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The brain needs vitamin C for our cognitive functions

- and widespread deficiency has serious consequences

The brain needs vitamin C for our cognitive functionsIt is commonly known that vitamin C has an essential role in our connective tissue and immune defense. However, vitamin C is also vital for the brain. This was demonstrated in a new Australian study of the link between vitamin C and cognitive functions like memory, lingual skills, calculation, and orientation. The scientists also point to the fact that vitamin C deficiency is rather common in western countries, either due to dietary factors or because of conditions that increase the need for the nutrient.

Researchers from Swinburne Technical University and The National Institute of Integrative Medicine in Australia have found a link between levels of vitamin C in the blood and cognitive functions. Earlier studies have shown that vitamin C plays a vital role as an antioxidant that protects brain cells against free radicals and oxidative stress. We humans are exposed to oxidative stress in situations when the balance between free radicals and antioxidants is disturbed. Free radicals are highly aggressive molecules that cause damage to the cells. The free radical load is heavily increased by ageing, stress, too little sleep, poisoning, tobacco smoke, and radiation.
The human brain is particularly vulnerable to free radicals, and our only source of protection is antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin E, selenium, zinc, Q10, and various plant compounds.
Vitamin C’s biochemical role has come into focus in recent years. Animal studies demonstrate that vitamin C is important for proper functioning of the nervous system, including the development and differentiation of neurons and the synthesis of the protective, lipid-containing myelin sheath that encloses the neurons.

Vitamin C’s role in the brain

  • Formation of collagen in connective tissue
  • Antioxidant that protects against free radicals
  • Development and differentiation of neurons
  • Production of myelin sheath that encloses the neurons
  • Cognitive functions and mental balance

People with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease have low levels of vitamin C in their blood

Several studies of vitamin C’s importance for the brain and nervous system have looked at how levels of the nutrient affect cognitive functions. Nonetheless, the Australian study is the first to investigate and compare directly the effect of vitamin C on people with normal and impaired cognitive functions.
The scientists analyzed studies that had been published during the period between 1980 and 2017. In many of the studies, the scientists had used a special questionnaire called MMSE (Mini Mental State Examination) that is designed to identify the progression and severity of dementia and other types of cognitive impairment.
The questionnaire looks at cognitive functions like memory, calculation, language, orientation, and the ability to comprehend basic information.
The scientists gathered 50 studies from a pool of 500 scientific articles. Fourteen of the studies involved people with cognitive impairments such as Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Thirty-six of the studies involved people with normal cognitive functions.
It turned out that those with normal cognitive functions had adequate concentrations of vitamin C in the blood. However, in those with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, the scientists found significantly lower blood levels of the nutrient.
Some researchers assume that older people and individuals who have developed dementia often have difficulty with getting a healthy diet that covers their need for nutrients such as vitamin C. Other researchers believe that the lack of vitamin C observed with different types of dementia may be caused by oxidative stress in the brain, which consumes large amounts of vitamin C because of its role as an antioxidant.

Often, a combination of unhealthy diets, ageing, too little sleep, and medicine is what makes older people more vulnerable to oxidative stress.

Vitamin C deficiencies are common

As shown, vitamin C is vital for brain health and for preventing cognitive impairment and dementia. The nutrient is also vital for healing processes following traumatic brain damage. The scientists therefore reckon that as much as 15 percent of the population in western countries lack vitamin C, especially older people, smokers, pregnant women, and socially underprivileged individuals who cannot afford healthy food. This is highly unfortunate, as vitamin C is also important for preventing other serious conditions like cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin, which means that we are unable to store it in the body. Therefore, it is necessary to get the vitamin every day.

Science says: Get more vitamin C

Good vitamin C sources are acerola, citrus fruits and other types of fruit, rosehips, broccoli, bell pepper (red), garlic, berries, and herbs. A healthy diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables can easily provide the reference intake (RI) level, which is 80 micrograms for adults and children older than 11 years. However, as mentioned earlier, various kinds of oxidative stress may increase your need for the nutrient.
Sugar consumption also plays a role, as sugar and vitamin C compete for the same cellular channels. The more sugar you consume, the more it reduces the effect of vitamin C.
Therefore, exposed groups such as people with stress, smokers, drug abusers, pregnant and lactating women, and older people should consume more than the recommended amount of vitamin C.
When choosing vitamin C supplements, it is a good idea to buy non-acidic vitamin C (such as calcium ascorbate) that is gentle toward the stomach lining.

Did you know that the highest concentration of vitamin C is found in the brain and the adrenal glands?

Previous Danish studies support the Australian research

On the Health and Science website, you can find information about a study of guinea pigs that shows how vitamin C deficiency can have serious consequences. Young guinea pigs that are exposed to vitamin C deficiency for two months (in humans, this would represent the time from being a child to becoming a teenager) had difficulty with remembering and to navigating through a maze. The animals had up to 30 percent fewer neurons in their hippocampus compared with healthy control animals that had sufficient amounts of vitamin C.
The hippocampus is the part of the brain that has a special role in memory and orientation, and even minor vitamin C deficiencies appear reduce the number of neurons and cause functional damage.
If pregnant women lack vitamin C, the deficiency is passed on to the fetus or to the newborn baby during lactation. For that reason, pregnant women and newborn babies represent a large, potential risk group.

Getting enough vitamin C – a bit of simple math

You would have to eat 13 oranges or 60 apples to get the same amount of vitamin C that you get from one tablet with 750 mg of non-acidic vitamin C


Intake of Vitamin C improved brain cognitive function 2017

Pernille Tveden-Nyborg og jens Lykkesfeldt. Vitaminer til hjernen. Aktuel Naturvidenskab, nr. 4 2016

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