Bleeding gums, hair loss, dry, itchy skin – what were once symptoms reserved for British sailors and soldiers of the American Civil War are becoming more common today in the average person’s convenience-laden lifestyle. These symptoms collectively are known as scurvy, a nutritional deficiency syndrome related to vitamin C. British sailors in the 15-18th centuries were prone to scurvy resulting from the lack of fresh produce on their long sea voyages. Once understood, it became standard daily procedure for sailors of the Royal Navy to suck on citrus fruit – lemons or limes – garnering them the nickname “limeys.”
Scurvy has been known since ancient times, and it results from a lack of vitamin C. Despite our ample access to fresh produce in modern western society, symptoms of vitamin C deficiency can appear in anorexics, alcoholics, diabetics and smokers. Most ominously, though, is that it can afflict otherwise healthy people who simply have poor dietary habits, usually from eating the majority of their meals out. Because scurvy is so rare – and citrus fruits so plentiful – most people think they are impervious to vitamin C deficiency. And while it is true that actual scurvy is unusual today, the fact is that anyone can become vitamin C insufficient, with its associated problems.
Most recently, I encountered a 50-year-old male patient who came to see me for neck and low back pain, but during the evaluation reported some interesting symptoms. The first and most concerning was that he reported bleeding hemorrhoids. For those who do not know, hemorrhoids are swollen, distended veins in the anus or rectum. They can hurt; they can itch, and they can bleed. When bleeding, they can make the feces look blood red, or they can make the entire toilet bowl red with blood-tainted water. *Note: blood in the stool can be from something more serious than hemorrhoids, so if you have this symptom visit a doctor for an evaluation.
Next is that he was losing hair more than what he considered normal for him. Of course, everybody loses hair. It is a natural part of the life cycle for hair. However, most people can tell when the hair starts to fall out more than usual.
Third is that he reported suffering from severe dry skin and itching. He had dry patches all along his arms, shoulders, back, buttocks and legs. He said that sometimes the itching was so bad it would wake him in the middle of the night. Nothing he tried seemed to relieve the itching, including creams, lotions, increased water intake or fish oil supplementation.
Everything he described, while seeming separate and individually problematic, sounded to me like it was connected, and that he might not be getting enough vitamin C. I asked about his diet and found it was mostly take-out food, especially since Covid lock downs, as many of his daily meals were delivered. Starbucks for breakfast, tacos for lunch, sandwiches for dinner, for nearly a year. Not being obese, and self-reporting that he is a “sometimes regular” exerciser, this man appeared classically malnourished. I called it ominous earlier because it seems to me that this man’s diet was not atypical of the average city-dwelling American. Most modern, urban people primarily eat food prepared outside the home. It’s not that eating out, per se, is grossly problematic; but when the majority of one’s meals is take-out, then over time one may find oneself on the edge of a concerning nutritional deficiency.
Most people, when asked, will say that vitamin C is for the immune system. And they are right –vitamin C does have pro-immunity function. However, vitamin C is for much more than immunity; it is responsible for the integrity of our connective tissue, including skin, blood vessels and hair. It is necessary for proper iron absorption, thus when levels of vitamin C are insufficient, it can lead to iron-deficiency anemia. As a result, these people can suffer from fatigue – they tire easily and have low vibrancy and vitality – get dizzy, short of breath and even lose consciousness. Vitamin C is also essential in the formation of the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine.
Looking at my client’s symptoms – bleeding hemorrhoids, hair loss, and severe dry skin and itching – along with his dietary habits, all pointed to vitamin C insufficiency to me. Because of its role in collagen production, when vitamin C is low it can lead to easy bruising, petechiae (small red spots under the skin), and spontaneous bleeding. Sometimes one may find this type of bleeding at the gums, sometimes at wounds which seem to heal slowly, and one might even see it with bleeding hemorrhoids.
Also related to collagen formation is vitamin C’s role in healthy skin and hair. As I have already said, some hair loss is completely normal. Hair comes out when brushing or combing, in the shower, and so forth, but when you start to find it in your food, in your Covid masks, and on your regular sleeping pillow, you might want to assess your vitamin C intake. An interesting symptom of vitamin C deficiency is small, corkscrew-shaped body hair. I would not, however, assume the absence of these tiny, corky hairs to mean everything is fine. Just know that vitamin C does have an impact on hair, and excessive hair loss can be a result of low levels of vitamin C.
Finally, I had reason to believe the itchy skin my client suffered from was related to low vitamin C. Well known is that low vitamin C levels can lead to skin condition known as keratosis pilaris, or “chicken skin.” It is characterized by itchy, red, bumpy skin – the bumps resulting from dead skin cells which plug the hair follicles. No surprise that this condition can lead to dry, itchy, bumpy, irritable skin.
The good news about vitamin C insufficiency (or frank deficiency) is that it is quickly remedied with vitamin C supplementation. Sure one can do it by simply eating citrus fruits, like the old British sailors once did. But a far more effective and probably optimal way to increase one’s vitamin C levels is to supplement with good quality vitamin C. My client saw each of his aforementioned symptoms clear up within two weeks. First he noticed the bleeding from his hemorrhoids stopped; then his hair normalized. The itching took the longest but cleared up in one month – all from regular vitamin C supplementation.
The problem with supplementation is that it can be hard to tell if a product actually contains the ingredients it claims. Due to the enormity of the nutrition industry, and despite rules to assure safety and quality, the fact is that it is poorly regulated.
For that reason, I have been committed to extensively researching vitamin C supplement companies and their products. I carry a top-quality product which I can ship across the continental U.S. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms I have discussed, please contact me. I am available to discuss any concerns and give you my best advice with regard to vitamin C supplementation. Vitamin C is an essential nutrient necessary for structural integrity, healthy skin, teeth, hair and nails, and vital for energy production and vibrancy. And, of course, vitamin C is absolutely essential for immune function and anti-oxidant function. Do not allow yourself to fall into a vitamin C insufficiency. Start regular supplementation today.