A vitamin C deficiency is a medical condition in which a person doesn’t have what’s known scientifically as “critical thresholds” of ascorbic acid. Vitamin C is known chemically as ascorbic acid, and this compound is very important for a range of bodily functions. It helps build and maintain healthy bones and teeth, for instance, and is also important to skin health; collagen, cartilage, and many muscle fibers also depend on it for proper functioning, and it plays a big role in wound healing and blood clotting, too. Humans don’t synthesize it on their own, which means that people need to eat foods that have it or else take supplements. Most fruits and vegetables have high concentrations. People who don’t get enough are at risk for short-term problems like fatigue and certain skin problems, but longer-term deficiencies can lead to more serious conditions like anemia and scurvy. The condition is most commonly diagnosed through blood testing, and it’s usually treated with controlled supplementation and, in some cases, other vitamin therapies and dietary changes.
Why the Vitamin is Important
Ascorbic acid is usually considered essential to human health. It is rich in collagen, which helps skin elasticity, hair growth, and fingernail strength and durability. When people get hurt, the vitamin’s proteins help promote rapid recovery and healing, particularly where scar tissue and blood clotting are concerned. The vitamin also helps keep teeth and bones strong, and plays a very important role in immune strength — it boosts the immune system and helps people ward off sicknesses more effectively.
How to Get It
Although it’s very important to health, the human body does not actually produce its own stores of this vitamin the way it produces many if not most other truly essential nutrients. This means that people have to eat foods that contain it, or else take supplements to boost their own stores. Most researchers believe that people need a more or less constant supply of vitamin-rich foods in order to get the most benefits. The body can’t usually store up excess supplies. Consuming vast quantities at once won’t usually protect a person for a long time, in other words — in most cases the excess will simply be flushed out, usually in the urine.
Healthcare professionals usually recommend that people eat foods high in this vitamin every day. Citrus fruits are some of the most popular choices, but most fruits and vegetables contain it in significant amounts. The highest concentrations are usually found in cantaloupe, kiwi, mango, and most berries. Broccoli and many legumes are also good sources. People who aren’t able to eat enough of these foods can sometimes boost their intake with prepared supplements. Pills and capsules are sold in many health food stores, and powered drink mixes are also popular in many places. Most multivitamins also contain it.
Instances of Minor Deficiencies
Vitamin C deficiencies can be difficult to detect at first, since the symptoms aren’t usually very severe. People who aren’t getting enough of this nutrient often feel unusually tired, and may also develop dry, itchy skin. Their hair often becomes brittle and prone to splitting, and the fingernails often become soft and may peel or rip easily. Most of these symptoms can be reversed by introducing vitamin-rich foods or supplements to the diet, and there aren’t usually any long-term consequences.
Severe vitamin C deficiency is usually defined as a deficiency that has gone on for months or even years at a time. The body can usually function on low or reduced levels of the vitamin for a short while, but the longer the shortage goes, the worse the symptoms usually become. One of the more serious consequences is anemia, which is clinically defined as an iron shortage in the blood but is linked to vitamin C because the vitamin plays a part in helping manufacture red blood cells. When there isn’t enough of the vitamin, blood cell production often dips, and people can become anemic as a consequence. Anemia that results from this sort of deficiency can lead to extreme tiredness, memory problems, and a tingling or numbness in the hands and feet.
Some people are in a higher-risk category for developing vitamin C deficiency anemia than others. People who are malnourished are the most at risk. Those that suffer from hyperthyroidism or people who smoke may develop it as well, since both of these factors reduce the ability of the body to absorb the vitamin.
Scurvy is another possible result of severe deficiency. This disease was most common many years ago, and is thought to have developed most profoundly in the heyday of sea commerce when sailors would spend weeks or months on board ships with essentially no access to fresh fruits or vegetables. The disease still occurs today, though it is most common in impoverished communities and in the developing world.
The most common sufferers in industrialized nations are the elderly who do not have a well balanced diet and may not eat enough of any type of food; people who eat primarily fast food are also sometimes at risk. Infants who are exclusively fed cow's milk have also been known to develop the condition because the vitamin C in cow's milk is usually destroyed when it goes through the pasteurization process. Since many baby formula companies supplement their product with additional vitamin C, formula-fed babies are less at risk, and babies who are fed human breast milk are usually just fine on the vitamin front.
Sufferers of scurvy develop discolored spots on their skin, typically on their legs, and their gums may appear swollen and spongy. They may also experience bleeding from mucus membranes, such as the nostrils and ears. As scurvy advances, the afflicted person finds it increasingly difficult to move. Patients usually suffer depression may develop open and pus filled sores. It is common for them to lose some teeth. The treatment for scurvy is a balanced diet containing adequate amounts of vitamin C. Recovery often takes some time, but most people will return to normal health so long as they stick with an improved and balanced diet.