Older people with a high intake of vitamin C appear to have healthier skeletal muscle than those with lower intakes, according to a new study from the University of East Anglia in England. This is an important discovery because our natural loss of muscle mass begins in our forties and starts to accelerate after we pass the age of 65 years. The phenomenon is known as sarcopenia and is one of the main reasons why older people become increasingly fragile and susceptible to disease. The authors behind the study believe that it is particularly important for middle-aged and older people to get plenty of vitamin C from their diets or by taking supplements. As a bonus effect, vitamin C also protects against infections and cardiovascular diseases, which also typically affect seniors.
Our skeletal muscles are attached to our bones. They support the skeleton and enable it to move. Well-functioning skeletal muscle is vital for good health in old age and helps ensure good mobility, physical independence, and reduced risk of fractures and complications after falls. As we age, it is natural for us to lose muscle mass and muscle strength. Our figure also changes accordingly, typically causing our arms and legs to get thinner and our bottoms to look flatter. The stomach is likely to increase in size.
According to Professor Ailsa Welch from the University of East Anglia (UEA), who is the lead investigator behind the new study, we start losing around one percent of our muscle mass annually from the age of 50. This condition known as sarcopenia affects over 50 million people worldwide. Loss of muscle mass and muscle function is a huge problem because it can result in physical frailty, dependence on others, type 2 diabetes, reduced quality of life, and early death.
How can vitamin C help people over 50 years maintain their muscle mass?
Vitamin C has a number of different functions because it is a structural component of connective tissue that is important for muscle mass among other things. Vitamin C is also a powerful antioxidant that protects cells and tissues against oxidative stress caused by free radicals. This protective function is vital because the free radical burden increases with age, and the increased number of free radicals speed up the destruction of muscle cells. For that reason, we have an increased need for antioxidants like vitamin C after we pass the age of 50 years to help protect our cells.
Widespread vitamin C deficiency makes this study relevant
Some of the best sources of vitamin C are cabbage, broccoli, red bell pepper, citrus fruit, kiwi, berries, new potatoes, horseradish, spinach, garlic, and herbs. To date, only few studies have investigated the importance of getting enough vitamin C in senior life. The scientists behind the current study therefore wanted to conduct a more comprehensive study of vitamin C and its importance for muscle mass.
They collected data from over 13,000 people aged 42-82 years. The study subjects were already taking part in a large cancer study called EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition). The scientists made calculations of the participants’ muscle mass and vitamin C intake over the course of a week. Also, they measured vitamin C levels in the blood of the subjects.
It turned out that the participants that got most vitamin C from their diets or had the highest blood levels of the nutrient had the largest estimated amount of muscle mass compared with the participants with the lowest vitamin C levels. The authors say that sufficient amounts of vitamin C from the diet or from supplements can help prevent age-related loss of muscle mass.
They also observed that nearly 60 percent of the male study participants and 50 percent of the females did not get the amount of vitamin C recommended by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). This must be addressed. The scientists do not as such recommend taking mega-doses and they say that most people can meet their daily requirements by eating the recommended amount of fruit and vegetables.
How much vitamin C do we need?
Recommendations for vitamin C vary. In Denmark, the daily reference intake (RI) level for adults is 80 mg, whereas EFSA recommends that adult men get 110 mg and adult women get 95 mg. It is difficult to determine our exact need because some people are better able than others to absorb vitamin C from food and supplements. Besides, the individual need for vitamin C depends on a number of factors such as ageing, smoking, chronic diseases, stress exposure, poisoning, lesions, stimulant abuse and other things that are known to increase the risk of oxidative stress and cause the body to use more vitamin C to protect itself.
If you decide take a high-dosed vitamin C supplement (typically 500-1000 mg), it may be a good idea to choose a non-acidic vitamin C source like calcium ascorbate that it gentle towards the stomach.
University of East Anglia. How vitamin C could help over 50´s retain muscle mass. Science daily. August 2020
Sam Rowe and Anitra C. Carr. Global Vitamin C Status and Prevalence of Deficiency: A cause for Concern? Nutrients 6 July 2020
Alicja Eea Rataczak et al. Vitamin C Deficiency and the Risk of Osteoporosis in Patients with an Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Nutrients 2020
Yazdani Shaik BD and Pio Conti. Relation between Vitamin C, Mastcells and Inflammation. Journal of Nutrition & Food Sciences. 2016
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