Scurvy as we know is the fatal but preventable illness that afflicted sailors for many hundreds of years, but it is not a simple straight forward disease. Scurvy is actually the end stage of a severe vitamin C deficiency, the final breakdown of tissues that depend on Vitamin C for their health. It can be reversed by supplying the missing nutrient, but damage can be permanent if the deficiency has been long term. Scurvy becomes fatal when vitamin C loss is total which is called anascorbia, but, scurvy can be acute or chronic, it presents differently in adults and children, and it still has a presence today.
Acute adult scurvy is the classic picture resulting from extremely low or absent levels of vitamin C with bruising, bleeding gums, weakness, fatigue, shortness of breath, and aching bones, joints and muscles especially at night. Bleeding becomes more extensive and severe, and without treatment convulsions and death follow. A severe, acute deficiency state can, quite rapidly, be induced by major infections and massive trauma especially if the diet has been low in vitamin C, and both vaccination and strenuous exercise without sufficient vitamin C can result in illness and death.
In infants the signs of scurvy are different from those of an adult. In babies scurvy is most apt to present after weaning if vitamin C is not supplemented consciously. Oranges, especially out of season will not supply enough vitamin C, rosehip syrup is a better source. Even breast fed babies can develop scurvy if the mother’s diet is deficient. Failure to thrive and ‘fussy eaters’ due to a loss of appetite may be early indications that levels are low. Tenderness and swelling, mostly around the knees and ankles make the limbs tender to touch and the baby tends to not move them. The infant will be irritable and fretful, more so when handled. If he is teething there is often bleeding of the gums. These babies are most susceptible to infections of all kinds and indeed the first signs of vitamin C deficiency in children may be those frequent ear infections, tonsillitis, constant colds and ‘runny nose’. This is seen in malnourished native children of all races and common amongst our own aboriginal babies and small children.
Chronic scurvy in both adults and children does not present with the typical acute signs but rather as poor health with low resistance to disease, poisons and other stresses due to the vital role vitamin C plays in supporting the immune system, detoxification and glandular function. It is probably the most common presentation of scurvy today and it largely goes unrecognized and undiagnosed.
From chronic fatigue and cancer to infection and heart disease and beyond, vitamin C is essential. The immune system cannot function without vitamin C - frequent and chronic infections in the young and elderly; tissue repair and wound healing are dependent on vitamin C. – bones that break too easily, ulcers that won’t heal, gangrene; the body cannot make collagen without vitamin C, so the strength of our blood vessels, the cement between our cells, the stuff that literally holds the body together is dependent on ascorbic acid – the ligaments, tendons, walls and linings of all blood vessels all weaken without sufficient vitamin C - arteries, bulging aneurysims; veins, varicose veins and haemorrhoids; thinning capillaries which leak blood giving rise to the bruising we so often see on the hands and forearms of the elderly. These are the signs of scurvy today, still a vitamin C deficiency disease.
Linus Pauling, winner of two Nobel Prizes one for his work in vitamin C describes cardiac disease as chronic scurvy, proposes that cholesterol, made by the liver is the bodies physiological adaptation to chronic low levels of vitamin C, a deliberate mechanism by the body to thicken blood vessel walls thinned from a lack of collagen and elastin.
The prevention and treatment of so many disease states depends on adequate vitamin C, next month I will expand on this cheap but essential nutrient.