Vitamin C Physiological Function

Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is an essential requirement for various physiological processes because of its reducing activity.

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Protein synthesis

Vitamin C is vital for the normal synthesis of collagen, L-carnitine, catecholamines, and proteins. This essential vitamin acts as a cofactor to the mixed-function oxidase enzymes that catalyze these chemical pathways. The reaction centers of these enzymes contain bound metals, which remain in their reduced form by vitamin C, thus allowing them to sustain their enzymatic activity.

Vitamin C catalyzes the post-translational hydroxylation of proline and lysine residues that are incorporated into various proteins found in supporting tissues such as collagen, osteoid, and intercellular cement. Hydroxylation of these residues imparts tensile strength by allowing fibers to cross-link within the protein.

Collagen, which is a fundamental component of connective tissues, is one of the important proteins whose formation is catalyzed by vitamin C. Vitamin C is thus vital to body growth and wound repair.

Vitamin C donates electrons readily to eight enzymes in the human body. Three of these are involved in the biosynthesis of collagen.

Antioxidant activity

In addition to its contribution to the synthesis of proteins, an equally important role of vitamin C is its antioxidant role. Vitamin C is a powerful reducing agent and therefore readily takes part in redox reactions, shifting between the two forms ascorbic acid and dehydroascorbic acid. Additionally, this vitamin is responsible for the non-enzymatic regeneration of other antioxidant molecules, which take part in various physiological processes, such as alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E). Vitamin C is also known for its ability to protect glutathione from oxidation.

Thus, vitamin C is the primary water-soluble antioxidant in the body. It protects cell membranes, DNA, cell proteins, and lipids from the oxidizing effects of free radicals and reactive oxygen species (ROS). These are not only byproducts of normal cellular metabolism, but are also overproduced during immune activation or inflammation in response to exposure to biological or chemical toxins or pollutants.

Immune regulation

A third function of vitamin C is its role in immune regulation. Vitamin C stimulates phagocytosis, as well as antibody formation.

Iron absorption

Vitamin C enhances the absorption of non-heme iron, which is the type present in plant foods, in the intestine. It does this by reducing ferric iron to the ferrous state, which is better absorbed.

Bile acid synthesis

Vitamin C stimulates the initial step in cholesterol metabolism to bile acids via the 7-alpha-hydroxylase enzyme. This function may have importance in the formation of gallstones and the maintenance of normal blood cholesterol levels.

Serotonin production

Vitamin C is also essential for the synthesis of serotonin, during which it hydroxylates the amine tryptophan to 5-hydroxy tryptophan.

Reducing activity in other situations

Vitamin C reduces methemoglobin back to hemoglobin and also maintains folic acid in its reduced form of tetrahydrofolic acid. Tetrahydrofolic acid is essential for red cell maturation, as it acts as a cofactor for the enzyme folate reductase.

Adrenal steroid synthesis

Vitamin C is present in relatively high concentrations in the adrenal cortex; howeer, the levels go down after adenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) stimulation of the gland. This implies that vitamin C has a part to play in the synthesis of adrenal steroids.


Further Reading

Last Updated: Mar 23, 2021

Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.


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