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What is the Function of Vitamin C?

By C. Mitchell
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Vitamin c is a nutrient that is essential to human growth and development. The function of vitamin c in the body is varied: the vitamin is very important to the maintenance of connective tissues and cartilage, and it can act as an antioxidant. It helps keep the immune system strong, plays a role in many of the body’s enzyme activities and conversions, and, applied topically, can improve the skin’s elasticity and act as a natural sun defense.

One of the most important roles vitamin c plays in the body is the maintenance of tissues and tissue repair. The tissues connecting organs, tendons and ligaments allowing movement, and scar tissue that forms after injury, are all supported by vitamin c. Vitamin c also acts as an antioxidant by enabling the body’s enzymes to target and destroy free radicals. An equally important function of vitamin c is immune strength: the vitamin is essential to the proper functioning of the immune system, which helps ward off sickness and disease. Vitamin c deficiency can cause numerous health problems, but those problems can be avoided by consuming foods with naturally high levels of vitamin c, including most fruits and vegetables, or by purchasing vitamin c supplements.

Just because vitamin c is essential does not necessarily mean that consuming a great deal of vitamin c will improve health. Vitamin c supplements are commonly promoted as a sort of cure-all for any ailment, and are regularly sold with promises of boosted immune strength, the power to ward off cancers and chronic diseases, and numerous other pro-health claims. Whether or not these claims have any scientific truth is a subject of great controversy.

Most governments around the world have set modest recommendations for daily vitamin c intake in line with how much vitamin c a person should consume naturally from a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. As of 2010, the United States Department of Agriculture recommended a daily dose of at least 75 milligrams for women, and 90 milligrams for men. The United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency recommended 40 milligrams per day for all adults, and the World Health Organization recommended between 25 and 30 milligrams per person per day.

Vitamin c is water soluble, which means that excess vitamin c in the body is easily flushed out. This function of vitamin c makes it hard to overdose, and there are relatively few side effects of consuming too much. It also means that vitamin c must be consumed on a daily basis, however, since the body has no capacity for storing up extra reserves.

The vitamin can also be used externally. Cosmetics companies particularly have sought to capitalize on the preservative function of vitamin c by adding it as an ingredient to topical lotions and creams that promise to slow environmental damage to the skin, renew skin, and reduce wrinkles. In high enough concentrations, the collagen-creating function of vitamin c that is so essential to internal tissue maintenance can sometimes help improve skin regeneration and elasticity, and the vitamin has been shown to block harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun. The results vary by individual, however. There is little scientific evidence supporting vitamin c as a universal wrinkle-reducer, and vitamin c creams alone should not be relied upon to protect the skin from the sun or any other harmful environmental elements.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By MrsPramm — On Nov 06, 2014

@KoiwiGal - I just want to point out that fruit and vegetables are not the only place you can get vitamin C. It's also available in some kinds of meat, like liver and kidneys, and in some tubers like sweet potato. This is how people who live in places where not many, or any, plants grow are still able to survive without vitamin C.

I also wanted to mention that if you are low on iron, one of the functions of vitamin C is to increase the uptake of iron, so eating foods with vitamin C with red meat can be helpful for that reason as well.

By KoiwiGal — On Nov 06, 2014

@croydon - People can be stupid about food though, because it's not always easy to trace cause and effect. Even the sailors were at one point, because there were periods when it was very well known that certain foods would prevent scurvy. One of the reasons the British became known as "limeys" was because their sailors would bring limes on the journey in order to keep their vitamin C levels high (although they didn't know that was the exact vitamin they needed) and I know that there were plants that ended up becoming endangered and extinct on islands because sailors knew eating them would prevent scurvy as well.

But for some reason the lore seemed to come and go and scurvy would get blamed on entirely different causes, and sailors would go through a fad of ignoring the reasoning that fruits or green vegetables could prevent it.

By croydon — On Nov 05, 2014

Apparently there have been cases of people suffering from scurvy in modern societies because they are trying to stick to protein-rich diets that don't include any fruit. They are essentially doing to themselves what used to happen to sailors on long voyages, even though back then they didn't know any better.

Vitamin C is actually incredibly easy to get in the modern diet, because we have so much fresh and dried fruit available and vitamin C is added into a lot of different kinds of drinks as well. If all else fails you can have a vitamin C supplement. So there's really no excuse to not have enough vitamin C.

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