The facts on smoking and vitamin C

By: Jan 19, 2011

We all need vitamin C, but smokers need it more than most

If you haven’t quite kicked your smoking habit, you might want to add a few extra cartons of OJ to your weekly grocery list. In addition to giving you an increased risk of lung cancer, tooth decay and heart disease, smoking may be robbing your body of vitamin C.

Why vitamin C is vital

Vitamin C is important because it boosts your immune system, helps heal wounds and is essential when it comes to maintaining and repairing bodily tissues, cartilage, bones and teeth. We all need vitamin C, but smokers need it more than most.

People who smoke experience more oxidative stress, thanks to the toxins in cigarette smoke, and therefore they have lower blood levels of vitamin C. But vitamin C is especially important for smokers because it can actually reduce some of the harm caused by their habit.

“Smokers get increased free radical damage in their bodies from smoking and this free radical damage can lead to an increased risk of cancer,” says Tristaca Caldwell, a registered dietitian in Halifax. “Vitamin C is an antioxidant, so it neutralizes the free radicals that are produced by smoking.”

How much is enough?

Smokers need 35 mg more vitamin C a day than non-smokers do, says Caldwell. (Normally, men need 90 mg a day and women need 75 mg, so men who smoke need 125 mg and women who smoke need 110 mg.) You can cover the extra requirement with six ounces of orange juice (75 mg of vitamin C), or half a cup of strawberries (41 mg of vitamin C).

And if you’re an ex-smoker, or are exposed to a lot of secondhand smoke? “Although there is no standard recommendation for increased vitamin C intake for people who are habitually around smoke, they may want to consider aiming for the same vitamin C recommendation as smokers,” says Caldwell.

Hitting the fruit stand

Unlike most mammals, we can’t make our own vitamin C so we have to get it from our diet. Fruit and vegetables are the best sources. “Vitamin C is easily destroyed by heat and oxygen, so fresh fruits and vegetables are the highest in vitamin C,” says Caldwell. “If you do cook your vegetables, steaming and stir-frying are the best choices when it comes to conserving the vitamin.”

Making sure you eat the recommended seven to 10 servings of fruit and vegetables a day is the best way to ensure you’re getting enough vitamin C, she says. Some of the best sources include:

  • green peppers
  • citrus fruits and juices
  • strawberries
  • tomatoes
  • broccoli 
  • leafy greens
  • potatoes
  • cantaloupe

Can you overdose on OJ?

Consuming more vitamin C than you need is generally safe as your body excretes any excess, says Caldwell. “However, when you’re using supplements, there’s a greater risk of toxicity, especially if you’re taking in an excess of 1,000 mg to 2,000 mg a day from supplements and diet.”