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Vitamin C for Mood and Addiction

Vitamin C for Mood and Addiction

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How ascorbic acid soothes the brain

Beyond immune support

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is best known for its immune-enhancing effects – from reducing the severity and duration of the common cold,[1] to supporting the health of individuals with HIV/AIDS,[2] to reducing the histamine response seen in allergies and asthma,[3],[4],[5] to even potentially reducing the risk of many kinds of cancer.[6]

Antioxidants [like vitamin C] do more than just support immunity; they also are crucial for mental health.

Vitamin C largely supports immune health by serving as an essential antioxidant and enzyme cofactor in the body. But antioxidants do more than just support immunity; they also are crucial for mental health. Ascorbic acid, furthermore, plays a crucial role in a myriad of metabolic pathways, with effects in virtually every organ system of the body, including the brain. In fact, the nutrient has been shown to help not only with depression and anxiety, but also with addictions and chronic drug/alcohol use through several different effects:

Vitamin C to correct nutritional deficiency

Patients with major depression as well as those entering therapy for drug addiction have been shown to have low vitamin C (plasma ascorbic acid) levels.[7] In fact, over 74% of individuals entering treatment for drug addiction had clinical signs of nutrient deficiency according to one study,[8] with this group being at particular risk of deficiency in the antioxidant-related vitamins – namely A, E, and, of course, C.[9]

Vitamin C as an antioxidant

Oxidative damage likely compromises mental health by altering the fluidity of cellular membranes, leading to problems with the mitochondria, the organelles within every cell that generate ATP (energy).[10],[11],[12] It’s likely for this reason that psychiatric disorders like anxiety,[13],[14] depression,[15],[16],[17] bipolar disorder,[18],[19] panic disorder,[20],[21] obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD),[22] and schizophrenia are associated with higher levels of oxidative stress.[23],[24] Oxidative stress goes hand-in-hand with inflammation, and thus higher levels of pro-inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein (CRP) have also been observed in those with these conditions.[25],[26],[27],[28] In fact, there’s some argument that anti-depressants work at least in part by means of their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.[29],[30]

Psychiatric disorders like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and schizophrenia are associated with higher levels of oxidative stress and inflammation.

Multiple animal studies show that ascorbic acid reduces depressive behavior and decreases oxidative stress.[31],[32] In humans, vitamin C has been shown in multiple randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials (RDBPCTs) to help with both depression and anxiety in patients of various ages.[33],[34],[35]

Vitamin C recycles glutathione

In addition to being at higher risk of vitamin C deficiency, chronic alcohol users are also more likely to be significantly deficient in another major antioxidant: glutathione.[36],[37] This is no coincidence: in addition to improving the overall antioxidant protection capacity in the body, vitamin C also influences glutathione concentrations in the blood. In fact, 500 mg of vitamin C supplemented daily was shown in one study to increase mean red blood cell glutathione levels by almost 50% after just two weeks.[38]

Vitamin C helps the body cope with stress

As a water-soluble vitamin, vitamin C is stored in many tissues throughout the body, with the highest concentrations being in the adrenal glands.[39] Sitting atop the kidneys, the adrenal glands produce cortisol, the hormone that helps us have the energy and mental/emotional resilience we need to cope with stress. The adrenal glands secrete ascorbic acid into the plasma in response to adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) – the same brain signal that triggers the adrenals to put out cortisol.[40] An important component of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, ACTH is produced in response to biological stress – whether physical or psychological.

The more stress we experience, the more our adrenal glands pump out ascorbic acid, and the more likely we are to become deficient in the nutrient.

This means the more stress we experience, the more our adrenal glands pump out ascorbic acid, and the more likely we are to become deficient in the nutrient. Vitamin C, furthermore, is a necessary cofactor in the reactions that make norepinephrine from dopamine in the adrenal glands and the nervous system.[41],[42] Vitamin C is therefore likely to be useful in settings of stress.

Vitamin C modulates dopamine and glutamate in the brain

The balance of glutamate (an excitatory neurotransmitter) and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) (a calming amino acid) plays an important role in brain health.[43] Higher glutamate and/or lower GABA concentrations tip the brain’s balance in favor of activated, agitated, and excited states, as are seen with poor sleep quality,[44] depression,[45] anxiety,[46],[47] ADHD,[48] and addiction.[49]

The glutamatergic and dopaminergic systems are involved in drug tolerance and withdrawal, especially with respect to alcohol and opiate drugs.[50] Vitamin C has been shown to modulate the actions of dopamine and glutamate in the brain – another mechanism by which it may support mental health and offset addictive behavior.[51],[52] Vitamin C has thus been used clinically for offsetting addictive cravings, whether for food, tobacco, stimulants, alcohol, opiates, or other substances.

In a study exploring morphine addiction, rats were placed in a setting in which they could administer the drug to themselves by pressing a lever. The rats that received ascorbic acid throughout the study on average took fewer “hits” of morphine over the course of the 12-day exposure period and had fewer morphine withdrawal signs (MWS).[53] This study – and a similar one conducted nine years prior[54] – suggests that vitamin C supplementation may prevent both the development of drug tolerance and the likelihood of physical dependence.

Vitamin C supplementation may prevent both the development of drug tolerance and the likelihood of physical dependence.

In a study conducted in humans addicted to heroin, oral supplementation with vitamin C (at a dose of 300 mg per kg of body weight per day) and vitamin E (5 mg per kg of body weight per day) ameliorated withdrawal symptoms in both inpatients and outpatients.[55]

In another trial conducted at the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic in San Francisco, 1,000 to 3,000 mg of buffered vitamin C taken daily was found to significantly offset withdrawal symptoms in patients seeing to detoxify from stimulants and opiates. One third of the 60 patients reported that 70% or more of their acute withdrawal symptoms abated when taking buffered vitamin C during the active detox phase of the program; half reported at least 60% relief. Aftercare clients (those already finished with active detox phase at the start of the study) reported even greater benefits, with a median relief of 90% of symptoms.[56]

It has also been suggested that alkalinizing substances – like the high levels of ionized calcium or magnesium packed within buffered vitamin C supplements – play a significant role in promoting health and detoxification.[57]

Sources of vitamin C

Vitamin C can be found in fresh citrus fruits, strawberries, cantaloupe and currants. Fresh vegetables, like Brussels sprouts, lettuce, cabbage, peas, collard greens, and asparagus are likewise good sources.[58] Vitamin C supplements are also readily available for both children and adults in a variety of preparations.

Some people find that taking vitamin C supplements at therapeutic doses can cause gastrointestinal upset and loose stools. Reducing the dosage to “bowel tolerance” and then gradually increasing is likely to help in such situations. Gastrointestinal side effects are also less likely to occur with buffered vitamin C products.

The many mechanisms by which vitamin C supports the brain, mood, and neurological health, coupled with the reasonable cost of this nutrient, makes choosing vitamin C, well, a no-brainer.


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