Decoding Vitamin C, The Immunity-Booster That Everyone’s Obsessed About

What the supplement offers and how it works to stay healthy.

Annabelle Dcosta

It’s official, vitamin C was 2020’s hot new fave, and continues to be so in 2021 too.  As the go-to cure for seasonal colds and flu, it became the ideal candidate to boost our immunity amidst the threat of COVID-19. So much so that, pharmacy store shelves that usually hold vitamin C supplements were bare, and even online vendors reported that their vitamin C supplies were unavailable.

Our sabzi-wallas, little aware of the immunity-boosting benefits of vitamin-C rich foods, saw a high demand for amla and lemons. Wellness and healthcare brands reported a spike in the sale of immunity boosters, particularly those containing vitamin C. That’s not all – according to Google India, the overall increase in searches for vitamin C during 2020 was an astonishing 150 per cent.

Sure, vitamin C has a lot of health benefits—just like all other vitamins and minerals. However, if you’re guilty of buying into the vitamin C’s COVID-19 healing powers—blame social media for spreading the misinformation — we’ve got some bad news for you.

No, Vitamin C is not a miracle cure for COVID-19

There is no scientific evidence pointing toward vitamin C’s effectiveness in fighting or preventing the risk of COVID-19. Both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have debunked vitamin C’s link with coronavirus. The only way to minimise the chances of contracting the respiratory tract infection is to take preventive measures—social distancing, mask-wearing and frequent handwashing.

Both Mumbai-based nutritionist Shirin Kapadia and nutrition consultant Sangeeta Khanna agree that since there are no side effects (unless you’re overdosing on pills), vitamin C can’t cause any harm, but it would be wrong to presume that it is the ultimate cure.

So what does vitamin C offer?

Unlike plants, our bodies don't make vitamin C, but we need it for immune function, bone structure, iron absorption, and healthy skin, hair and bones. “Without vitamin C, our body could fall apart,” Khanna tells us. According to the Science History Institute, vitamin C deficiency is known to cause gums to bleed and teeth to fall out. In extreme cases, it can cause internal hemorrhaging leading to eventual mortality. This is proof that vitamin C plays an important role in our body's healing process. It helps protect the body from the effects of free radicals (the molecules produced when the body breaks down food), explains Kapadia.

However, vitamin C is best known as an immunity superstar. Thanks to Nobel Laureate Dr Linus Pauling, one of the first to speak up, in the 1970s, about vitamin C's immunity-boosting benefits including preventing common cold and illnesses such as cancer and heart disease. Since then, studies have found that, although vitamin C doesn't appear to make you any less likely to catch a cold, it may help you recover faster and address the severity of the symptoms. For instance, a 2013 article on Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews suggests that vitamin C could reduce the duration of colds by 8 per cent in adults and 14 per cent in children.

Besides, when vitamin C is applied topically it could act as a good antioxidant and help in protecting the skin from UV damage, stimulating collagen production, and removing dark spots, shares Dr Jaishree Sharad, dermatologist and founder, Skinfiniti Clinic, Mumbai. However, to reap the skin benefits of vitamin C, Sharad suggests using serums or moisturisers that also have vitamin E aka ferulic acid, as when used together they could work wonders on the skin.

Where do I get my vitamin C from?

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Citrus fruits are best known as a rich source of vitamin C, however, Kapadia tells us that foods such as amla, kiwis, potatoes, cabbage, broccoli, spinach, drumsticks, bell peppers, strawberries and tomatoes are also great sources. Besides, did you know that almost all popular souring agents used in India—think kokum, tamarind and mangoes – are good sources of vitamin C as well?

Like with most foods, consuming them right is the only way to reap the maximum health benefits of vitamin C. Cooking vitamin C-rich foods or storing them for a long time reduces their effectiveness. Since it is heat-sensitive and water-soluble, the longer you cook, the more vitamin C they lose, notes an article published in April 2018 in the journal Food Science and Biotechnology.

The article suggests microwaving vitamin C-rich foods as an alternative to boiling for better nutrient-retention. The best bet would, however, be consuming them raw. That said, it’s also important to include vitamin C-rich fruits and veggies in our day-to-day meals since our bodies cannot store the water-soluble vitamin efficiently, explains Khanna.

How much vitamin C do I need?

The recommended dietary allowance for men is 90 milligrams (mg) per day, and for women, it is 75 mg per day. Most of us can achieve the recommended daily amount of vitamin C by simply eating a large orange (97 mg) or kiwi (92 mg), though smokers may need a slightly higher intake as, according to the National Institute of Health, smoking can deplete the body's vitamin C.

While the chances of you ever naturally over-dosing on Vitamin C is rare, but in case that does happen, it is unlikely to hurt you -- excess gets excreted in our urine rather than getting stored in the body, explains Kapadia. You still need to watch out if you’re taking supplements that contain between 500 and 1,000 mg of vitamin C, which could result in stomach upset, diarrhea, nausea, fatigue or cramps, warn health experts. This is why it's important to discuss your vitamin C requirements with your doctor.

Photo: Shutterstock

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