Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is an essential nutrient that plays a crucial role in various bodily functions, including the production of collagen, wound healing, and immunity.
As an antioxidant, vitamin C acts as a protective shield for your cells against the harmful effects of free radicals. These unstable molecules are formed during the digestion of food or exposure to hazardous substances such as tobacco smoke and radiation and are associated with several health issues including cancer, heart disease, and other diseases.
So how do you ensure your body is getting enough vitamin C? We’re breaking this down and how to know if you might be deficient in this crucial vitamin.
What causes vitamin C deficiency?
Vitamin C deficiency is typically caused by a lack of dietary intake of Vitamin C (ascorbic acid). There are several factors that can contribute to a deficiency, including:
- Poor diet: A diet that is low in fruits and vegetables, which are the main dietary sources of Vitamin C, can lead to a deficiency.
- Malabsorption: Certain medical conditions, such as Crohn's disease or celiac disease, can interfere with the body's ability to absorb Vitamin C.
- Alcoholism: Alcohol abuse can interfere with the absorption of Vitamin C and also increase the body's requirement for the nutrient.
- Smoking: Smoking can increase the body's need for Vitamin C and also decrease the amount of Vitamin C available in the body.
- Aging: As people age, they may have a decreased ability to absorb Vitamin C from their diets.
- Certain medications: Certain medications, such as oral contraceptives and corticosteroids, can increase the body's need for Vitamin C or interfere with its absorption.
What are the symptoms of vitamin C deficiency?
Although it’s fairly rare to be deficient in vitamin C, especially in countries that are well-developed with plenty of fresh produce, it is possible. If your body is lacking vitamin C, there are some subtle signs you may notice.
Because vitamin C plays an important role in your body’s collagen production, you may begin to experience rough, bumpy skin if your vitamin levels are low. This skin condition, known as keratosis pilaris, may take some time to develop, but it’s typically resolved with a vitamin C supplement.
Abnormally bent body hair
One of the more odd effects of vitamin C deficiency is a change in the shape of body hair. If you’re lacking vitamin C, you may notice your hair beginning to grow in a bent or coiled shape as a result of defects in the protein structure of the hair. Usually, these abnormalities will resolve within a month of treatment.
Mishapen finger nails
The health of your nails can often be an indicator of underlying health issues such as vitamin deficiencies. In the case of a vitamin C deficiency, nails may appear spoon-shaped, thin, and brittle. It’s also possible to notice red spots or vertical lines in the nail bed.
Slow healing wounds
A lack of vitamin C can disrupt the formation of collagen in the body, which affects tissue formation. This can result in slower wound healing as a later symptom of deficiency. However, it is typically preceded by other signs of deficiency, so you may notice them first.
A bruise occurs when blood vessels under the skin break and cause blood to seep into the surrounding tissue. As a result of inadequate collagen production, weak blood vessels are a hallmark of vitamin C deficiency, leading to frequent and easy bruising.
How to improve vitamin C ceficiency
Improving vitamin C deficiency involves increasing your dietary intake of the nutrient. Some ways to do this include eating more fruits and vegetables, taking a supplement, quitting smoking, and improving digestion.
Because fruits and vegetables are the primary sources of vitamin C, this is an excellent place to start. Some good options include oranges, strawberries, kiwis, bell peppers, and spinach.
If you have a medical condition that interferes with the absorption of vitamin C, such as Crohn's disease or celiac disease, treating the underlying condition can help improve your vitamin C levels.
What diseases cause vitamin C deficiency?
Vitamin C deficiency can be caused by several medical conditions that interfere with the body's ability to absorb the nutrient or increase its requirement. Some of these conditions include:
- Scurvy: This is a rare disease from lack of vitamin C in the diet. If left untreated, scurvy can lead to serious health problems and even death.
- Malabsorption syndromes: Certain medical conditions, such as Crohn's disease, celiac disease, and cystic fibrosis, can interfere with the body's ability to absorb vitamin C.
- Chronic kidney disease: The kidneys are responsible for processing and excreting vitamin C, and chronic kidney disease can impair this process.
- Hemodialysis: This is a treatment for kidney failure that can remove vitamin C from the body.
- Alcoholism: Alcohol abuse can interfere with the absorption of vitamin C and increase the body's requirement for it.
- Smoking: Smoking can decrease the amount of vitamin C available in the body and increase the body's requirement for it.
Who is most at risk for vitamin C deficiency?
Anyone can develop a vitamin C deficiency, but certain populations are at higher risk, including older adults, smokers, those with malabsorption syndromes, anyone with a limited diet, and individuals taking certain medications (such as corticosteroids).
If you think you’re suffering from vitamin C deficiency or are at a heightened risk of this or another vitamin deficiency, such as vitamin D or vitamin B12 it’s a good idea to talk to a medical provider. They can perform a blood test to determine your vitamin C levels and recommend the proper treatment based on your results.
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