Diseases & Conditions

Ascorbic Acid - Vitamin C

Overview & Description

Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin. Water-soluble vitamins are carried throughout the body in the bloodstream. They are, for the most part, not stored in the body. The body uses what it needs and the rest is passed in the urine.


Scurvy is a disease caused by a deficiency of vitamin C. It causes open sores in the mouth, loose teeth, and soft gums. In the 1700s, it was discovered that sailors who often drank lime juice did not get scurvy. Sailors who did not drink lime juice had a 50% chance of dying from scurvy. It was not until 200 years later that vitamin C was found to prevent scurvy.

Severe deficiency of vitamin C can lead to scurvy. However, severe deficiency and scurvy are rare in developed nations. Vitamin C deficiency is often caused by the following factors:

  • a diet that does not include enough fruits and vegetables
  • excess alcohol intake
  • smoking
  • stress
  • Pregnancy, breastfeeding, gastrointestinal diseases, and hyperthyroidism increase the need for vitamin C. Inflammatory diseases, burns, and surgery can also increase a person's need for vitamin C.

    Following are signs of vitamin C deficiency:

  • inflamed gums
  • reduced resistance to colds and infections
  • skin problems
  • slow wound healing
  • stomach disorders
  • Consuming more than 2,000 mg per day of vitamin C can cause stomach upset and diarrhea and possibly other adverse effects. It is not known for sure if mega doses of antioxidants, such as vitamin C, can help decrease the risk for chronic diseases. Much of the current information is conflicting. More research is needed. In a recent review of current studies, it was suggested that an intake of 90 mg per day provides the optimal health benefits related to heart disease and cancer.

    It is unclear from studies whether physical activity increases a person's requirement for vitamin C. There is no substantial evidence that mental or emotional stress increases the need for vitamin C for healthy people.

    Many studies have been done to determine the effect vitamin C has on the common cold. Review of these studies shows that larger doses of vitamin C, 500 mg per day to 1,000 mg per day, for example, have no significant effect on preventing colds. These doses may, however, reduce the duration and severity of a cold for some people. This may be because at high doses, vitamin C may act like an antihistamine.

    The recommended dietary allowances, or RDAs, for vitamin C are 75 mg per day for women and 90 mg per day for men. Smokers are advised to consume an extra 35 mg daily. This is because smoking depletes the body of some vitamin C. The RDA for pregnant women is 85 mg per day. Women who breastfeed should consume 120 mg per day. The Third National Health and Nutrition Survey, also called NHANES III, showed that 11% of nonsmoking women and 21% of nonsmoking men in the United States do not get enough vitamin C.

    Because vitamin C cannot be stored in the body, it is important to eat foods rich in vitamin C daily. Eating a well-balanced diet, including at least five servings of fruit and vegetables every day, should provide all the body needs.

    Functions and Sources

    What food source is the nutrient found in?

    The best sources of vitamin C are fruits and vegetables. Citrus fruits such as oranges, grapefruit, and tangerines are excellent sources. Other good sources of vitamin C are as follows:

  • broccoli, cabbage, and brussels sprouts
  • melons, kiwifruit, and strawberries
  • sweet peppers, potatoes with skin, and tomatoes
  • Here are some guidelines for eating fruits and vegetables with a high vitamin C content.

  • Choose fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables over canned products.
  • Cook vegetables only for a short time in a small amount of water.
  • Eat raw vegetables.
  • Eat sliced fruits and vegetables shortly after they're cut.
  • Keep fruits and vegetables refrigerated, and eat them while they're fresh.
  • How does the nutrient affect the body?

    Vitamin C is important to many body functions. It helps the body do the following:

  • build and maintain collagen, which are fibers that connect tendons, ligaments, bones, and cartilage
  • heal wounds and bruises
  • keep the immune system healthy
  • maintain healthy bones, teeth, gums, red blood cells, and blood vessels
  • repair bone fractures
  • Vitamin C may reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases by acting as an antioxidant. Antioxidants help the body fight the effects of free radicals, which can damage the body's cells.


    Author:Susan Harrow Rago, RD, MS
    Date Written:
    Editor:Ballenberg, Sally, BS
    Edit Date:06/30/01
    Reviewer:Barbara Mallari, RN, BSN, PHN
    Date Reviewed:06/11/01


    Sources Used: Somer, E., MA, RD. & Health Media of America. (1995). The Essential Guide To Vitamins and Minerals (2nd ed.). New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Duyff, R., MS, RD, CFCS. (1996). The American Dietetic Association's Complete Food & Nutrition Guide. Minnesota: Chronimed Publishing. Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences'. (April 10, 2000). Press Release, "Antioxidants' Role in Chronic Disease Prevention Still Uncertain; Huge Doses Considered Risky" Dietary Reference Intakes of Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Selenium and Carotenoids, 2000, National Academy Press. Anderson, J., MS, Deskins, B., PhD RD. (1995), The Nutrition Bible, William Morrow and Co., Inc.