Can Vitamin C Slow Muscle Loss Due to Aging?
One reality of aging is muscle loss, especially in people who aren’t physically active. Men and women who are inactive lose between 3 and 5% of their total muscle mass every decade after age 30. Plus, muscle loss speeds up in women after menopause. Physical activity, especially strength training, is the best panacea for slowing loss of muscle tissue and avoiding frailty later in life.
But could vitamin C play a role in preserving healthy muscles? Vitamin C is an antioxidant vitamin that helps counteract cellular damage from free radicals. Each time you step outside and breathe in polluted air or expose your skin to sunlight, it creates a cascade of free radicals that you hope your cells can repair. Vitamin C is one of the vitamins that helps this repair process. But could vitamin C also conserve muscle mass?
Researchers at UEA Norwich Medical School examined information from 13,000 middle-aged and older people in a larger study called the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition Norfolk Study. They made an intriguing observation; subjects who consumed more vitamin C and had higher amounts of vitamin C in their bloodstream had more skeletal muscle mass relative to those who had lower levels of vitamin C in their diet and bloodstream.
Vitamin C is abundant in fruits and vegetables, including citrus fruits and berries. Some exceptional sources of vitamin C include acerola cherries and camu-camu. However, these vitamin C sources are harder to find. Among the vegetables, bell peppers are an excellent source, although you can find moderate quantities of vitamin C in many vegetables. However, cooking destroys as much as 40% of the vitamin C in vegetables. So fruit is the best way to maximize vitamin C.
Can adding more vitamin C to your diet help you stay strong and muscular as you age? This study only found an association between higher levels of vitamin C and more muscle mass. It doesn’t prove that vitamin C is responsible for the benefits. It’s an area that needs further study to make sure it’s vitamin C and not some other factor that people with higher vitamin C levels have in common.
There are some reasons vitamin C may reduce age-related muscle loss. As mentioned, vitamin C is an antioxidant vitamin that fights free radical damage. Oxidative damage and free radicals also contribute to muscle loss. The same free radicals that damage cells also injure muscle cells and muscle tissue as a whole. Research shows oxidative damage contributes to sarcopenia, the age-related decline in muscle tissue, and an increase in body fat that makes people frail and increases the risk of falling and fracturing a hip.
Lack of physical activity and diet also contribute to sarcopenia. Lack of strength training and eating a diet high in sugar and calories and low in protein may also hasten the onset of sarcopenia. The consequences of sarcopenia include a higher risk of falling, lack of stamina, poor balance, and reduced quality of life. Beyond vitamin C, studies show that vitamin D plays a key role in preserving skeletal muscle and bone health. Some research shows omega-3s from sources like fish oil may help older people slow age-related muscle loss. That’s why diet quality is so important for healthy function as the years go by.
The Bottom Line
Proper nutrition is essential for reducing muscle loss and preventing sarcopenia. Whether vitamin C plays a key role is an area that needs more research. Rather than reaching for a vitamin C supplement to meet your body’s vitamin C requirements, add more fresh fruits and vegetables to your diet and eat them raw or lightly cooked. Eat vitamin C-rich foods daily, since your body can’t store this vitamin.
Getting high doses of vitamin C in supplement form increases the risk of kidney stones in people who have had calcium oxalate stones in the past. Plus, vitamin C supplements can cause nausea and diarrhea at higher doses. Most side effects of too much vitamin C show up at doses above 2,000 milligrams per day and come from vitamin C in supplement form, not food.