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Vitamin C and your health

6-minute read

Key facts

  • Vitamin C is found in many different fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens and citrus.
  • Vitamin C helps your body absorb iron and copper.
  • If you don’t reach your recommended dietary intake (RDI) of vitamin C through food consumption, supplements can help.
  • If you take vitamin C supplements, always follow the directions on the packaging, since too much can be harmful.

What is vitamin C?

Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid or ascorbate, is a natural antioxidant that can be found in a variety of fresh foods and is essential to keeping you healthy and your body functioning well. .

Why is vitamin C important for my health?

Vitamin C has many important functions in the body, including keeping your skin, bones and connective tissue healthy as well as help your body absorb iron. Some people incorrectly believe vitamin C will help prevent you from catching the common cold. While there have been many attempts to support this idea with research-based evidence, there is still no convincing proof of a significant benefit. A high dose of vitamin C taken as soon as you get symptoms may, however, lessen the duration of a cold.

A major vitamin C deficiency (consuming less than 7mg per day, or around one segment of orange, for more than 4 weeks) can lead to scurvy. This condition can involve bone and blood vessel disease, bleeding, pain in the hands and feet, and in extreme cases, death.

What are some good natural sources of vitamin C?

Vitamin C is found in many fruits and vegetables. Fruits include citrus fruits such as oranges, grapefruit and lemon, kiwi fruit, blackcurrants, strawberries and guava. Vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, cooked kale, Brussels sprouts and Chinese cabbage. The amount of vitamin C in fruits and vegetables varies, and can be influenced by season, transportation, shelf life and storage time.

Eating fresh fruit and vegetables is ideal because cutting, bruising, cooking, heating or exposing food to certain materials can destroy the vitamin C. To boost your intake, try adding in a fruit or vegetable that’s high in vitamin C to some of your meals, or having an orange as a snack.

Should I take vitamin C supplements?

The best way to give your body the vitamins it needs is to eat a varied diet that includes healthy proteins (such as lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, nuts, seeds, legumes and beans) and a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Taking a vitamin C supplement will increase the amount of that specific vitamin in your body but won’t necessarily mean you’re getting the nutrients, minerals, vitamins and dietary fibre that come with a balanced diet.

Eating whole foods is a healthier approach. For example, that orange you eat contains so much more than just vitamin C — it also contains a range of other vitamins and minerals that help your body absorb and make good use of these nutrients. If you are on a restrictive diet, such as a vegan diet, or you have a health condition that impacts how you eat foods or how you absorb nutrients, you may need to take vitamin supplements to avoid deficiency and stay healthy.

Before taking any vitamin supplement — and particularly if you are on a restrictive diet — speak with your doctor or an accredited dietitian.

The Australian Government publishes a Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) for each vitamin, allowing you to check that you are getting the right amount.

Adults need around 45mg of vitamin C daily — this equates to around half an orange or a cup of strawberries.

Breastfeeding women need more — around 85mg daily — while children need a little less, at around 35mg to 40mg daily.

There is some evidence to suggest that people who smoke cigarettes may need larger amounts of vitamin C than non-smokers to prevent deficiency — one of many reasons to consider quitting smoking.

If you are concerned about your vitamin C intake, keep a food diary to record what you eat and talk to your doctor or dietitian.

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Can taking vitamin C supplements cause side effects?

When taken as directed, Vitamin C supplementation is not usually associated with significant side effects. However, talk to your doctor before you start taking supplements and follow the instructions on the packaging.

If you choose to take supplements to help you reach your RDI, then unless you have a diagnosed deficiency it is best to take a multivitamin. This reduces the likelihood that you will overdose on any one vitamin.

Can I take too much vitamin C?

High doses of a vitamin supplement are not necessarily healthy.

Taking too much vitamin C in the form of a vitamin supplement can result in nausea, abdominal cramps, headaches, fatigue, kidney stones and diarrhoea. High doses of vitamin C can also interfere with the way your body absorbs other essential nutrients, such as iron.

Consuming healthy foods that contain vitamin C is not only the preferred way to ensure you reach your recommended intake, it’s also the best way to avoid taking too much. Do not take more than 1,000 mg per day in the form of a vitamin C supplement.

If you are concerned that you have taken too much of a vitamin C supplement, call the Poisons Information Centre (13 11 26) immediately.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2022

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