Vitamin C, Scurvy and the Sailors Nightmare.

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Vitamin C has always promised to be the Vitamin that cures all our coughs and sneezes, thought to boost our immune system and keep us healthy through the winter months, but is that all it can do? The answer is, NO! This small water -soluble vitamin is responsible for so much more.

What is Vitamin C?

Vitamin C is also known by the name Ascorbic acid. The word Ascorbic acid comes from the Latin ‘Scorbutus’, which was their medical term for the disease scurvy. Hence, ‘a-scorbic’, meaning anti-scurvy acid. The chemical structure of Vitamin C is C6H8O6, although it is almost never referred to as this. Vitamin C is a water soluble molecule that is associated with its structure. Vitamin C contains 4 hydroxyl groups (-OH), this is what causes it to be polar and thus, be able to dissolve in water. Moreover, it is very sensitive to heat, therefore baked or fried vegetables are less nutritious than the raw variety.

Due to its asymmetric carbon positions there are four isomers of the Vitamin. Isomers are compounds that contain the same chemical makeup and effect but in a different model, they are L-Ascorbic, D-Ascorbic, L-Isoascorbic, D-Isoascorbic. However, L-Ascorbic is used in the human body [1].

History of Vitamin C

Vitamin C has a very illustrious history predating the 16th century. During the exploration years of Colombus, a disease they named ‘scurvy’ plagued the ship’s fleet. The ship of Vasco Da Gama in 1490 even reported to have lost up to 60% of their men to scurvy. In those days,  Nutrition was not an area of study and food was scarce. They also had no means of preserving food, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. Instead they were living off of wholegrain crackers, butters and some meats. This led the sailors becoming particularly frightful of becoming deficient in Vitamin C, as it meant almost certain death. One sailor named Luis de Camoens wrote an extract on the disease at the time:

Never mind eyes dreary sight behald

Ghastly the mouth and gums enormous swell’d

And instant. Putrid like a dead man’s wound

Poisoned with foetid streams the air around’ [2]

Sir Lancaster had the brilliant idea of selling oranges and lemons to sailors which appeared to help in 1601. At this point scurvy was rife killing more men at sea than battle and other illnesses combined. By 1747 British Surgeon James Lind trialled the use of oranges and lemons as a treatment for Scurvy. He found that it seemed to cure the men on scientific trial. From that point he was able to sail without losing a single sailor to symptoms of Scurvy. However, the cause of this cure was unknown.

Finally, in 1928 scientists King and György founded an acid they named hexuronic acid. It was this acid that later in 1932, György was able to use to prevent Scurvy in a Guinea Pig. The structure of the molecule was determined by Haworth and Hirst, then in 1935 Reichstein was able to artificially synthesize the vitamin. Haworth and György were awarded the Nobel prize for there work in the discovery and research into Vitamin C [1].

Deficiency of Vitamin C

Although, the deficiency of Vitamin C will never be as prevalent as it once was, there is cause for concern in our generation’s health status'. A recent statistic found that only 21% of teenagers (13-19 years) consumed their 5-a-day [3] Fruits and vegetables are the most abundant source of Vitamin C. Another age group under concern are the seniors. A study conducted on elderly men showed that up to 20% were extremely deficient in Vitamin C [2].

The colloquial name for Vitamin C deficiency is ‘Scurvy’, its symptoms are as follows.

  • Irritability
  • Easy to Fatigue/Lack of Energy
  • Swelling of legs, and loss of sensation
  • Swelling and bleeding gums, leading to loss of teeth
  • Fever
  • Rapid Breathing
  • Loss of weight, and appetite
  • Plugging of the hair follicles
  • Death [4]

The progression of the disease is quite slow, it can take 60-90 days for deficiency symptoms to occur. It supposedly occurs in 4 stages,

1. fatigue symptoms

2. inflammation swelling and irritation

3. bleeding and rotting of the gums, hemorrhagic and gangrenous symptoms

4. fever and death [2].

What is Vitamin C used for in the body?

Vitamin C is absorbed in the small intestine, from there it is transported across the membrane into the plasma, where it travels to the cells. Once it reaches the normal cells it uses transporters SCVT1/2 (sodium-dependent Vitamin C transporters) to be absorbed. This can now be utilised.

One of the primary uses of Vitamin C is Iron metabolism. Not only does Vitamin C increase Iron’s availability in the body but it also helps the conversion from ferric (Fe3+) to ferrous form (Fe2+) so that it can be used in the body.

In addition, it is responsible for Energy Production. It does so by encouraging the conversion of amino acids lysine to carnitine. This supplies the energy organelle of the cell (mitochondria) with fatty acids chain, a secondary form of energy[1]. This explains why many people with scurvy suffer shortness of breath and muscles that are easy to fatigue.

It is an incredibly potent antioxidant. Antioxidants, do what their name suggests, prevent oxidation. Oxidation is a process within the body in which highly reactive free radical molecules steal electrons. This causes damage to DNA, proteins and lipids, and generates disease. Moreover, Vitamin C is tasked with regenerating Vitamin E another potent antioxidant.

Collagen is made as a result of Vitamin C intake, which explains the symptoms of skin plugging in scurvy. Collagen is made up of a number of protein chains, one of which is hydroxyproline, a hydroxylated version of proline. The hydroxylation process cannot occur without the presence of Vitamin C [5].

Our Immune System is also supported by Vitamin C. It enters neutrophils, a specialised form of white blood cell via glucose transporters GLUT1/3. In here Vitamin C is thought to protect and promote the proteins and enzymes that contribute to us fighting a pathogen.

What foods is it found in? How to Boost your Vitamin C?

Foods abundant in Vitamin C include:

  • Bell Peppers
  • Mangoes
  • Strawberries
  • Kale
  • Spinach
  • Oranges/lemons/limes
  • Raspberries
  • Radishes
  • Parsley
  • Broccoli [6]

Vitamin C is always recommended via supplementation form as it provides a non-toxic but highly potent dose of Vitamin C, that is very efficient at absorbing. This can help to give an extra spring in your step, boost your immune system or Iron content.

  1. Mann.J, Truswell.S. (2012). 14: Vitamin C and E. In: Mann,J. Truswell,S. Essentials of Human Nutrition. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pg. 236-242.
  2. Mayberry, J A. (2004). Scurvy and Vitamin C. Available: https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/8852139/Mayberry.html?sequence=2.
  3. Immediate Media. (2016). NEARLY TWO THIRDS OF POPULATION DO NOT EAT 5-A-DAY – INDICATES BBC GOOD FOOD STUDY. Available: http://www.immediate.co.uk/nearly-two-thirds-of-population-do-not-eat-5-a-day-indicates-bbc-good-food-study/.
  4. Crosta.P. (2015). Nutrition / Diet Scurvy: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments. Available: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/155758.php.
  5. Mcintosh.J. (2015). Dermatology Cosmetic Medicine / Plastic Surgery Seniors / Aging What is collagen? What does collagen do?. Available: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/262881.php.
  6. DK London (2015). Neal's Yard Remedies Healing Foods. London: A Penguin Random House. Pg.338-339.

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