Vitamin C is extremely important for the brain’s blood vessels, nerve cells, neurotransmitters, and connective tissue. An estimated 10 percent of the adult population is vitamin C deficient without specific symptoms. According to a scientific article in the Danish journal Aktuel Videnskab, vitamin C deficiency during pregnancy may harm brain development in the fetus.
Most animals are able to synthesize vitamin C. However, primates (including humans), guinea pigs, and bats have lost this ability through the course of evolution and depend on dietary sources of the vitamin. Because vitamin C is water-soluble and unable to get stored in the body’s fat tissue, our vitamin C deposits are limited. Therefore, we need to consume the vitamin on a regular basis, not least to maintain our energy levels and support the brain and its functions.
People are not eating enough fruit and vegetables
Fruit and vegetables are great sources of vitamin C, but many people today tend to eat less fruit and vegetables such as cabbage and rot crops compared with earlier.
Scurvy is rare, but minor deficiencies are widespread
Vitamin C is an important constituent of the collagen in connective tissue, which is vital for the structure of blood vessels, and for our skin, gums, and bones. In old days, thousands of sailors died of scurvy, which is the most severe stage of vitamin C deficiency and involves internal bleeding. The first signs of scurvy are fatigue, mood swings, and depression and are linked to the brain and nervous system.
We know today that scurvy can be remedied with lemon juice or other sources of vitamin C. We also know that scurvy is a very rare condition. However, subclinical scurvy is a widespread but overlooked problem that gives the body’s connective tissue a loose structure. This may lead to symptoms such as bruising, bleeding gums, nosebleed, and poor wound healing. Lack of vitamin C may also lead to impaired immune function, iron deficiency, and cardiovascular diseases. According to the most recent research, even minor vitamin C deficiencies may permanently affect the development and function of the brain.
Vitamin C and its path to the brain (that contains loads of the vitamin)
Vitamin C is also known as ascorbic acid. Some of the best sources of this nutrient are fruits, berries, and vegetables such as cabbage, bell pepper, spinach, garlic, and herbs. Vitamin C (from food or form supplements) is absorbed through the intestinal wall (in an ionized form), and excess vitamin C is excreted in the urine.
Vitamin C levels in the body’s tissues differ greatly. The brain contains around 100 times more vitamin C than the amount found in the bloodstream. In the case of persistent vitamin C deficiency, the brain is able to maintain levels that are more than 500 times higher than the amount in the blood. In other words, the brain has a unique ability to remove vitamin C from the blood, and if a deficiency occurs, it often has a negative effect on those organs and tissues that get too little vitamin C.
Did you know that the highest vitamin C concentrations are found in the brain and adrenal glands?
Vitamin C’s role in the brain
Vitamin C has the following functions in the brain
- To produce collagen in our connective tissue
- To form blood vessels and support branching of nerve cells
- To support signal paths and neurotransmitters in the brain
- To work as an antioxidant
- To support our mental balance
As mentioned, vitamin C is vital for the production of collagen in connective tissue. Lack of the nutrient may give connective tissue a loose structure. If the collagen production in the brain is inhibited, it may also impair the function of the connective tissue in cerebral blood vessels. This may reduce the brain’s blood supply, which not only supplies the brain cells with oxygen and nutrients but also removes waste products from the highly active metabolism.
Vitamin C is a part of specific mechanisms that control the formation of blood vessels, which is important for the supply of blood to the brain – especially when the brain is developing.
Scientists also believe that vitamin C is highly important for the countless nerve cell branches that are necessary for well-functioning circulation.
Vitamin C is a co-factor in the conversion of dopamine to noradrenalin and adrenalin. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is primarily found in the brain and which affects our motor skills, behavior, endocrine systems, and mood. Abuse of stimulants such as nicotine and cocaine boost dopamine levels in the “reward center” of the brain. Once a person stops that abuse, symptoms such as apathy, restlessness, and depression occur, simply because of the rapidly declining dopamine production.
Noradrenalin and adrenalin contribute to the maintenance of a stable environment in the body. In situations with stress or danger, these hormones prepare the body for fight or flight. This requires particularly large quantities of vitamin C.
Vitamin C also makes sure that nerve cells are able to reuptake glutamate, which is a neurotransmitter. All major neural pathways use glutamate as a neurotransmitter, and glutamate is involved in those parts of the brain that control cognitive functions such as memory and linguistic skills. Nonetheless, glutamate is toxic, which is why concentrations of this substance in the extracellular part of the nervous system must be very low.
Lack of vitamin C may therefore impairs the brain’s ability to transfer signals, and impaired glutamate reuptake may cause cell death and brain damage.
All cells in the body, including brain cells, are exposed to free radicals that attack cell membranes and cellular DNA. Free radicals are a byproduct of our normal energy metabolism, but the free radical load increases as a result of stress, different ageing processes, poisoning, smoking, and radiation.
Because the brain has a very high content of polyunsaturated fatty acids, it is highly vulnerable to free radicals. This is particularly true of brains of fetuses and children, as developing tissues have increased metabolism, which in itself steps up the production of free radicals.
Antioxidants are the only things that can protect us against free radicals. In the brain, vitamin C is considered the most important antioxidant. It counteracts oxidative stress, which would otherwise lead to cell damage and cell death.
Vitamin C has a number of different functions in the energy turnover, the brain, the nervous system, the cardiovascular system, and the production of stress hormones in our adrenal glands. Therefore, the vitamin has key importance for our energy levels and mental balance.
Vitamin C deficiencies and different types of brain damage
Danish studies carried out on guinea pigs reveal that even short-term vitamin C deficiencies may have grave consequences. Young guinea pigs that were exposed to vitamin C deficiency for two months (in humans, this would translate into the period from childhood to adolescence) had substantially greater difficulty with recollecting and navigating through a maze. Also, the animals had up to 30 percent fewer nerve cells in their hippocampus compared with a group of healthy control animals that had been fed adequate amounts of vitamin C.
The hippocampus is the part of the brain that is important for memory and the ability to navigate. Even minor vitamin C deficiencies appear to lower the number of nerve cells and increase the risk of functional damage to the brain.
If pregnant women lack vitamin C, the deficiency is transferred to the fetus and even to the newborn baby during lactation. In other words, pregnant women and neonates are a potential risk group. The Danish scientists therefore decided to conduct a study on pregnant guinea pigs, whom they exposed to persistently low vitamin C intake. Their study showed that the hippocampus in the young animals was 10-15 percent smaller than in offspring of mothers who did not lack vitamin C. According to the study, the damage sustained during the fetal development was permanent.
The Danish scientists also referred to the fact that abusers of e.g. ecstasy may also have a 10-15 percent decrease in the size of their hippocampus.
It remains unclear if vitamin C deficiencies are directly able to cause brain damage in humans, but the guinea pig research strongly suggests that vitamin C plays a vital role in brain development and brain function – during the fetal development and throughout life.
Vitamin C deficiencies are widespread but easy to avoid
An estimated 10 percent of adults lack vitamin C but do not show any specific signs of it. Vitamin C deficiencies and poor utilization of the nutrient are caused by unhealthy diets, stress, smoking, poisoning, lesions, and overconsumption of alcohol and narcotic drugs. Large intake of sugar is also a problem, because sugar and vitamin C compete for access to the same channels that lead into the cells. The more sugar we consume, the more it reduces the effect of vitamin C.
If you live a healthy life without too much stress, tobacco, and stimulants, you can cover your need for vitamin C by eating around five or six servings of fruit and vegetables daily, possible helped by a multivitamin pill.
The new studies suggest that even minor vitamin C deficiencies may cause serious changes to the brain. Therefore, exposed groups such as people suffering stress, smokers, drug abusers, and pregnant/lactating women, plus children of smokers should ideally consume more vitamin C than advised by the health authorities.
Regular multivitamin pills normally contain around 80 mg of vitamin C, while specific vitamin C supplements often contain 500-750 mg or more. A good idea is to take a non-acidic source like calcium ascorbate that is gentle towards the stomach lining.
It is interesting to consider
...that fatigue, mood swings, and depression are known as early but non-specific signs of a vitamin C deficiency.
Pernille Tveden-Nyborg og Jens Lykkesfeldt. Vitaminer til hjernen. Aktuel Naturvidenskab, nr. 4 2016
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