Like most other vitamins, vitamin C, a water soluble vitamin also known as ascorbic acid, is not made in the body but most be obtained from foods or supplements. Vitamin C plays a number of important roles in the body, including enhancing the absorption of iron. Iron helps make hemoglobin, the part of the red blood cell that carries oxygen. Vitamin C also aids in red blood cell production. A vitamin C deficiency can lead to anemia, or low red blood cell count.
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Anemia can occur from a number of causes. Vitamin C deficiency anemia occurs when your diet doesn’t include enough vitamin C. Taking foods high in vitamin C along with foods rich in iron creates a more acidic environment in the stomach, which increases iron absorption. Iron is not well absorbed; adults normally absorb between 10 and 15 percent of the iron they eat, the Office of Dietary Supplements explains. Heme iron, obtained from meat, is better absorbed than non-heme iron from plants and its absorption does not depend on other foods. Non-heme iron absorption, however, is influenced by other dietary intake such as vitamin C. People who obtain most of their protein from plant sources and who have a vitamin C deficiency have a higher risk of developing anemia. Causes of vitamin C deficiency that can lead to anemia include malnutrition, hyperthyroidism, cancer or an inability to absorb iron, according to the Mayo clinic. Smoking can also deplete vitamin C stores by 30 percent, according to the Merck Manuals Online Medical Library.
Up to 40 percent of vegans have an iron deficiency, Dr. Shersten Killup, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Kentucky, reported in “American Family Physician” in 2007. Twenty percent of black and Hispanic women in the United States also have an iron deficiency.
Symptoms of vitamin C deficiency anemia include pallor, weakness, rapid heartbeat during physical activity, feeling cold, increased susceptibility to infection and a red and swollen tongue. Other symptoms include weight loss, diarrhea, irritability and numbness or tingling in the hands and feet.
Giving vitamin C supplements along with iron supplements can improve vitamin C deficiency anemia as well as other types of anemia. While you absorb iron best if you take it on an empty stomach, iron taken this way is more likely to cause stomach upset, Killup states. Eat foods high in vitamin C along with foods high in plant iron to increase absorption. Do not take antacids at the same as iron, because antacids decrease the acidity in the stomach, which decreases iron absorption.