Vitamin C Deficiency Symptoms & How to Overcome Them

By Rachael Link, MS, RD


Vitamin C is a nutrient that is crucial to health. In fact, a vitamin C deficiency can wreak havoc on just about everything from immune function to wound healing, maintaining strong blood vessels and energy levels.

In the long term, it may even have more serious consequences, including a higher risk of chronic disease and certain health conditions.

Fortunately, it’s often easy to prevent by simply enjoying a variety of vitamin C foods alongside a healthy, balanced diet. When it comes to avoiding low vitamin C levels, increasing your intake of foods high in the nutrient is critical.

What health issues are due to a lack of vitamin C, and what dietary sources can you consume to maintain healthy levels? Let’s dive in and explore.

Why You Need Vitamin C

Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is an important water-soluble vitamin that doubles as a powerful antioxidant. It helps fight harmful free radicals and protect cells against oxidative damage.

Studies indicate that ascorbic acid also plays a role in several other aspects of health, including wound healing, healthy blood vessels, bone formation, collagen synthesis and the development of connective tissues in the body.

Plus, some research shows that this key vitamin is also involved in disease prevention and immune function. For example, one study in the Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism reported that getting adequate intake of vitamin C dietary sources could decrease these issues related to a deficiency and shorten the duration of respiratory infections like the common cold.

What happens if vitamin C intake is low? In severe cases, the deficiency disease associated with vitamin C is scurvy, which is characterized by issues like bleeding gums, loose teeth and skin rashes.

However, issues that are due to a deficiency don’t stop there. Some of the other common signs of vitamin C deficiency include fatigue, depression, weakened blood vessels, poor wound healing, swelling and poor immune function.

Vitamin C Deficiency Symptoms

What are the signs of low ascorbic acid? In addition to scurvy, which is the most well-known vitamin C deficiency disease, other complications related to low vitamin C intake include:

  • Fatigue

  • Impaired wound healing

  • Chronic pain

  • Swelling

  • Weakened bones

  • Poor immune function

  • Corkscrew hairs

  • Weight gain

  • Rough and dry skin

  • Shortness of breath

  • Weakened blood vessels

  • Depression

  • Bleeding gums

  • Tooth loss

  • Anemia

  • Easy bruising

  • Red patches

  • Spoon-shaped fingernails

  • Painful joints

Vitamin C Deficiency Causes

A severe vitamin C deficiency is uncommon, especially in developed countries. However, it can often be caused by undernutrition/malnutrition or a poor diet lacking in fresh food ingredients like fruits and vegetables.

Conditions like anorexia or an overly restrictive diet may also contribute to deficiency.

Other potential vitamin C deficiency causes include underlying health conditions that affect nutrient absorption, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Smoking may also increase the risk of deficiency, which is why smokers need a higher intake of vitamin C per day to meet their needs.

Related: Is Liposomal Vitamin C Really More Absorbable than Other Supplements?

Dangers and Complications

With proper treatment, many of the signs of ascorbic acid deficiency can be easily resolved within a few weeks. For example, issues like vitamin C deficiency hair loss, impaired wound healing and fatigue often subside shortly after a deficiency diagnosis has been made and treatment has begun.

Over time, low vitamin C intake could have more serious effects on health and may even contribute to chronic disease. Research shows that low ascorbic acid intake may be associated with higher levels of inflammation and oxidative stress.

One study found that low intake is related to an increased risk of heart disease, and another indicates that it’s connected to higher body mass index. More research is needed to determine whether these conditions are actually caused by a deficiency in vitamin C or if other factors may be at play.

Fortunately, a healthy, well-rounded diet can virtually eliminate the risk of any vitamin C deficiency diseases for most people and can reduce short-term symptoms like swelling, bleeding gums and easy bruising within a matter of weeks.

How to Prevent and Overcome Vitamin C Deficiency

At this point, you may be wondering: How can I increase my vitamin C level? The easiest and most effective vitamin C deficiency treatment is to simply start switching up your dietary choices.

In fact, including a variety of healthy, nutrient-rich whole foods in your diet can help ensure you get enough sources of this vital vitamin.

Fruits and vegetables are especially high in ascorbic acid and can usually supply enough to meet your daily needs with just a few servings. Some of the top vitamin C foods include:

  • Black currant

  • Red pepper

  • Kiwi fruit

  • Guava

  • Green bell pepper

  • Orange

  • Strawberries

  • Papaya

  • Broccoli

  • Kale

In some cases, supplementation may also be recommended to treat a deficiency. Adult men and women are recommended to get at least 90 milligrams and 75 milligrams of ascorbic acid per day, respectively. However, these needs are increased in smokers as well as women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

If you suspect that you may have a vitamin C deficiency, it’s best to consult with a trusted health care practitioner in a clinical setting to determine the best course of treatment for you.

Risks and Side Effects

Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin. This means that extra amounts are not stored in the body but are excreted through the urine instead.

For this reason, consuming large amounts of vitamin C-rich foods is unlikely to cause any adverse side effects.

Although vitamin C supplementation is generally safe for most people, it can cause negative symptoms when used in high amounts. Some of the most common side effects associated with supplementation include nausea, diarrhea and stomach pain.

One clinical study shows that the use of vitamin C supplements may also be tied to a higher risk of developing kidney stones, especially in men.

If you suspect that you have a deficiency in ascorbic acid, you should talk to your doctor. Not only can doctors help develop a treatment plan that’s right for you, but they can also evaluate whether or not there may be other underlying clinical conditions playing a role.

Related: DIY Vitamin C Serum for the Face

Conclusion

  • Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is an important water-soluble vitamin that doubles as a powerful antioxidant.

  • Low intake of dietary food sources can have adverse effects on your health, hindering wound healing, blood vessel strength, immune system function, bone health, energy levels and cardiovascular health.

  • Vitamin C deficiency symptoms include fatigue, chronic pain, swelling, bleeding gums, easy bruising and so much more.

  • Some of the best vitamin C foods include kiwi, red and green peppers, black currant, broccoli and kale. Eating these can help treat and prevent a deficiency in vitamin C.