Vitamin C and Immunity

Good nutrition is a bedrock of good health and good immune function. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are known to negatively affect the immune function, making one highly susceptible to infections and diseases. And when you think about vitamins that can help strengthen your immunity, Vitamin C should be the first that comes to mind! In this blog post, we will talk at how vitamin C boosts the immune system and why getting it from your diet alone may not be enough.

Before we dive deeper into how vitamin c plays a role in immunity, let us do a quick run-down on the vitamin’s role in your overall health.

Vitamin C in your overall health

1. Vitamin C and Collagen Synthesis: Vitamin C is an important co-factor in the synthesis of collagen, a protein found in the connective tissues of bones, eyes, blood vessels, cartilage, ligaments, teeth and of course, your skin. That is why vitamin C is required for growth and repair of tissue all over the body. It also helps in faster healing of wounds. This is also how it supports heart health, by making arteries flexible and strong.

2. Vitamin C and Hormones: You need vitamin C to produce important neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain) such as dopamine and adrenaline. It is also required to convert tryptophan (an essential amino acid that serves several important purposes) into serotonin, a hormone that regulates mood, sleep, memory, and stress response. Did you know your adrenal glands and brain contain the highest levels of vitamin C in the body? Adrenal glands produce stress hormones, determining how you respond to stress. This is a good indication of how vitamin C may play an important role in mood, stress response and brain health.

3. Vitamin c as a strong anti-oxidant: Vitamin C is a very effective antioxidant. It reduces oxidative damage and inflammation in tissues, including in the eyes, heart and bones. This is also one of the ways, vitamin C boosts immunity as it reduces oxidative damage in immune cells.

4. Iron absorption: Vitamin c increases iron absorption and prevents anaemia.

Now, how does vitamin C help your immune system? Let’s find out.

Vitamin C and Your Immune System

What is the number one advice you are most likely to receive with the arrival of winters and flu season? Take more vitamin C to boost your immunity. Does that sound familiar?

Vitamin C may not guarantee that you will not catch a cold but there is good evidence that taking high doses of vitamin C may reduce the length of time you suffer from cold symptoms, and by more than a few days in some people. In fact, a recent 2018 study found that “Extra doses of vitamin C could benefit some patients who contract the common cold despite taking daily vitamin C supplements” [1].

Vitamin C plays a formidable role in maintaining a healthy immune system and it works in a number of ways to achieve this; both directly and indirectly. Whether it is the production of immune cells and antibodies, improving the efficiency of white blood cells, maintaining skin barrier function to ward off viruses and bacteria or reducing inflammation and oxidative damage in the body, the role of vitamin C goes a long way in supporting your immunity.


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This is how vitamin C strengthens your immune system

During any infection, your body’s defence mechanism kicks in. This defence system – our immunity – employs an army of white blood cells along with other cells and organs to fight off any virus or bacteria.

White blood cells are your body’s main immune cells that specialize in identifying, fighting, and destroying bacteria, viruses, and other foreign invaders. Did you know your white blood cells contain 80 times more vitamin C than red blood cells? This shows that vitamin C plays a key role in improving the function of white blood cells.

1. Vitamin C helps increase the number, activity and efficiency of white blood cells such as neutrophils, lymphocytes, and phagocytes:

a) Neutrophils: The first cells to arrive on the site of infection, neutrophils are front-line players of your immune system. They make up more than 50 percent of the white blood cells and work by attacking and eating up the invading microorganisms. Neutrophils also engage and activate other cells of your immune system. Studies show that vitamin C is important for the function of neutrophils and overall immune health. [2] [3]

b) Lymphocytes: These are highly specialized white blood cells that trigger the production of antibodies – proteins in blood that de-activate foreign invaders such as bacteria and virus. Like neutrophils, these cells also activate other immune cells to attack and destroy foreign cells in a number of ways. Studies show that vitamin C improves the production and function of lymphocytes. [4]

2. Vitamin C helps in the production of cytokines and interferons: When your body detects the presence of pathogens, your cells release proteins called cytokines. These proteins signal and alert other immune cells. This action kindles further response from the immune system. Cytokines play an especially important role in regulating immunity and inflammation. Interferons are a part of cytokines and prevent the virus from replicating within the infected cells. * (See below for related articles.)

3. Vitamin C is an antioxidant. It protects cells, including the immune cells, from the oxidative damage caused by free radicals. When your body is fighting an infection, immune cells also generate free radicals and enzymes that increase inflammation and damage these cells in the process. Vitamin C, as an antioxidant, protects immune cells from this harm.

Other ways Vitamin C helps in immunity

1. Vitamin c benefits for skin: Vitamin C is involved in the production of collagen and in keeping skin healthy. Your skin works as a barrier and keeps toxins, microorganisms, and other harmful substances from entering the body. * (See below for related articles.)

2. Vitamin C reduces oxidative damage and inflammation: Oxidative damage and resulting inflammation are well-known to weaken the workings of your immune system. And as an antioxidant, vitamin C reduces inflammation.

With a shortage of vitamin C in the body, the production, development and function of various white blood cells become compromised. So, you are likely to have increased susceptibility to infections with low vitamin C levels.

This article sums up the role of vitamin C in immune health as: “Vitamin C contributes to immune defense by supporting various cellular functions of both the innate and adaptive immune system. Vitamin C supports epithelial barrier function against pathogens and promotes the oxidant scavenging activity of the skin, thereby potentially protecting against environmental oxidative stress. Vitamin C accumulates in phagocytic cells, such as neutrophils, and can enhance chemotaxis, phagocytosis, generation of reactive oxygen species, and ultimately microbial killing.” [5]

Vitamin C in respiratory infections

Studies show vitamin C supplements can be helpful in both preventing and treating respiratory infections. It is believed that taking over 200 mg of quality vitamin C per day may prevent respiratory infections and higher doses should be taken when infections are present. Research also suggests that vitamin C is effective in preventing and helping the body to fight off pneumonia in certain conditions.

Vitamin C rich food

Human beings cannot make their own vitamin C, as we lack the enzyme that is required for vitamin C production.

Thankfully, fresh fruits and vegetables are an excellent source of vitamin C.

The challenge here is: Are you eating enough fresh fruits and vegetables? In addition, vitamin C is heat sensitive. So, cooking your vegetables destroys most of the vitamin. What is more caffeine, heavy smoking and heavy drinking deplete vitamin C levels. Chronic stress, infections and long-term use of drugs also create a shortage of vitamin C in the body. This creates a dual problem in the body. While you may not be getting enough from your food, maybe because of unhealthy food choices and overcooking your food, your health conditions, use of drugs, excessive smoking and caffeine consumption will be making the situation worse, making you more deficient.

While real vitamin C deficiency is not common, you need a healthy amount of vitamin C circulating in your body to give your immunity an edge in fighting infections as well as juggling environmental factors that cause inflammation and disease.

Vitamin C from supplements

Traditional vitamin C supplements such as powders and pills are not as easily or effectively absorbed in the body. Most of the supplementation taken in powder or pill form is decomposed and wasted during digestion. It is also known to cause side effects such as bloating, diarrhea and abdominal cramps.

A quality liposomal vitamin C supplement protects vitamin c when it is ingested by safely tucking it in the small, protective bubbles called liposomes. These bubbles protect the vitamin from decomposition in the gut and oxidative damage and therefore successfully deliver the payload directly to your cells.

Sales of vitamin C have seen a dramatic increase as scientists and researchers across the world are studying the benefits of high doses of quality liposomal and intravenous vitamin C and the results are very encouraging.

Some small-scale clinical trials show that taking mega doses of vitamin C through IV, may reduce the stay in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). One such study found that “vitamin C shortened the duration of mechanical ventilation by 18.2%”. [6]

Some experts and proponents in this field believe that the levels of vitamin C take a dip in a patient suffering from viral infection.

You can help your body to build strength and immunity by maintaining basic hygiene, washing hands regularly, eating healthy, and by being physically active.


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Vitamin D and Immunity

While most of us are aware of the relationship between Vitamin C and immunity, the role of vitamin D needs some spotlight too in this respect. Vitamin D is important for bone health, but it also supports your immune health.

Vitamin D bolsters your immune system as it triggers the production of anti-bacterial proteins in the body. These proteins can fight off a range of infections including cold, flu and asthma. Studies have found that immune cells such as macrophages, T cells, and B cells have receptors for vitamin D. These cells interact with vitamin D through these receptors and make proteins that can fight off infections. In addition, vitamin D reduces inflammation and improves lung functions. [7]

Research shows that taking vitamin D supplements can be a very cost-effective way to prevent acute respiratory tract infections, such as cold and flu. It can also help reduce asthma attacks.

In fact, preliminary research found a strong correlation between severe vitamin D deficiency and mortality rates from viral infections. The team analysed data obtained from hospitals and clinics across China, France, Germany, Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States. The researchers noted that patients from countries, where death rates were higher, had lower vitamin D levels in comparison to the patients from countries that did not suffer high mortality rates. [8]

The research also observed that vitamin D regulates our immune system. It not only improves your innate immunity, that you need to fight off infections, but also prevents your immune system from becoming hyperactive and destroying healthy cells. The research found that excessive generation of cytokines leads to lung damage and respiratory problems, which may result in death. This cytokine storm is formed when the immune system responds to attacks by infections. According to the researchers, this cytokine storm is mainly responsible for severe complications and death in most virus-infected patients. The study lead by Vadim Backman says: "Our analysis shows that it might (cut the) mortality rate in half. It will not prevent a patient from contracting (a virus), but it may reduce complications and prevent death in those who are infected." [9]

The research has not been thoroughly evaluated as yet but it is certainly a promising result. It opens more avenues for research and throws light on how vitamin D helps the immune system. The study also cautioned that you don’t need to take a lot of vitamin D.

In a nutshell, taking vitamin C supplements is an important tool in fighting infections. While it may not exactly prevent some of the infections out there, vitamin C boosts immunity in a way that makes way for a speedy and safe recovery. It certainly gives your immune system an edge while fighting viruses, bacteria and all other pathogens that can make you sick.

References:

  1. Ran et al. Extra Dose of Vitamin C Based on a Daily Supplementation Shortens the Common Cold: A Meta-Analysis of 9 Randomized Controlled Trials. Biomed Res Int. 2018
  2. Bozonet SM and Carr AC.The Role of Physiological Vitamin C Concentrations on Key Functions of Neutrophils Isolated from Healthy Individuals. Nutrients. 2019
  3. Liugan M and Carr AC. Vitamin C and Neutrophil Function: Findings from Randomized Controlled Trials. Nutrients. 2019
  4. van Gorkom et al. Influence of Vitamin C on Lymphocytes: An Overview. Antioxidants (Basel). 2018
  5. Carr et al. Vitamin C and Immune Function. Nutrients. 2017
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6521194/
  7. Hooman Mirzakhani et al. Vitamin D and the development of allergic disease: how important is it? Clin Exp Allergy. 2015.
  8. Daneshkhah et al. The Possible Role of Vitamin D in Suppressing Cytokine Storm and Associated Mortality in COVID-19 Patients. April 2020.
  9. Northwestern University. "Vitamin D levels appear to play role in COVID-19 mortality rates: Patients with severe deficiency are twice as likely to experience major complications." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 May 2020