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Vitamin C Could Be Key to Maintaining Muscle as You Age, New Study Shows

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Key Takeaways

  • Keeping up your vitamin C levels as you age could be a way to maintain muscle mass, a recent study suggests. 
  • Age-related loss of muscle mass and lead to numerous issues, including physical disability and frailty.
  • Vitamin C has also been highlighted in another recent study on aging, with implications for better bone health.

Maintaining an adequate amount of vitamin C consumption as you get older could have a significant impact on keeping your muscle mass, according to new research in The Journal of Nutrition. Analyzing data from about 13,000 men and women in a large-scale European study centered on cancer and nutrition, researchers looked at those age 42 to 82, and compared dietary intakes of vitamin C—also known as ascorbic acid—and skeletal muscle mass.

They found positive associations between the two, concluding that a stronger focus on vitamin C intake, especially from foods, may be useful for reducing age-related muscle loss.

More Muscle, Fewer Problems

Age-related loss of skeletal muscle contributes to a range of serious issues, according to the recent study's lead author, Alisa Welch, PhD, professor of nutritional epidemiology at the University of East Anglia's Norwich Medical School in the UK.

"People over 50 lose up to 1 percent of their skeletal muscle mass each year, and that is a big problem," she says. "The exciting thing here is that vitamin C is readily available, and it could make a difference for many people as they age."

Loss of muscle mass is associated with:

  • Increased frailty
  • Physical disability
  • Higher risk of type 2 diabetes
  • General weakness
  • Increased body fat
  • More sedentary behavior

Welch notes that vitamin C helps defend cells and tissues in the body from potentially harmful free radical substances, which can contribute to muscle deterioration if unchecked.

Despite being plentiful in supplement form as well as fruits and vegetables, vitamin C deficiency is common, especially in older people and those who have low income, Welch says.

If it's particularly extreme, it could lead to scurvy, an issue that's much less prevalent now than when it affected malnourished sailors in the 18th century, but still around. This type of severe deficiency can lead to anemia, fatigue, tooth loss, muscle aches, and fever.

What This Means For You

It's important to remember that regular exercise is critical to building and maintaining muscle mass in the first place. In addition to a healthy eating regimen that includes vitamin C, finding a consistent workout plan that works for you will convey numerous benefits as you age.

Another Major Benefit

In addition to muscle mass, vitamin C has also been highlighted in another aging-related meta-analysis recently, this time for its role in bone health, and especially in preventing osteoporosis.

Published in Nutrients, researchers looked at studies published between 2000 and 2020 related to vitamin C, antioxidants, bone metabolism, osteoporosis, and bone loss, reviewing 66 studies total. With results published in Nutrients, they concluded that vitamin C does seem to have a beneficial effect on bone metabolism, and that could subsequently help prevent osteoporosis.

That's likely because vitamin C has been shown in previous research to have a positive effect on bone formation by stimulating collagen, and also leads to increased bone mineral density, according to according to Kacie Vavrek, RD and sports dietician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

She adds that the vitamin is also used for growth and repair of tissues, including tendons, ligaments, and blood vessels, and it aids in the absorption of iron—which can all play a role in creating overall strength and resilience for both muscle mass and bone density.

"Studies have shown that those with higher vitamin C intake have lower risk of fracture, including hip fractures," she says. "Adequate intake will ensure that you're enhancing bone formation and strength."

Alisa Welch, PhD

The exciting thing here is that vitamin C is readily available, and it could make a difference for many people as they age.

— Alisa Welch, PhD

How Much Should You Take?

The body doesn't make vitamin C on its own, and doesn't store it for later. That means getting that specific vitamin from an outside source is necessary.

The recommended daily intake for vitamin C is 75mg for women and 90mg for men, but Vavrek cautions that more is definitely not always better.

"Megadoses of vitamin C should be avoided, and can actually cause more harm than good," she said. "A better approach would be following a well-balanced diet that has an emphasis on vitamin C."

Foods that are packed with the vitamin include:

  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cauliflower
  • Red peppers
  • Tomatoes
  • Kiwi
  • Lemons
  • Strawberries
  • Oranges

Choices like these not only boost your vitamin C intake, Vavrek says, but also provide a wealth of other vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber.

"Healthy aging involves healthy eating," she says. "Start with increasing your amount of fruits and vegetables."

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Article Sources
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  1. Lewis LN, Hayhoe RPG, Mulligan AA, Luben RN, Khaw KT, Welch AA. Lower dietary and circulating vitamin C in middle- and older-aged men and women are associated with lower estimated skeletal muscle mass [published online ahead of print, 2020 Aug 27]J Nutr. 2020;nxaa221. doi:10.1093/jn/nxaa221

  2. Keller K, Engelhardt M. Strength and muscle mass loss with aging process. Age and strength lossMuscles Ligaments Tendons J. 2014;3(4):346-350. Published 2014 Feb 24.

  3. MedlinePlus. Scurvy. Updated August 25, 2020.

  4. Brzezińska O, Łukasik Z, Makowska J, Walczak K. Role of Vitamin C in osteoporosis development and treatment—a literature reviewNutrients. 2020;12(8):2394. doi:10.3390/nu12082394

  5. NIH. Vitamin C. Updated December 10, 2019.