If you can name any antioxidant off the top of your head, it’s probably vitamin C. A super-star in immune health and skin-care alike, it’s probably one of the most popular supplements out there. Here, find out when—and how—to take vitamin C to maximize its benefits.
Why Vitamin C Matters
You already know vitamin C—a.k.a. ascorbic acid—is key for healthy immune function. (Hence why it’s so popular in the colder months.)
Plus, it’s also key for collagen production, which is essential for connective tissue health and wound healing.
C also offers cardiovascular benefits: “Vitamin C also supports healthy blood pressure and artery health, and increases blood flow to the brain,” adds Anthony Balduzzi, N.M.D., founder of The Fit Father Project and The Fit Mother Project.
Supplementing With Vitamin C
Since our body can’t produce vitamin C on its own, we have to obtain it through diet or supplementation. And, since our bodies can store vitamin C, we have to consume it regularly to meet our needs, explains Taz Bhatia, M.D., integrative health expert and author of Super Woman RX. (Men generally need 90 milligrams a day, while women need 75.)
Many fruits and vegetables—most notably bell peppers, kiwi, citrus fruits, kale, and Brussels sprouts—contain vitamin C. True vitamin C deficiencies are rare in the developed world. However, many of us don’t eat enough produce to meet all of our nutrient needs.
Plus, some people—including pregnant and breastfeeding women, smokers, those with kidney issues, or those exposed to harmful environments—have extra-high C needs. In all of these cases, vitamin C supplements can help.
According to Balduzzi, vegans and vegetarians may also want to consider a vitamin C supplement. “People on meat-free diets tend to be low in iron,” he says. “So, because vitamin C increases our non-heme iron absorption as much as four-fold, supplementing with C can help increase iron stores.” (That’s why you’ll find some supplements that contain both iron and vitamin C, like The Vitamin Shoppe brand Iron Complex).
Though you can supplement with as much as 2,000 milligrams of vitamin C per day, most doctors recommend somewhere between 50 and 200 milligrams if you need a supplement.
The Right Time To Take Vitamin C
As with most supplements, when and how you take your vitamin C influences its effectiveness.
“Because vitamin C is water-soluble, it doesn’t need fat to be fully absorbed and used by the body,” says Bhatia. So, while you don’t technically need to take vitamin C with food, many products recommend that you do. Taking vitamin C (especially higher doses) on an empty stomach can cause minor irritation to your GI tract. People with sensitive stomachs may even experience cramping, gas, or diarrhea.
The key: Take your C whenever you’ll consistently remember to do so. “For most people that tends to be in the morning with breakfast,” says Bhatia. However, since vitamin C won’t make you groggy or extra-energized, you can take it with your lunch, an afternoon snack, or dinner.
However, there is one caveat to keep in mind: “Some research suggests that taking vitamin C after your workouts can actually negate their effectiveness,” says Balduzzi.
Why? Vitamin C—especially in high doses—can hamper inflammation that occurs in muscle cells during and after a tough workout. While we typically label inflammation as ‘bad,’ our muscles need this exercise-related inflammation to adapt and grow.
In fact, the authors of one large study found that vitamin C supplementation negatively impacted training efficiency. They urged caution when combining antioxidant supplements with exercise—particularly endurance exercise.
Though these studies looked at a higher dose of C (1,000 milligrams), competitive athletes and fitness enthusiasts should still take care to space out workouts and any vitamin C supplements—just to be safe. “I typically suggest people wait at least six hours after their workout to take any vitamin C or other antioxidant supplements,” says Balduzzi.
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