You're Not Getting Enough Vitamin C If This Happens To Your Body

Vitamin C isn't just for fighting off the common cold. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), this water-soluble micronutrient performs a number of important roles in the body. In addition to supporting a robust immune system, it's necessary for the production of collagen and other proteins. It's also a powerful antioxidant and an important component of certain neurotransmitters.

Among adults, the recommended dietary allowance for vitamin C is 90 milligrams for men, 75 milligrams for non-pregnant women, 80–85 milligrams during pregnancy, and 115–120 milligrams if breastfeeding. Smokers are advised to up their intake by an additional 35 mg a day, advised the NIH.

Unlike most mammals, humans can't manufacture their own vitamin C; we have to get it from food or supplements. Luckily, vitamin C is found in many fruits and vegetables, and we don't need much to stay healthy. While severe vitamin C deficiency, known as scurvy, is rare today, research conducted by Oregon State University found 38.9 percent of American adults do not meet the estimated average requirement for vitamin C. Not sure if you're getting enough? There are many signs — some subtle and some glaringly obvious — that you may need to up your vitamin C intake.

If you have trouble fighting off infections, you may need more vitamin C

Vitamin C is probably the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the words "immune booster," and a big glass of orange juice has become the poster child for at-home cold remedies. But in reality, getting enough vitamin C may be a prerequisite to a healthy immune system, rather than an "extra credit" supplement. If you're always getting sick, it may be a sign you aren't giving your immune system the vitamin C it needs to function properly.

According to a 2017 article published in Nutrients, vitamin C plays many roles in the immune system. It helps give skin its structure, creating a first line of defense against invading germs. It also accumulates in phagocytes, a group of white blood cells designed to destroy germs by essentially "eating" them, and makes them more active. Vitamin C is needed for apoptosis, the destruction and recycling of old or damaged cells.

Additionally, vitamin C helps lymphocytes, another type of immune cell, differentiate into specialized B- and T-cells, designed to target specific invaders the body has encountered in the past. The article's authors pointed out that vitamin C deficiency "results in impaired immunity and higher susceptibility to infections."

Dull, damaged skin is a sign of vitamin C deficiency

There's a good reason why skin serums often include vitamin C. This nutrient is essential for building healthy skin from both the outside in and the inside out. And if you don't consume enough of it in your diet, your complexion may pay the price.

A 2017 paper published in Nutrients explored the link between vitamin C and skin health. The authors noted that vitamin C concentration is particularly high in the skin. The epidermis (the topmost layer of skin) contains 6 to 64 milligrams per 100 grams of wet weight, while the dermis (the thicker layer of skin below the epidermis) contains 3 to 13 milligrams. For comparison, your skeletal muscles contain 3 to 4 milligrams, while the heart contains 5 to 15 milligrams.

Vitamin C is required for the production of collagen, the protein that gives skin its structure. It's also necessary for maintaining the proper balance between collagen and elastin, a protein that gives skin its stretch, in the dermis. As a powerful antioxidant, vitamin C protects skin against damage caused by UV radiation on a cellular level. Signs of aging, like wrinkles, can even be prevented or postponed with vitamin C. However, the researchers concluded that ingesting vitamin C through food or supplements has a greater effect on skin health than topical vitamin C.

Are your fingernails are changing? Vitamin C might help

Besides keeping them looking nice, you probably don't spend too much time thinking about your fingernails, but certain nail conditions may indicate serious underlying health conditions, including vitamin C deficiency.

As explained in a 2015 paper published in the Indian Dermatology Online Journal, onycholysis is the separation of the nail from the nail bed, beginning at the fingertip and working back toward the cuticle. Trauma to the nail is usually the cause of this relatively common form of nail shedding. But if it's happening to multiple fingernails at once and there's no obvious cause of trauma, it may indicate vitamin C deficiency. There are, however, numerous other potential causes, including anemia, lung cancer, certain forms of leukemia, diabetes, thyroid issues, psoriasis, and lupus.

Koilonychia, also known as spoon nails, is a reverse curvature of the nails, causing them to become concave. According to the National Institutes of Health, vitamin C deficiency can cause this sunken-in appearance. Other nutrient deficiencies, including iron, zinc, copper, selenium, and protein may also trigger koilonychia. Lupus, psoriasis, or thyroid issues are other possible causes of the condition.

Corkscrew-shaped body hair is a major sign of vitamin C deficiency

If you notice the hair on your arms and legs growing in a corkscrew or bent "swan neck" pattern, you likely have a vitamin C deficiency. According to a 2020 report in StatPearls, these strangely shaped body hairs are one of the three telltale signs of low vitamin C. A lack of this critical micronutrient prevents the proteins in hair from folding and binding to one another normally, creating the strange corkscrew or bent appearance. Hair follicles may also be dilated or plugged with keratin (a protein found in the outermost layer of skin). Perifollicular hemorrhage — bleeding from the tiny capillaries that supply blood to the hair follicles — is also common, producing pin-prick red marks on the skin.

Changes in body hair and hair follicles are some of the first noticeable signs of scurvy, although the body has to be deprived of vitamin C for a significant amount of time. According to a paper published by physicians Dr. J. V. Hirschmann and Dr. Gregory J. Raugi, hair follicles plugged by excess keratin appeared after about 120 to 180 days without vitamin C, and perifollicular hemorrhaging and the development of corkscrew hairs appeared after 180 to 240 days without vitamin C.

If even minor wounds take forever to heal, you likely need more vitamin C

Vitamin C is nature's Band-Aid, helping to promote speedy and successful wound healing. So if you're still nursing that papercut from three weeks ago or have a gnarly scar from a minor injury, it may be a sign that you're vitamin C deficient.

In a 2013 paper published in the British Journal of Community Nursing, researcher Jane Moores noted that vitamin C plays an important role in all phases of wound healing. Vitamin C is required during the inflammatory phase in order to clear away white blood cells after they've performed their function, preventing inflammation from getting out of control. In the proliferative phase, when new tissue is being created, vitamin C contributes to "synthesis, maturation, secretion and degradation of collagen." Collagen is the protein that gives skin its structure and suppleness.

During the maturation phase of healing, when collagen is remodeled and realigned into an orderly network of fibers and the wound fully closes, insufficient vitamin C may lead to altered collagen production and scar formation. Moores cautioned that healing a wound requires a lot of vitamin C, so if you're already running low on the nutrient, your body won't have the resources to spare.

You may be deficient in vitamin C if you bruise easily

If even just lightly bumping into your coffee table leaves you black and blue, you may not be getting enough vitamin C. As the Cleveland Clinic explained, "A bruise, or contusion, is skin discoloration from a skin or tissue injury. This injury damages blood vessels underneath the skin, causing them to leak."

Bruises can run the gamut from large hematomas (if the trauma is extensive and affects larger blood vessels) to pinprick-sized petechiae (if tiny capillaries are involved). Bruises fade over time as the blood vessels repair and the old, pooled blood is cleared away. Easy bruising is more common among those who have certain blood disorders or take medications like blood thinners. In addition to being a sign of a vitamin C deficiency, it can point to low vitamin K levels.

A 2020 report in StatPearls noted that collagen (specifically type IV) is a necessary structural component of both blood vessels and skin. Vitamin C deficiency impairs collagen production, weakening both blood vessels and skin. This makes your skin thinner and less able to protect the blood vessels underneath and makes the blood vessels more fragile and prone to leaking.

Aching joints can point to a lack of vitamin C

If your knees, hips, and other joints are regularly swollen, stiff, and painful, you may not be getting enough vitamin C. In a 2019 study published in Medical Archives, researchers divided patients with knee osteoarthritis into two groups, one of which received vitamin C supplements. The study authors found that those who took the vitamin C had lower levels of pain and rated their quality of life higher than those in the control group.

The researchers concluded that "getting the right amount of vitamin C is key for both preventing inflammatory arthritis and maintaining healthy joints with OA [osteoarthritis]." It's not surprising, then, that one of the early symptoms of vitamin C deficiency is painful joints and muscles (via the Better Health Channel).

But just because you have creaky joints, that doesn't mean you're low on vitamin C. In fact, too much vitamin C can also aggravate arthritis. A 2004 study published in Arthritis & Rheumatism found that high-dose vitamin C supplements actually worsened knee osteoarthritis in guinea pigs (via WebMD). Dr. Virginia Kraus, lead author of the study, explained, "Our findings suggest that dietary intake should not be supplemented above the currently recommended dietary allowance."

Consider increasing your vitamin C intake if your gums are swollen and bleed easily

Perhaps the most recognizable (and unsettling) symptoms of scurvy are swollen, bleeding gums and tooth loss. In a paper authored by Dr. J. V. Hirschmann and Dr. Gregory J. Raugi, the authors describe the gums of someone with vitamin C deficiency as "red, smooth, swollen, and shiny." In more advanced stages, they may look "purplish, sometimes even black and necrotic." This is especially common in the gum tissue immediately surrounding and in between the teeth, which eventually recedes. Teeth may become loose and fall out as the gum tissue surrounding them disintegrates and the body begins to break down the alveolar bone that holds the teeth in place.

Being deficient in vitamin C may also make you more susceptible to the bacteria that cause tooth decay. As a paper published in the Journal of the Canadian Dental Association noted, vitamin C deficiency severely weakens the immune system, making it harder for your body to keep the microorganisms that cause periodontal disease in check. Allowed to run rampant, these bacteria can further weaken teeth, making them more likely to fall out.

Vitamin C may be the solution to weak bones

While many associate low calcium or vitamin D levels with weak bones, vitamin C is also critical for a healthy skeleton. A 2005 paper published in Joint Bone Spine noted that 80 percent of individuals with vitamin C deficiency have musculoskeletal symptoms.

Vitamin C is necessary for collagen synthesis, and even though we may tend to think about collagen as it relates to our skin, it's also an important component of bone. Bone is constantly being broken down and rebuilt, but when you're low on vitamin C, the breaking down occurs at a faster rate than the rebuilding. Individuals with severe vitamin C deficiency may experience osteonecrosis (the death of bone cells) and osteoporosis (decreased bone density).

However, as a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology pointed out, the connection between vitamin C intake and bone health isn't always straightforward. The study authors noted that vitamin C intake was associated with higher bone density among premenopausal women and lower incidence of fracture among postmenopausal women with a history of either smoking or using hormone replacement therapy. On the other hand, there wasn't a clear connection between vitamin C and bone health for men or postmenopausal women without a history of smoking or estrogen use.

If you consume enough iron but your levels are still low, you should investigate your vitamin C intake

If you're chowing down on red meat but your iron levels remain low, you may not be getting the vitamin C you need to properly use all that iron. Vitamin C is necessary for absorbing the iron found in plant foods such as beans and spinach. But, according to a 2014 paper published in Free Radical Biology and Medicine, vitamin C plays a number of other important roles when it comes to metabolizing both plant-based (non-heme) and animal-based (heme) iron. These include influencing cells' uptake of iron from the blood and regulating how much iron is stored in the body.

It's important to remember that iron deficiency is common and can have a number of underlying causes. According to the Mayo Clinic, iron-deficiency anemia may be caused by not consuming enough iron, pregnancy (when iron requirements increase), blood loss (such as from a heavy period or an ulcer), or difficulty absorbing iron. Difficulty absorbing iron isn't always caused by low vitamin C intake; certain conditions, such as celiac disease and GI surgery, can make it difficult for your body to actually make use of the iron you consume.

Shortness of breath, fainting, and other cardiovascular symptoms can be a sign of vitamin C deficiency

Vitamin C deficiency can do significant damage to the cardiovascular system, leading to a number of unpleasant and dangerous symptoms. According to a paper published by Dr. J. V. Hirschmann and Dr. Gregory J. Raugi, dyspnea (shortness of breath), hypotension (low blood pressure), and syncope (fainting) are common symptoms of scurvy. In some cases, individuals have experienced heart murmurs, an enlarged heart, or cardiac arrest. It's unclear, however, what exactly causes these symptoms.

Vitamin C is necessary for producing collagen, which gives blood vessels their structure and strength. Low blood pressure, which can lead to fainting, may be caused by slack blood vessels that are too weak to contract appropriately. Cardiac hemorrhage, in which blood leaks from the weakened walls of the heart, may also be responsible for some cases of scurvy-induced low blood pressure, chest pain, and shortness of breath.

Many of these symptoms may also be attributed to iron-deficiency anemia, a condition in which your body doesn't produce enough hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that uses iron to transport oxygen throughout the body. Since vitamin C is needed for absorption of iron, a deficiency can quickly lead to anemia.

Could inadequate vitamin C intake have something to do with your depression?

While depression can have many causes and require a variety of treatments, research indicates that, at least in some cases, it may be a sign of vitamin C deficiency. A 2020 paper published in BMC Psychiatry concluded that "there is evidence suggesting that vitamin C deficiency is related to adverse mood and cognitive effects." The researchers noted that these negative impacts on mood were often observed before other telltale physical signs of vitamin C deficiency appeared. Those with deficiency-induced depression had lower than normal blood levels of vitamin C, but not as low as those with full-blown scurvy. This suggests that changes in mood could be an early warning sign that vitamin C levels are too low.

A 2014 study published in the International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research followed over 300 elderly individuals for six months to see how vitamin C status affected depression symptoms. At the six-month mark, 28 percent of participants had blood levels of vitamin C low enough to qualify as "biochemical depletion." These individuals had significantly more symptoms of depression than those with normal vitamin C levels.

Vitamin C plays a role in both fertility and libido

Is a lack of vitamin C damaging your sex life? In a 2002 study published in Biological Psychiatry, researchers gave participants either high-dose ascorbic acid (vitamin C) or a placebo for 14 days. Individuals who received the ascorbic acid reported increased frequency of sexual intercourse compared to those given the placebo.

Vitamin C also appears to be a necessary nutrient for fertility in both men and women. Research published in 2013 in the Urology Journal demonstrated that vitamin C improves sperm concentration and mobility. In a study published in Biology of Reproduction, researchers noted that vitamin C is necessary for an ovarian follicle to produce a viable egg, and insufficient levels of vitamin C could therefore contribute to female infertility.

It's important to remember, however, that infertility (defined as the inability to conceive after a year of trying) is quite common and can have many other underlying causes besides nutrient deficiency. The Mayo Clinic estimates that 10 to 15 percent of couples are infertile, and certain genetic conditions, diseases, structural abnormalities, and hormonal imbalances can all lead to fertility issues.

If you have a chronic condition linked to oxidative stress, your body may be low on vitamin C

Vitamin C is the primary water-soluble antioxidant circulating in our blood and found in various tissues (via Oregon State University). As an antioxidant, vitamin C protects the body against damage from free radicals. Free radicals are highly unstable atoms of oxygen that try to "steal" electrons from other molecules in the body. This destabilizes the molecules and creates a chain reaction that leads to damage throughout the body, a process known as oxidative damage or oxidative stress (via Livescience).

Substances that produce free radicals can be found in food and in our environment, and free radicals are also created as the byproduct of natural chemical processes in the body. Antioxidants are able to give free radicals the electrons they want without becoming destabilized themselves, thus preventing damage to bodily tissues.

If you're deficient in vitamin C, you may not be able to counter the negative effects of free radical damage. This increases your risk for a number of chronic conditions linked to oxidative stress, including heart disease, lung disease, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and cataracts (via News-Medical).