Ask anyone at a dinner table to list off 5 vitamins and minerals and you’ll most likely hear Vitamin C thrown into their list. That’s because Vitamin C or ascorbic acid (if your fancy) is universally touted for its antioxidant properties, safety, and relatively low cost. Clinical studies have shown that Vitamin C supports the immune system which helps reduce the symptoms of a common cold, supporting collagen production, enhancing iron absorption, and supporting adrenal function. That’s why a bottle of Vitamin C has become a cabinet staple in many households.
However, what if we told you it’s often misused when taken for immune health. In this article, we’ll discuss why Vitamin C is overrated as a standalone vitamin and what nutrients you can take to enhance the immune-supporting effects of Vitamin C.
The Benefits of Vitamin C
In general, Vitamin C supports our innate and adaptive immune system. This has a lot to do with the immunostimulant effects it has on white blood cells (neutrophils, lymphocytes, and phagocytes). To paint a clear picture of how Vitamin C supplementation truly works, we can use the example of the immune system being one big corporate company, while Vitamin C being only one of many departments that keep the business functioning.
As a refresher, the innate immune system refers to our nonspecific immunity and the body’s first line of defence to any foreign intruder (skin, mucous, stomach acid). The adaptive immune system consists of the cell mediated response including B and T cells. These memory cells keep a record of previous encountered infections and strengthen the body’s immune response to these infections in the future.
For a visual explanation of this, see below:
Quick Fact: Vitamin C is important to our B Cells ability to create a memory of antigens and viruses.
What Happens when Vitamin C is taken in isolation.
Vitamin C on its own without certain synergistic cofactors may not result in the benefits you’re expecting for its role in the immune system. We know that Magnesium and Vitamin D are important components to the “activation of Vitamin C”. Director of Medical and Scientific Affairs at Platinum Naturals Dr. Mary Nagai mentions that “about 80% of Canadians are Vitamin D deficient (especially now that everyone is staying indoors) and about 84% are Magnesium deficient”.
If you’re not getting the results you expect with your Vitamin C supplement, then consider taking an activated form of Vitamin C. Products such as activated-C comes from the idea that your adaptive immune system cannot function properly without cofactors Vitamin D, Zinc, Magnesium, and Selenium. As mentioned earlier, these cofactors are needed for T cells and B Cells to share information in order to make antibodies for antigens and are also needed for our innate immune system to activate Natural Killer Cells, Macrophages and Neutrophils.
The nutrients listed above are critical cofactors for the immune system and must work synergistically with Vitamin C to support the immune system. Now that we’ve established that Vitamin C supplementation alone isn’t as effective as most people thought. Let’s look at the specific cofactors that work synergistically with Vitamin C to support a healthy immune system.
Synergistic Nutrients to Take with Vitamin C
Magnesium: Being an essential dietary mineral and the second most prevalent electrolyte in the body makes magnesium’s role in overall health hard to disregard. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a time where magnesium status isn’t important when it comes to overall health. When it comes to our immune system, magnesium supports the function of lymphocytes in our innate and adaptive immune systems. Non-specifically, magnesium’s effects on cortisol and sleep quality lead to improved immune system function. It’s also worth noting that enzymes that metabolize Vitamin D are magnesium dependant and that magnesium supplementation can influence a person's Vitamin D status.
Zinc: Zinc’s influence on the development and function of cells that mediate the innate immune system make this a great addition to your immune health arsenal. Zinc also could stabilize cell membrane structures while serving as an antioxidant that combats oxidative stress during the inflammatory process. Combating this inflammatory process can have the ability to reduce the severity of a cold and flu.
Selenium: This essential mineral adds to the antioxidant capacity of Vitamin C and Zinc. Selenium particularly plays a critical role in balancing redox reactions (the balance of electrons that dictate oxidative stress) within cells and tissues that are involved in the innate and adaptive immune responses.
Vitamin D: As an innate and adaptive immune system modulator, Vitamin D’s status in the body is critical for immune health. Specifically, Vitamin D regulates B and T cells while controlling inflammation by modulating the cytokine response.
Citrus Bioflavonoids: The antioxidants from bioflavonoids help keep Vitamin C active for a longer period while serving as an additional antioxidant.
When to Take Vitamin C
While there is no specific rule on Vitamin C timing, there are general recommendations to consider. Taking Vitamin C with a meal may help some who experience upset stomachs from Vitamin C supplementation. As far as application goes, Vitamin C supplementation is beneficial for anyone experiencing the physical stress of a cold and flu. Vitamin C supplementation can also be beneficial for anyone experiencing mental stress. 600 mg of supplemental Vitamin C per day seems to be the sweet spot for most people, but dosages will vary depending on the individual’s health status. As always, consult with a health practitioner for questions regarding your supplement plan.