Just around Christmas in 2008, JetBlue gave out free packets of Airborne (the immunity supplement du jour at the time) to weary travelers. Dissolved in water, the tablets make an effervescent drink loaded with vitamin C and a few other vitamins and minerals. The idea was that if you chugged enough of it while in the air (or chilling in the terminal) you’d keep germs at bay.
Unfortunately, JetBlue’s move probably didn’t prevent too many cases of the common cold. And a lot of us are just as well-meaning as the airline, in associating vitamin C directly with immunity. The truth is, while vitamin C is an incredibly powerful antioxidant that most of us need in our lives for optimal health, it’s actually not as effective as other supplements like zinc for boosting the immune system.
That doesn’t mean you should toss out those vitamin C gummies. On the contrary, if you’re not taking C, you probably should be! Read on to find out how to get more of it in your diet.
What does vitamin C do?
It’s easy to understand why vitamin C has become synonymous with wellness—it’s essential for the growth and repair of tissue in the body, and abundant in healthy foods like fruits and veggies.
What we know for sure is that C is essential for the creation of collagen, a protein the body uses to make skin, cartilage, tendons, and ligaments—and to block the effects of free radicals. Everything from environmental factors to processed food causes free radicals build up in the body and damage cells—and over time this accumulation can lead to chronic diseases like cancer and dementia, and can even speed up the visible signs of aging.
Yet because vitamin C is a water-soluble compound, our bodies don’t store it, so we need to replenish our supply pretty much daily.
For those recovering from surgery or a serious injury, getting enough daily vitamin C could be super important—but not necessarily for fighting infection. When the body is trying to piece itself back together, it’s creating more collagen than it is used to as it rebuilds tissue. This process in turn depletes more vitamin C, and because our bodies don’t store it, when it runs out, the body can’t create more collagen. That’s why doctors often recommend a vitamin C supplement to post-surgery patients, because without a little extra, production of connective tissue slows and that inhibits healing.
Wrinkles and aging
Aging and collagen go hand in hand. As we get older, we stop producing as much collagen; it’s one of the major causes of wrinkles, saggy skin, and overall aging. Good news, though! Vitamin C—whether taken in supplement form or applied topically—can improve the texture, tone, and look of skin. A few observational studies have linked a higher dietary intake of vitamin C to better-looking skin overall and fewer wrinkles. But topical vitamin C products, applied directly to skin for at least 12 weeks, improved the appearance of wrinkles, roughness of skin, and increased collagen production overall.
Interestingly enough, the antioxidant properties of vitamin C supplements can also aid in sun protection. So, popping one before heading to the beach won’t replace sunscreen, but it does limit the damage caused by ultraviolet (UV) light exposure.
Hardening of the arteries and high cholesterol are two of the biggest factors to pay attention to for the prevention of heart disease. Supplementing with vitamin C can significantly decrease concentrations of serum LDL cholesterol and triglyceride concentrations—both of which clog arteries. And there’s evidence that C can also improve the flexibility and malleability of blood vessel walls, which helps lower blood pressure.
In fact, one of the diets doctors most often recommend for preventing and treating high blood pressure is the DASH diet, which includes tons of antioxidant-packed fruits and vegetables, and in turn lots of vitamin C.
The biggy! So here’s the deal: Regular daily consumption of vitamin C can reduce the duration of a cold by about 24 hours. But studies have proven that chugging orange juice and downing Emergen-C as soon as you feel a tickle in your throat won’t keep you from getting sick. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, the only time C might boost the immune system enough to prevent illness is when it’s taken by people exercising in extreme environments (think skiers, marathon runners, and soldiers stationed in the Arctic).
Forms of vitamin C
You can find vitamin C in its natural form in fruits and veggies. The synthetic version, known as ascorbic acid, is what’s typically used in vitamin C capsules, chewables, and tablets. To get the maximum benefits, the recommended daily intake for adults is 250 to 500 milligrams twice a day, or about 1,000 milligrams a day, which is totally possible to get from eating fresh fruits and vegetables. Vitamin C is especially abundant in:
- Brussels sprouts
- Raw and cooked leafy greens (turnip greens, spinach)
- Red and green peppers
Remember that exposing produce to excessive heat may deplete vitamin C, because it’s light- and heat-sensitive. Store supplements in a cool, dry place to make sure they maintain their potency.
Do you need to supplement with C?
If you’re an athlete, healing from an injury, or don’t eat a balanced diet all the time, adding a vitamin C supplement into your daily routine could certainly be beneficial. Because it’s a water-soluble compound it’s almost impossible to take too much—if you do, you’ll eliminate the excess when you urinate. And if you’re concerned with the effects of aging, grabbing a cream or serum that’s formulated with vitamin C is definitely a good idea.
Moral of the story is that you need C in your life, either by way of a balanced diet or a supplement. Don’t just save it for air travel—get that daily dose for all around better health.
Illustration by Foley Wu