One of the most common supplements many of us take is Vitamin C. The good old C, naturally found in a lot of citrus and other fruits, is thought to help bolster your immune system and prevent you from getting sick. There's some question as to whether this is true or not, which we'll get into later. Let's get started.
The Benefits of Vitamin C
Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is an essential nutrient. That means your body doesn't produce it; you need to get it from food and supplements. It's also necessary for your body to function. So what exactly does it do?
- Building connective tissues. Your body uses vitamin C as a critical part of forming new blood vessels, cartilage, muscle, and collagen in your bones.
- Healing. Vitamin C is an essential part of the healing process for the same reason.
- Antioxidants. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant and can help your body fight off free radicals caused by external forces like UV radiation, X-rays, and tobacco smoke.
- Health. A deficiency in vitamin C leads to a disease known as scurvy, which causes anemia, bleeding gums, easier bleeding and bruising, poor wound healing, and more.
- Vision. Some studies have shown that age-related macular degeneration – the worsening of eyesight as you get older – can be slowed or stopped by regular vitamin C supplements.
Overall, vitamin C is generally considered safe. It's common in a lot of foods, and supplemental vitamin C is generally either used by the body or purged without issue. It's only when you get into extreme levels of supplementation that you can experience issues.
Rare Side Effects and Interactions
In very rare cases, if you manage to take too much vitamin C, such as if you have a diet rich in the vitamin and take several large supplements throughout the day, you may experience some side effects. The most common side effects include digestive issues such as nausea, vomiting, heartburn, diarrhea, stomach cramps, and bloating. You may also experience fatigue and insomnia, never a good combination, and often a headache. Some people also experience flushed skin.
On a more serious note, extreme levels of vitamin C can also lead to kidney stones, a painful condition where minerals form crystals in the kidney and bladder, which are extremely painful to pass and can occasionally require medical intervention and even surgery to remove. If you have kidney issues or a history of kidney stones, you may want to ask your doctor before you take a vitamin C supplement.
High levels of vitamin C can interfere with certain blood tests, including blood glucose tests, which can lead to false positives or false negatives depending on the test. Always tell your doctor if you’re taking supplemental vitamin C before any major tests.
As for interactions, vitamin C is used in the body to handle various other minerals and compounds, and as such, it can interact with them. These include:
- Dietary aluminum. Some medications include aluminum, and vitamin C can increase your absorption of aluminum, which can lead to kidney problems.
- Chemotherapy drugs. Antioxidants, in general, may inhibit the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs, though more study needs to be performed to know for sure.
- Estrogen. Vitamin C can increase estrogen levels if you're taking an oral contraceptive on a regular basis.
- Protease inhibitors. These antiviral drugs can be reduced in efficacy by vitamin C supplements.
- Statins/Niacin. If you're taking statins to deal with high blood cholesterol levels, vitamin C may reduce their effectiveness.
- Warfarin. This anticoagulant drug can also be reduced in efficacy by high levels of vitamin C.
In general, if you're taking tests or undergoing treatment of any sort, make sure your doctor knows you're taking vitamin C so they can adjust your plans accordingly. You may be asked to stop supplementation.
If you do have a history of kidney issues, hormone levels, cholesterol issues, or a history of having issues with multivitamins and supplements, it's best to speak with a doctor before taking a vitamin C supplement. For most individuals, these rare reactions are not an issue.
Vitamin C and the Immune System
You've probably heard one of two things about vitamin C, or about orange juice in general because of its vitamin C content. Those two claims are that it can prevent the common cold and that it can boost your immune system and help prevent you from getting sick. In fact, a lot of marketing has gone into promoting these ideas, and some medications such as Emergen-C rely on it to sell their effects.
This idea came about due to a book published by Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling in the 1970s. Unfortunately, his claims have been found to be a little over the top. In the decades since, numerous studies have been performed into the effects of vitamin C supplements, and the results have been a bit more minimal.
Vitamin C cannot prevent the common cold or any other illness that isn't related to deficiency. There is some evidence that suggests it may be able to reduce the duration of a cold by 8% or so, though this is still fairly minimal.
Vitamin C is far from useless, of course. It's just not the miracle immune booster that we grew up thinking it was, from concerned parents who keep orange juice in stock for every cough.
Different Forms of Vitamin C
You can supplement vitamin C in a lot of different forms, and while those forms all have the same vitamin in them, they may act in slightly different ways.
Natural vs Synthetic. The first choice you can make is the choice between natural ascorbic acid and synthetic vitamins. The fact is, there's no choice here at all. Chemically, natural vitamin C, and synthetic vitamin C are identical. There's no difference in their bioavailability, no difference in their compound or makeup, nothing. The only difference is in how the vitamin is derived, whether it was synthesized in a lab process or extracted from citrus fruit.
Next, you have various forms a supplement can take. These come in two categories.
Immediate release supplements are forms of vitamin C that are immediately available to the body. These include powders, tablets, liquids, and gummies. All of these forms are immediately released when you consume them and are available for the body to absorb as soon as possible. Be sure to check out our vitamin C booster for an immediate release supplement.
Delayed-release supplements have a time-delay mechanism worked into them. Capsules, soft gels, and some other forms use inactive ingredients or shells to delay the release of vitamin C.
Which is better? As it turns out, the immediate release is better for absorption.
The theory behind time-delay supplements is that the vitamin lingers in your body for a longer amount of time, allowing you to absorb it continually throughout the day. As it turns out, this isn't true of vitamin C. When you delay the release of vitamin C, it just isn't as well absorbed.
Meanwhile, taking your supplement in an immediate release form means it's all available for your body to take in as soon as it hits your tongue. Numerous studies over the years have shown that immediate-release vitamin C results in higher vitamin C levels in blood plasma, compared to time-delayed vitamin supplements. In some cases, this is as much as 50% lower.
Another choice you have to make is purity. You can get ascorbic acid in its pure form, or you can get it in a "mineralized" form, as a mineral salt. The two most common mineral salts of ascorbic acid are sodium ascorbate and calcium ascorbate, but there are mineralized versions of the vitamin using most minerals, including potassium, magnesium, zinc, chromium, molybdenum, and manganese.
Why would you want a mineralized version of vitamin C? Some people claim that it is easier on the stomach and can minimize the chances of digestive issues such as acid reflux and stomach pain from taking the pure acid. Unfortunately for those people, there is little evidence to back up this claim.
The pros and cons of mineralized vitamin C depend on the mineral, either sodium or calcium. Studies have shown that your body absorbs both the mineral and vitamin C in equal measure. Therefore, if your body needs more calcium or more sodium, taking a mineralized version of the vitamin can be beneficial.
Conversely, if you have too much calcium or too much sodium (the much more common of the list) in your body, you will want to avoid the mineralized versions. This is a personal medical decision, so we can't recommend one option over the other.
Which is Better: Powder or Capsules?
Knowing what you do now, you can make a decision between powder and capsules personally. Still, we'll give you our recommendations.
A powder is an immediately available form of vitamin C. You can add it to a beverage for a tangy, citrusy taste, even if you just mix it with water. It can be added to fruit or other smoothies very easily and is a nice and tasty way to supplement the vitamin. In fact, we're lucky in that vitamin C actually tastes good, unlike a lot of other pure supplements.
The powder is easy to mix, but it's harder to transport. You can't just pack some powder in your purse, you need some way to store it. Thus, if your vitamin C supplement is something you just take in the morning along with breakfast, it's easy to use. If you want to take vitamin C throughout the day, you might be better off with capsules.
Capsules are generally a thin membrane of gelatin or another neutral substance that contains a measured dose of vitamin C powder. You can package them yourself, but most people buy the capsules since it's much easier.
Capsules can be time-delayed, but most of the time they're designed to dissolve upon reaching the stomach and deliver their "payload" all at once. It's effectively not much different from taking a powder supplement.
Thus, it comes down to a few specific considerations you might find important, depending on your lifestyle and schedule each day.
Convenience. The powder is a little less convenient to manage and store than a bottle of capsules. It's easier to mix into things than a capsule, but you're more than likely going to be dipping a measuring spoon into a jar to get your dose each time you want it.
Transportation. Bringing capsules with you on a plane, to work, or to the gym is a lot easier than a powder. You can pre-mix a powder into a smoothie or bottle of water, or you can buy packets of individual doses of powder, but those are still going to be less convenient to manage than a capsule.
Ease of consumption. A powder alone is difficult to consume, though at least with vitamin C it's not an entirely unpleasant experience. Generally, you'll need to mix it with something, whether it's water, a smoothie, or a recipe. Capsules are a lot easier to take; just pop one down and swallow it, usually with a little water to wash it down.
Mineralization. If you're looking for a mineralized version of the supplement, chances are you're going to be going for a capsule or tablet. You can find them as powders, but they're less tasty and thus less common. To be honest, to be on the safe side, we'd recommend the pure stuff anyway.
Finally, you have the option to go for a natural "supplement" instead. What do we mean? Well, just eat foods and drink beverages that are naturally high in vitamin C. Tea, citrus juices, even a handful of vegetables like yellow peppers, thyme, parsley, kale, and broccoli are all high in vitamin C. You can get plenty of the vitamin by eating a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables, and never need the supplements.
Which option you choose is, largely, up to you. To us, what matters the most is whether or not you can swallow a capsule. As much as 40% of Americans have trouble with capsules, so if you can't handle them, there's no shame in it; just use the powder instead.
Do you have a preference as to how you get your vitamin C? Be sure to let us know down in the comments below!