You’ve probably popped a vitamin C-loaded tablet before flying or downed an extra glass of orange juice when you felt the sniffles coming on, but vitamin C does so much more than support your immune system, affecting everything from how well you absorb other nutrients and respond to injury to what your skin looks like.
Vitamin C may not be brand new or as trendy as reishi mushrooms, but it’s just as important as ever. Here’s everything you need to know about vitamin C, including the many ways it benefits your body, how much you need a day, and how to get your fill.
Key Health Benefits
Also known as ‘ascorbic acid,’ vitamin C is revered for its role in keeping our immune system healthy—which is why we talk about it so often during cold and flu season. Vitamin C is one of the most potent antioxidants out there, fighting off damaging particles called free radicals that can put our body in a state of oxidative stress, which has been implicated in illness and diseases like diabetes, Parkinson’s, and cancer. Plus, vitamin C can also help other antioxidants (like vitamin E) regenerate and keep fighting the good fight.
Vitamin C also plays a role in the formation of collagen, a protein that’s crucial for connective tissues like skin, tendons, ligaments, and blood vessels, making it essential for our body to heal injuries or wounds, says dietitian Amy Goodson, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., L.D. In this same way, vitamin C is involved in maintaining healthy bones and teeth. (It’s no wonder that scurvy, the condition that occurs because of a severe lack of vitamin C, involves gum disease, bruising, and skin issues.)
Another key function of vitamin C is that it boosts our absorption of plant-based, or ‘non-heme,’ iron, which is about 10 percent less bioavailable than animal-based (‘heme’) iron. Iron helps carry oxygen to our muscles, cells and organs, and without an ample supply, our various body systems have less oxygen to work with, often leading to fatigue or lightheadedness. (This makes eating vitamin C—and pairing it with iron-containing foods—especially important for vegetarians and vegans.)
Long-term research suggests that those who eat higher amounts of antioxidant-packed foods have a reduced risk of high blood pressure, while low intakes have been linked with increased risk of peripheral artery disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Not only does vitamin C bolster the function and health of body systems we can’t see, but it can also have a huge impact on one we can: our skin. You see, the free radicals that wreak havoc on our cells also affect our appearance, with ultraviolet light and pollution damaging the collagen in our skin and leading to premature wrinkles and dark spots, according to Joshua Zeichner, M.D., Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. One of our greatest weapons against these negative skin effects? You guessed it: vitamin C.
“Topically, vitamin C can help attain more youthful-looking skin with a brighter, more even skin tone,” adds Michelle Henry, M.D., clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College. The antioxidant targets two key factors in the aging process: It promotes healthy collagen production and inhibits enzyme action that spurs the formation of melanin (the pigment that adds color to skin and causes ‘dark spots’).
A study published in the American Journal for Clinical Nutrition also found that middle-aged women who consumed more vitamin C were more likely to have more youthful-looking skin (marked by less dryness and appearance of wrinkles).
How To Load Up
The National Institute of Health recommends 90 milligrams of vitamin C per day for men and 75 milligrams per day for women—but those who smoke may need an additional 35 milligrams per day. Plus, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding need 85 milligrams and 120 milligrams a day, respectively, according to Goodson.
Our body can’t produce this vitamin on its own, which means we have to get it through our diet or supplementation to reap its widespread benefits. And since vitamin C is water-soluble, it can’t be stored in the body, so we need to consume it regularly.
Luckily, many fruits and veggies are loaded with vitamin C, with red bell peppers (95 milligrams per half cup), oranges (70 milligrams per medium fruit), and broccoli (51 milligrams per cooked half cup) ranking as some of the top sources. There’s also a wide range of C supplements for people who aren’t always able to eat well-balanced meals.
To maximize your iron absorption, Goodson recommends adding a vitamin C-containing food (like citrus fruit, tomatoes, or strawberries) to meals that feature plant-based sources of iron (like spinach, nuts, and beans). For example, if you’re having a spinach salad topped with nuts and seeds, top it with mandarin orange or strawberry slices. You can also find supplements containing this important combo, like The Vitamin Shoppe’s Iron Complex.
If you want to slather vitamin C’s goodness straight onto your skin, Zeichner recommends reaching for serums, which contain high concentrations of the vitamin and are designed to enhance its delivery into the skin. (We recommend Derma E’s Vitamin C Concentrated Serum.)
One warning: “Vitamin C does not always play nicely with other ingredients,” says Zeichner, who doesn’t recommend combining vitamin C products with topical retinoids or alpha hydroxy acids. He also urges caution if you have very sensitive skin, since vitamin C may cause some irritation.