If you're like us, vitamin C is one of those things you know you should incorporate into your diet, but you don't really know why. To get to the bottom of this, we asked dietitians to break down what this nutrient does for our bodies, if we should be taking a supplement, and if it really is a cure-all for colds (spoiler alert: not quite).
When collagen levels naturally drop as we age, wrinkles develop. Vitamin C aids collagen synthesis, Mascha Davis, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Culver City, California says. So eating a healthy amount is good for your skin and connective tissues.
Want a healthy brain? This nutrient is key. "Vitamin C is required for the biosynthesis of certain neurotransmitters," Summer Yule, a registered dietician in Connecticut, says. A.k.a. it helps your brain turn different substances like tryptophan into feel-good serotonin.
According to the Mayo Clinic, unstable atoms called free radicals can cause cellular damage, which may play a role in heart disease and cancer. But antioxidants may help to limit the effect of free radicals — and Yule says vitamin C is a great antioxidant.
The body uses vitamin C to support wounds healing in the body and to produce scar tissue, Davis says. Scurvy, the disease many sailors caught before learning to bring vitamin C-rich foods with them, was essentially the body struggling to heal itself. A little vitamin C made a big difference.
While most studies haven't found evidence that vitamin C can prevent a cold, Yule explains that there is some evidence that taking this nutrient prophylactically (a.k.a. eating fruits and vegetables before you get sick) can help reduce a cold's length.
According to the Mayo Clinic, vitamin C — with the help of other vitamins and minerals — can help prevent age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a disease that blurs and reduces vision.
"Vitamin C can help with the absorption of non-heme iron," Yule says. That's the iron found in plants, not in animals (and it's harder to absorb than iron from animals, so vegetarians should take note). Try to eat vitamin C-rich foods with foods that contain non-heme iron (like grains and beans) for the most benefit.
"Food should be enough to meet the vitamin C RDA in the average healthy adult," Yule says. So no, you probably don't need a vitamin C supplement. Strawberries, bell peppers, oranges, broccoli, grapefruit, kiwi, Brussels sprouts, and even potatoes are excellent sources.
According to an analysis in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vitamin C does appear to have cancer-fighting properties for the esophagus, larynx, oral cavity, and pancreas. But to be clear, those findings were based on dietary vitamin C from fruits and vegetables, not supplements.
The jury is still very much out on this one, but according to the National Cancer Institute, some studies have indicated that high doses of intravenous vitamin C helped to keep certain cancers from spreading, and improved the quality of life of some cancer patients.