Vitamin C is a “Jack of all trades” in healthy physiology. Widely used for immune system support and as a general antioxidant, it plays many other important roles. Considerable information has been learned since Linus Pauling’s research on vitamin C. Some of the most intriguing findings may help today’s modern stress response, not only on immune system health and antioxidant functions, but it also includes the adrenal glands, stress hormones, and neurotransmitters. Here are some recent findings and pearls on vitamin C’s essential roles in your health.
Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin found in fruits and vegetables and is added to some foods. Humans lack the ability to produce vitamin C compared to most other mammals, so we must obtain it in the diet. Vitamin C is also known as ascorbic acid. Red and green peppers, citrus fruits, kiwi, strawberries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, tomatoes, and cantaloupe contain about 30-90 mg of vitamin C per serving. Vitamin C is rapidly lost with cooking foods.
Vitamin C levels are tightly controlled in the bloodstream with just small amounts present, but several other tissues maintain high concentrations often at 100 times more than in the bloodstream.
The greatest concentrations of vitamin C are found in leukocytes, a type of white blood cell, the brain, pituitary gland, eyes, thymus gland, and the adrenal glands. Smaller amounts of vitamin C are found in the pancreas, liver, spleen, kidney, lung and heart.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant which protects cells from oxidative stress. The FDA has stated that “vitamin C serves as an effective free radical scavenger to protect cells from damage by reactive oxygen molecules”. It helps to recycle and spare other antioxidants like vitamin E, lipoic acid, and the critical antioxidant enzymatic system glutathione. Ascorbic acid’s antioxidants effects help defend proteins like that found in the lens and retina of the eye, cellular DNA, and tissues throughout the body.
Ascorbic acid helps protect the inner lining of blood vessels, cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, other lipids found in cell membranes and bloodstream. It also aids healthy flow of platelets within blood. When vitamin C is supported with magnesium, it helps protect blood vessels from stress and calcium deposition.
Ascorbic acid is also essential in gallbladder bile acid management. Vitamin C is required for healthy cholesterol metabolism and bile acid movement out of the gallbladder and removal of bile acid sludge.
Vitamin C is at the backbone of collagen synthesis, which makes it essential for skin health, tendons, ligaments, and other connective tissue formation and repair. Vitamin C is needed for the strength of connective tissues that may affect teeth, bones, and joints and tissue health. Collagen makes up about one-third of total body protein of which vitamin C plays an essential role. Vitamin C antioxidant actions help protect the skin from UV radiation.
In its immune system activities, vitamin C aids increase of neutrophils and macrophages. These are types of white blood cells that engulf germs, like pac-man immune cells on a search and destroy mission. Ascorbic acid helps increase antibody formation and modulates T-Cell and Natural Kill cell function and production. It is interesting to note that intravenous vitamin C is being utilized more in critical care settings for its vast effects for healing.
Consider vitamin C use as the war of vaccinations grows and the recognition that many fail to retain or develop antibodies to the vaccine. It may also provide support as an antioxidant and detoxifier.
Stress levels run high across all ages and populations in today’s world. Cortisol and other stress hormones are released from numerous internal and external stress signals. Stressors come from difficult traffic, weather events, long work hours, stressful phone calls, texts, meetings, work demands, low-grade infections or other immune challenges, disrupted sleep, blood sugar imbalances, eating on the run and the list goes on.
This causes your adrenal glands to be in a constant state of work. Rather than mounting a response to deal with an acute momentary crisis that is resolved within seconds to minutes, many individuals find that they are in a constant state of stress reactions. This causes an endless stream of demands to the adrenal cortex, adrenal medulla, autonomic nervous system, and brain. There must be adequate internal reserves to handle the constant crisis calls.
The human body has two adrenal glands, one sitting on each kidney. The adrenal glands themselves have two main sections – the adrenal cortex, the outer portion and the adrenal medulla, the inner portion of the adrenal gland. These two areas are considered separate endocrine systems found inside the adrenal glands, but there is interrelated work.
Adrenal glands require 100 times more vitamin C than what is found in the blood. This makes vitamin C a workhorse nutrient essential for stress. Your adrenal cortex requires vitamin C to make cortisol, DHEA, and other adrenal cortex steroid hormones.
In the adrenal medulla, vitamin C is required to help the amino acid tyrosine convert to dopamine and then to norepinephrine which are catecholamines and neurotransmitters. Dopamine and norepinephrine help your body activate the tone of the sympathetic (fight-flight) autonomic nervous system.
Vitamin C also plays a role with dopamine in the brain. This helps energy, motivation, stress response, and alertness. Chronic stress uses vitamin C and thus must be regularly replenished.
If your dopamine/catecholamine reserves become depleted, then stress tolerance declines. You may see this as your mood feeling flat, apathetic, and passive or down. You may have a tendency to sleep too much and have trouble getting out bed. Weight gain may occur even if the diet is appropriate.
You might feel slow, sluggish, and weighted down with decreased ability to take action. You might feel like you want a stimulant like caffeine, nicotine or even other drugs. Sex drive or sexual dysfunction may occur. You may have little interest and joy accompanied by a memory that is slipping.
If your body is exhausted from chronic stress and has developed into ongoing fatigue, your catecholamines (norepinephrine and epinephrine) levels may be inadequate for your needs. When this happens, you may find a reduced ability to exercise. Rather than feeling better with exercise and experience an increase in cortisol and endorphins (runner’s high), with low catecholamines and chronic exhaustion, you may feel much worse with exercise and experience exercise intolerance. Extra support may be needed also to help with burnout that may occur with this context.
If you find yourself agreeing with many of the above descriptions, extra vitamin C may be needed for the adrenal glands and the nervous system. One of the simplest ways to help take care of yourself is a diet rich in vitamin C and with supplemental intake. Extra vitamin C intake of 5000 mg or more per day may be quite helpful when dealing with significant burnout and similar concerns. Vitamin C may be taken with other adrenal adaptogenic herbs like Rhodiola, holy basil, Cordyceps, coenzyme B vitamins like pantethine (B5) and pyridoxal-5-phosphate (B6).
Vitamin C supports other neurotransmitters in addition to dopamine and norepinephrine. Vitamin C is essential for the enzyme that converts the amino acid tryptophan to the neurotransmitter serotonin. Vitamin C also helps regulate and modulate other neurotransmitters like acetylcholine (memory, gut –brain connections), GABA (relaxation), and glutamate (wakeful/excitatory).
Ascorbic acid supports the maturation process of nerves during prenatal development and then helps transmission of nerve signals. As an antioxidant, it helps buffer against excitatory stimulus or injury that can be highly distressing to nerve cells. There is some indication that vitamin C may be a nootropic cognitive enhancing nutrient as it may enhance things especially with stress-related learning and memory.
Vitamin C helps energy production in other ways as it is a cofactor essential for synthesis of the amino acid carnitine. Carnitine transports long-chain fatty acids into mitochondria which are essential for fat burning and energy production. Inadequate vitamin C intake may impair this process which may contribute to fatigue and lethargy. Vitamin C also helps with the activation of folic acid to folate and increases the body’s absorption of iron.
As your body goes through higher levels of stress, requirements of vitamin C change. Suboptimal levels of vitamin C affect your immune system, collagen healing, the production of steroid hormones, and stress management levels. Indeed, critically ill patients who had adequate vitamin C fared better with healing and had better analgesic support. Vitamin C acts as cofactor for natural opioid production.
Vitamin C intake may range from the basic adult RDA of 75-90 mg/day to several grams or higher per day. Vitamin C is well tolerated. Higher doses may cause a softening of stools. Vitamin C is indeed a “Jack of all trades”. Consider extra supplementation with even just 2000-4000 mg per day to see if you get through the day better.
Here are some additional articles on vitamin C.