A sight to C

A polarized crystal of vitamin C (L-ascorbic-acid) assumes the delicate beauty of a snowflake in this micrograph taken by Thomas Deerinck at the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research at UC San Diego.

It is an essential nutrient for humans and other animal species, acting, for example, as a protective antioxidant and a key element in numerous metabolic cellular reactions. (It’s necessary to synthesize both collagen and neurotransmitters). It’s also a natural antihistamine.

Most organisms make ascorbic acid internally. There are notable exceptions, such as bats, guinea pigs, monkeys and, of course, humans. People must obtain sufficient quantities from their diet. Peppers, citrus, dark leafy greens are rich in the vitamin. A serious deficiency can result in scurvy, a disease characterized by spongy gums, bleeding from mucous membranes and brown spots on the skin.

The North American Dietary Reference recommends 90 milligrams of vitamin C per day, but no more than 2,000. A healthy, balanced diet typically provides enough without supplementation. Over the years, mega-doses of vitamin C have been touted as a therapeutic or preventive remedy for everything from cancer to coronary disease to the common cold. Supportive evidence is limited and very much in dispute.


Babies From Space

…ok, just babies in a sun-bed.

These babies in an orphanage are getting a sun-bath, which was once a common procedure during the winter months in order to stave off vitamin D deficiency in those who couldn’t or didn’t go outside.

The skin produces vitamin D when it’s exposed to the sun, and without vitamin D, the body can’t absorb or utilize calcium, resulting in weakened bones and a host of other problems, which, when it occurs in children, is called “rickets”. In adults, chronic vitamin D or phosphorus deficiency leads to osteomalacia, which is a similar condition, but does not lead to stunted growth, obviously.

The stylish goggles protect the baby’s eyes, as they’re easily damaged by direct exposure to ultraviolet light.

Learn more about rickets, scurvy, and other historic nutritional disorders, in my recent mental_floss article.

Medieval 'Witch Girl' Likely Just Suffered From Scurvy

A Medieval teenage girl found buried face-down last year in northern Italy suffered from scurvy and was rejected by her community, according to new study of her burial.

Dubbed by Italian media as “the witch girl,” the skeleton was unearthed in September 2014 at the complex of San Calocero in Albenga on the Ligurian Riviera, by a team of the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology at the Vatican.

The site, a burial ground on which a martyr church dedicated to San Calocero was built around the 5th and 6th centuries A.D., was completely abandoned in 1593.

“The girl lay in prone position in a tomb much deeper than the others. She was buried in an isolated area of the cemetery in front of the church,” said archaeologist Stefano Roascio, the excavation director. Read more.

Earliest historical detection of scurvy discovered in Aswan

Within the framework of the Aswan Kom Ombo Archaeological Project (AKAP), which is focused on pre-dynastic sites in the area of Nag Al-Qarmila in Aswan, a new and important discovery has been made.

The AKAP Italian-Egyptian mission led by Maria Carmela Gatto from Yale University and Antonio Curci from Bologna University stumbled upon what is believed to be the oldest case of scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) in the world, dated to the era 3,800-3,600 BC.

Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty announced today that scientific examination of a recently discovered skeleton of a one-year-old child reveals a change in the shape of the bones, which in turn indicates that the child was suffering scurvy. Read more.

Vitamin C crystals

As colder temperatures usher in winter, flu season swiftly follows, and many people reach for vitamin C to fend off cold and flu-like symptoms. However, supplementing diets with vitamin C has little effect on lowering the risk of getting a cold or reducing a cold’s duration. This doesn’t mean you should avoid vitamin C, because although we require it for growing and repairing tissues, our body is unable to make its own vitamin C. Severe vitamin C deficiency can cause scurvy, a disease where supportive tissues in the body break down and hemorrhage. Scientists have recently found that vitamin C affects whether genes are turned on or off inside developing mouse stem cells, which could provide improvements to in vitro fertilization and new avenues for cancer treatments.

Image by Spike Walker.

YES, SCURVY! My newest comic, a collaborative treatise with Eriq Nelson on the history of this horrible nautical plague, is now live on Medium. I’ve been slaving over this one for a while, so it feels damn good to finally have it out in the world. Go read it, won’t you? 

(Also there’s a Napoleonic Capybara in there. Just sayin’.)

Severe Scurvy Struck Christopher Columbus's Crew

Severe scurvy struck Columbus’s crew during his second voyage and after its end, forensic archaeologists suggest, likely leading to the collapse of the first European town established in the New World.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic, beginning Europe’s discovery of the New World. Two years later on his second voyage, he and 1,500 colonists founded La Isabela, located in the modern-day Dominican Republic.

The first permanent European town in the Western Hemisphere, La Isabela was abandoned within four years amid sickness and deprivation.

Historians have long blamed diseases such as smallpox, influenza, and malaria for the town’s demise. But a study of graveyard remains from the town site, reported online in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, suggests that an ancient seafarer’s scourge—scurvy, a severe vitamin C deficiency—plagued Columbus’s first colony and worsened the illnesses behind their town’s collapse. Read more.