter! There are over 200 different viruses that can cause cold symptoms. Whilst many of these viruses survive best in the cold, dry weather of winter, the viral landscape shifts in warmer weather favouring other viruses that can also make us miserable. If you combine already irritated mucous membranes aggravated by springtime allergens you end up with nasal passages and lungs that may be more susceptible to catching a virus during warmer months.
Seasonal allergies for starters! Those annoying pollens that can leave eyes and noses red and streaming is just one reason for additional vitamin C on account of its natural antihistamine properties. Taking it along with bioflavonoids such as quercetin will provide much-needed support for those who suffer through the allergen season.
Vitamin C is also one of our key anti-stress nutrients. In fact, our adrenal glands contain the highest concentration of the vitamin anywhere in the body! It is essential for making stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and we tend to use up a great deal of vitamin C (that must be replenished) when we are under stress.
But you might be wondering what is there possibly to be stressed about in summer with all the fun & good times in store? Well, stress is not just our emotional response to challenges. Physical stress – such as heat stress – triggers the same kind of stress response as looming deadlines or traffic jams. When heat and humidity are high, our bodies are put under considerable stress. We can lose essential nutrients as we sweat more in an attempt to keep cool. Vitamin C helps the body operate optimally as temperatures rise, shortening the time it takes to acclimatise to hotter weather as well as reducing the negative effects of heat stress.
We also need vitamin C to absorb iron from food which is necessary for the life-sustaining oxygenation of our blood.
And by no means least, it’s a critical component for making collagen – the most prevalent protein in the human body which forms the ‘scaffolding’ that gives skin, muscle, tendon, ligaments and bones their strength and structure.
It’s a skin saviour! Summer is a prime time for skin damage, and vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant which helps protect skin against sun damage and premature aging, such as pigmentation changes, fine lines & wrinkles, and changes in skin texture. UV radiation causes oxidative damage – the formation of highly unstable molecules (commonly known as ‘free radicals’) that damage skin cells causing a breakdown in collagen which provides the structural support of skin. Vitamin C helps to neutralise these unstable molecules at the cellular level and stimulates the body to repair damaged skin cells and can help to protect skin from precancerous changes caused by UV exposure.
Topically, Vitamin C is used to help brighten skin and even out the complexion to reduce the look of discolouration, spots and redness. It also helps trigger the skin to produce more collagen and elastin which cause skin cells to appear firm and plump – the look of youth. Aging causes a decline in the vitamin C content of the top two layers of skin, the epidermis and dermis, as does exposure to pollutants such as cigarette smoke and UV light. Supplemental Vitamin C as well as topical application can help to reduce the damage caused by sun exposure that hastens the appearance of prematurely aged skin.
Our appearance benefits from additional oral vitamin C in other ways as well. Easy bruising, broken capillaries and tiny red dots that appear on the skin can all be signs that we are not getting enough vitamin C, as can slow wound healing and bleeding gums. So to improve our overall health as well as our skin’s appearance, vitamin C is essential.
Our requirement for vitamin C is going to change depending on our current needs. Nutritionally, to avoid deficiency that could lead to scurvy, for instance, we need only as little as 20mg a day. This is a tiny quantity, about what would be found in half a small orange.
But there is a big difference between what we need to avoid deficiency and what we need for optimal health! The Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs) typically refer to the amount of a nutrient required daily to avoid deficiency. In New Zealand for Vitamin C this equals 45mg a day for adult men and women.
On the other hand, the ODA – or Optimal Daily Allowance – is what nutrition experts agree is beneficial to prevent chronic ill health and support optimal wellbeing. In real terms, this means the absolute minimum amount of Vitamin C we should take in daily is 200mg, but the optimal amount we need to help prevent poor health is upwards of 1000mg daily. This is best split into 2 or 3 doses over the day.
If someone is unwell, a smoker, pregnant or breastfeeding, convalescing from illness or surgery, or is under ongoing stress, their need for vitamin C is going to be even higher! A good way to test how much you need is to dose according to your bowel tolerance – i.e. how much vitamin C you can tolerate before you start to experience a loose bowel (diarrhoea). When you are unwell or have higher nutritional requirements, your bowel tolerance increases so you can consume higher doses without triggering a loose bowel because your body recognises how much more is needed.
The best way to ensure you are consuming enough vitamin C is to ensure you are eating a clean, high-nutrient diet. Be aware though that Vitamin C is very sensitive to light and heat which means cooking destroys a lot from your food. This makes summer an ideal time to consume more raw fruit and veg that have high levels.
However, it’s not always practical or possible to eat as well as we need to, and raw food can be tough on compromised digestive systems. At these times, the convenience of supplementation is a great option. In addition, there are advances with vitamin C supplementation that mean you can benefit from a better-absorbed form of vitamin C, one that is easier on the stomach (pure ascorbic acid – the chemical name for vitamin C can cause stomach upsets in some people) or lasts longer in the body, all of which provide additional advantages over what can be obtained from food.
The Ester-C® form of vitamin C, for instance, is a buffered form that is easier on the digestive systems of sensitive people. It’s also well absorbed and lasts longer – up to 24 hours – in our immune-fighting white blood cells compared to conventional vitamin C which typically only lasts for up to 4 hours. Ester-C® is the preferred form when you are wanting to super-charge your immune health plus keep your skin stores high to improve its youthful appearance.
Thanks to Kelly for answering our questions!
If you have a question about your immunity or Vitamin C, ask us on Facebook or give our friendly naturopaths a call!
The Nutra-Life team x