Vitamin C Saves Brain Cells

It’s smart to take vitamin C, and it may make you even smarter. Vitamin C is a very strong antioxidant that researchers have only recently discovered passes readily through the blood-brain barrier; is concentrated in high levels in brain tissue; contributes to the creation of neuro­transmitters, such as dopamine; and protects cells from free-radical damage.

That’s why numerous studies show that higher amounts of vitamin C in the bloodstream boost cognitive perfor­mance apparently at all ages and protect against age-related brain degeneration, including Alzheimer’s disease and strokes.


Although many vitamins may help boost braimpower, vit­amin C often stands out. For example, British investigators found that adolescent boys ages thirteen to fourteen with the highest blood levels of vitamin C had the highest scores on nonverbal IQ tests. Vitamin C is also known to boost blood levels of glutathione, another antioxidant linked to higher scores on IQ tests.


In an early fascinating study, two psychologists from Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas, in 1960 showed that drinking orange juice could boost IQ scores in school­children. Researchers argued that one reason kids from lower socioeconomic levels score lower on IQ tests may be an undetected nutritional deficiency that hinders mental growth and performance and that the condition may not be permanent, but reversible.

So they devised a test. They gave 236 schoolchildren from kindergarten to ninth grade and 115 university stu­dents age-appropriate IQ tests. They also analyzed vitamin C blood levels and classified children as high or low. As the­orized, they discovered that kids with the highest blood vit­amin C generally had higher IQ scores by five to ten points.

Next question: Could they raise IQ scores in low-C kids by giving them vitamin-C rich orange juice at school for six months? Yes; it worked. When retested after six months of drinking orange juice at school (the amount was not spec­ified), kids with originally high-vitamin C blood showed very little improvement in IQ scores. However, average IQ scores in low-vitamin C kids shot up about four points! Fur­ther, IQ scores generally rose along with blood vitamin C concentrations.

Researchers suggested that the extra orange juice and/or vitamin C boosted brain “alertness” or “sharpness” in those who needed it, supporting the idea that high vit­amin C kids already functioned at near maximum brain capacity, while the lower C group functioned below maxi­mum brain capacity.


Vitamin C is especially essential for preserving aging brains. You can predict the vitality of your mental function as you age by how much vitamin C you take in, according to recent research. The more vitamin C, the less apt you are to lose your mind. Particularly impressive evidence comes from Australian researchers at the University of Sydney. In a study of 117 older persons they found that those who took vitamin C supplements were only 40 percent as apt to have severe cognitive impairment as non-vitamin C takers, as judged by scores on the highly valid Mini-Mental State Examination. This was true regardless of educational level. When supplement users also ate a high vitamin C diet, the odds of intellectual decline dropped even more—to only 32 percent.

A recent Swiss study of older people (ages sixty-five to ninety-four) showed that those with the highest blood lev­els of vitamin C performed best on tests of various forms of memory.


A primary way vitamin C seems to deter mental decline is by combating cerebrovascular disease, namely strokes. British researchers at the University of Southampton recently studied 921 men and women age sixty-five and over. They found that those with the most vitamin C in their diets and in their blood had the best cognitive function and the lowest risk of fatal strokes. Subjects who took in more than 45 milligrams of vitamin C daily showed only half as much cognitive impairment as those who took in less than 28 mil­ligrams of vitamin C daily. Further, those who scored low­est on tests of intellectual functioning were nearly three times as likely to die of a stroke as those who had no evi­dence of cognitive impairment. The evidence points decid­edly to vitamin C as the link between cognitive function and strokes. Those were with the least dietary and blood vita­min C were also three times more apt to die of a stroke than those with the most. In fact, low vitamin C was as big a risk factor for deadly stroke as high diastolic blood pressure.

The inevitable conclusions: “A subclinical deficiency” of vitamin C predicts impaired cognitive function in older people. A high vitamin C intake protects against both cog­nitive impairment and cerebrovascular disease. A large pro­portion of cognitive decline in the elderly is vascular in origin.”

Similarly, a large-scale Swiss study of nearly 3000 mid­dle-aged men showed that those with low blood vitamin C and beta-carotene had four times the risk of a fatal stroke.

How does vitamin C fight strokes? One way: It sup­presses abnormalities, including clogging, in the carotid artery that signal mental decline and strokes. Researcher Stephen Kritchevsky at the University of Tennessee recently found that women over age fifty-five who took vitamin C supplements had carotid arteries with less thickening of the walls—that is, larger openings for blood and oxygen to flow through on the way to the brain. This is important, because new research identifies thickened carotid artery walls as a leading predictor of memory and cognitive decline after age sixty-five.

Vitamin C also regulates vascular function—the dilation and contraction of arteries and blood flow—in ways that discourage traveling blood clots that can block cerebral ves­sels. Vitamin C for one thing makes plaque more “stable” so bits are less apt to break off and form clots.

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Further, if you have a stroke, you may suffer less damage if your blood contains high amounts of vitamin C. That’s a clue scientists have picked up from hibernating animals. During a stroke, the cutoff of oxygen and glucose causes massive brain cell destruction. Moreover, as blood flow resumes in a rush, there is a second wave of destruction of cells trying to recover from the attack. It is called “reper­fusion injury,” and can be as frightful as the initial assault on the brain. The cause is the sudden reinfusion of blood, oxygen, and mainly free-radical chemicals to the brain.

Scientists have discovered this also happens in hiber­nating animals when they wake up after a long sleep. But why don’t they suffer severe brain damage when they are aroused from their torpor? Margaret E. Rice of New York University Medical Center may have a partial answer. Dur­ing hibernation, squirrels’ blood flow to the brain is reduced to a trickle, by 90 percent or more, she says. How­ever, at the same time blood vitamin C soars 400 percent and vitamin C in the cerebrospinal fluid of the central ner­vous system doubles and remains high during the long sleep.

Dr. Rice believes this vitamin C buildup is nature’s way of protecting animals’ brains from the surge of free radicals that comes when blood flow returns to normal and brain cells vigorously start burning oxygen again. In short, the vitamin C acts as a strong antioxidant to neutralize the free radical onslaught that would otherwise destroy brain tissue.

It’s logical that high blood levels of vitamin C in humans whose brains are under attack from free radicals during a stroke might also reduce damage to brain cells, lessening the severity of a stroke.

How does vitamin C affect the brain? At least 400 med­ical articles have been published in answer to that ques­tion. Vitamin C’s most obvious power is as an antioxidant. Leading researcher Lester Packer says vitamin C is one of the five most powerful “network” antioxidants, along with vitamin E, coenzyme Q10, lipoic acid, and glutathione. As an antioxidant, it protects brain cells from extensive dam­age by free radical assaults. For example, studies have shown that people with Alzheimer’s disease have much lower levels of vitamin C in the cerebrospinal fluid than young healthy people. In one recent study not a single person developed Alzheimer’s who had taken vitamin C sup­plements.

It’s evident the brain considers vitamin C essential for optimal functioning, say experts, because it insists on keep­ing extremely high levels in brain cells. Animal studies show that vitamin C quickly and easily enters the brain. After injecting lab animals with vitamin C, scientists can detect vitamin C in their brains within minutes!

Vitamin C, however, is more than an antioxidant. It facil­itates the transmission of messages through the brain. It can directly influence electrical impulses, the synthesis (the brain needs vitamin C to make dopamine and adrenaline) and release of neurotransmitters and their journey through cell synapses. In short, vitamin C is a prime player in the all-important connector sites of the brain that determine the quality and quantity of transmissions.

How much? A moderate dose of 500 to 1000 milligrams of vitamin C daily is thought to be sufficient to protect the brain. Some experts think even 200 milligrams may be enough.

Safety: Vitamin C is incredibly safe at very high doses. No toxicity has been detected at doses of 20,000 milligrams a day, the amount Dr. Linus Pauling took. You may expe­rience loose bowel movements after taking high doses of vitamin C, but they subside when you lower the dose.

Jean-Paul Marat

Many tips are based on recent research, while others were known in ancient times. But they have all been proven to be effective. So keep this website close at hand and make the advice it offers a part of your daily life.

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