One could say that the true story of vitamin C and its effect on our bodies began many millions of years ago when a mutation occurring in our ancestors caused early primates and man to lose their pre-existing ability to synthesize vitamin C. The parent molecule evolved into lipoprotein (a).
According to Pauling and Rath, the survival advantage underlying this overnight change was descent from the trees, for the two events occurred about the same time and it makes a certain amount of sense.
Previously, our ancestors were living a comfortably arboreal life, possibly even surrounded by vitamin C laden fruit, when they were called upon to make this shift; this descent to the surface of the growing savannahs. Protection from the "tooth and claw" of waiting terrestrial carnivores was now a major concern. I can readily understand why they traded in their vitamin C synthesis ticket for lipoprotein (a), designed precisely for thrombogenesis.
But this new dependency upon dietary vitamin C , millions of years later would present man with the scourge of scurvy and now atherosclerosis and chronic, subclinical scurvy, especially in the elderly, in whom the black and blue marks come so easily. Dr. Steven Hickey and Dr. Hilary Roberts with the Vitamin C Foundation and authors of the book 'Ascorbate: the Science of Vitamin C,' have gone so far as to suggest that heart disease is actually a chronic form of the vitamin C deficiency disease called scurvy.
Vitamin C, found in a variety of fruits and vegetables, is essential not only for our good health, but our very survival. Without vitamin C, human beings will certainly die of scurvy, a disease characterized by bleeding gums, skin discolorations from small, ruptured blood vessels, easy bruising, joint pain, loose and decaying teeth, and hyperkeratosis of hair follicles. Vitamin C has many essential roles in the body.
Primary among these is the synthesis of collagen, which is a main structural protein in our bodies, giving support to tissues, including strengthening blood vessels, ligaments, tendons, bone, and teeth. It is for this role that we, millions of years ago, transformed our capacity for vitamin C synthesis into that for making highly thrombogenic lipoprotein (a).
Imagine, the advantages of a molecule studded with receptors for lysine, glycine and proline, the components of collagen. The slightest tear into these collagen strands from whatever cause, must inevitably rupture one or more of these collagen threads thereby triggering the immediate clustering of Lp(a) around the damaged area, stopping blood loss. Is it any wonder that excess Lp(a) activity, this gift from our ancestors, is considered harmful in today's world, free of "tooth and claw" worries?
Vitamin C is also required for synthesis of hormones, neurotransmitters, and other important substances needed for metabolism. In addition to these functions, vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant. It neutralizes free radicals before they have a chance to damage our cells. The importance of this anti-oxidant role of vitamin C is just being discovered. Vitamin C is arguably one of the most important antioxidants in our human physiology for its versatility and wide ranging presence.
The only argument one might have with the U.S. Government's Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) is that all the many roles of vitamin C have not been accounted for. The current RDA is adequate to prevent death or serious health issues from acute deficiency of vitamin C (e.g., scurvy). The RDA is also adequate for required collagen and hormone synthesis (the RDA is mainly based on this.) But to work effectively as an antioxidant, scientists are learning that vitamin C levels need to be significantly higher in our bodies. And the debate now is over how much is needed.
It was not until 1928 that vitamin C was isolated. Shortly thereafter its powerful anti-oxidant role was determined, placing vitamin C on nearly a par with CoQ10 in this function. The role of anti-oxidants in nutrition is to minimize the production of free radicals.
Free radicals have been shown to be a significant contributing factor in the development of chronic disease and cancer. Free radicals can also oxidize LDL cholesterol. As we're learning, it's not so much the LDL cholesterol that's implicated in the development of heart disease, it's the fact that the LDL cholesterol has been "oxidized" by free radicals that is important in cardiovascular disease. Free radicals can also cause DNA mutation and damage the supportive structure of our cells, which can contribute to the development of cancer and free radicals appear to be the essence of aging.
The RDA of vitamin C in the past has not sufficiently considered this vital role of vitamin C in anti-oxidation and complicating everything is the fact that vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin, which means that it is not stored in the body and must be replaced by our diet or supplements every day.
Duane Graveline MD MPH
Former USAF Flight Surgeon
Former NASA Astronaut
Retired Family Doctor
Updated December 2015