By Dr. Mercola
Scurvy is a disease most commonly associated with sailors who didn’t realize their teeth were falling out because they weren’t consuming enough vitamin C. But this disease, thought to be from another age, may be on the rise.
Scurvy, once called “the scourge of the sea,” may be returning simply because modern diets don’t always contain enough vitamin C, aka ascorbic acid, a crucial nutrient to maintain healthy skin, bones, teeth, tissues and blood vessels.
Vitamin C is also required to absorb iron and produce collagen, a major component of connective tissue.
From the Latin term “scorbutus,” scurvy has been an affliction for which the cause was unknown for possibly thousands of years, such as in ancient Egypt and Greece. Until recently, scurvy had been thought of as quite rare, but this seems to be changing.
‘Scourge of the Sea’ Was a Sailor Killer
In the 18th century, scurvy killed more sailors on long-distance runs than enemy combat. In 1747, a British voyage had the “sailor’s bon voyage” for 1,300 scurvy victims from a crew of 2,000 in just 10 months (indicating how serious this disease really is).
A doctor who conducted what may have been the first scurvy trials described the usual diet of seals’ livers and fat in his journals. Sailors suffered from ulcers, blackened skin and gum disease so severe their breath smelled rotten and their teeth fell out. They also had a terrible craving for citrus fruits.
The study involved 12 test subjects who were paired up and given either cider, acid, seawater or lemons along with their rations. Those given lemons recovered miraculously, while the others got worse.1 Finally, someone had put two and two together, as a BBC News article noted:
“When they reached land, it was celery, cabbage and plants which helped them recover. Future voyages carried dried vegetables, fruit and palm wine and sauerkraut to help ward off the dreaded scurvy and in 1752 a Scottish doctor, James Lind, found proof that citrus had a rapid beneficial effect.”
While it’s now common knowledge (to most) that vitamin C intake is the way to prevent this dreadful disease, there are still areas of the world — including highly developed countries — where people don’t think of scurvy in relation to themselves.
Scurvy — Not Just an Ancient Disease or In Third-World Countries
Today, some people may be able to buy whatever food they want, yet still may experience a wide array of mysterious physical symptoms ranging from brain fog to unexplained pain to chronic fatigue that is later diagnosed as scurvy.
Blood tests are beginning to reveal that many patients with these and other symptoms have low vitamins C, B and D levels, according to Dr. Reeta Achari, a Houston-based neurologist. She told Houston Public Media:
“What I discovered was that a lot of people, in an effort to get healthy, [were] taking on diets that were very restrictive, so gluten-free or paleo, something where they were eliminating an essential food from their diet.”2
Describing her first scurvy patient, Achari noted joint and stomach pain, bruising and a skin rash. Other extensive tests showed nothing adverse. An epiphany of sorts caused her to check the patient’s vitamin C, and sure enough, the levels were dangerously low.
When Achari asked the patient what she normally ate, it turned out to be fairly negligible: Her steady diet consisted of canned chicken tortilla soup and not much else — no fruits, no vegetables.
Vitamins B and C level checks are now a prerequisite in Achari’s office, as similarly poor dietary habits seem to be on the rise, as well, often due to an overly limited paleo or gluten-free diet.
Besides external factors such as famine and food shortages, other causes of insufficient vitamin C intake include anorexia and food allergies.
Another patient, Annarose Harding, who worked full time and had a demanding schedule, admitted her diet was “terrible” and consisted largely of caffeine in the form of Monster drinks, frozen lunches and late dinners. Her first symptoms when she arrived at the doctor’s office included shooting pains in her feet and legs.
Harding’s first fear was multiple sclerosis, but she was diagnosed with low vitamin C as well as other nutrient deficiencies. While she’d gained weight in law school, actual practice found her malnourished. She was prescribed vitamin D and over-the-counter vitamin C, B12 and B6 supplements. By week three, she had remarkably improved.
Scurvy Symptoms and Diagnosis
Some of the first signs of scurvy modern doctors see, such as gum problems and joint pain, were likely experienced by those sailors before their symptoms became devastating. Initial indicators are:
✓ Loss of appetite
✓ Inability to gain weight
✓ Rapid breathing
✓ Leg tenderness and discomfort
✓ Swelling in long bones
✓ Bleeding (hemorrhaging)
✓ Feelings of paralysis
✓ Brain fog
Further along in the disease, symptoms become more severe and may include:
✓ Bleeding gums
✓ Loosened teeth
✓ Pinpoint skin hemorrhaging
✓ Bleeding of the eye
✓ Protruding eyes
✓ Beading of joint cartilage
✓ Corkscrew hair
✓ Hyperkeratosis skin disorder
✓ Sicca syndrome autoimmune disorder
✓ Wounds that won’t heal
Medical News Today3 describes signs of scurvy in babies:
“Infants with scurvy will become apprehensive, anxious and progressively irritable. They often will assume the frog leg posture for comfort when struck with pseudoparalysis.
It is common for infants with scurvy to present subperiosteal hemorrhage, a specific bleeding that occurs at the lower ends of the long bones.”
How Can Scurvy Be Treated and Prevented?
No longer considered a thing of the past, scurvy is showing up in increasing numbers in England, where from 2013 to 2014, it was the leading cause of admission to 16 hospitals, and the primary or secondary reason for 94 hospital check-ins. Between 2009 and 2014, the prevalence escalated by 27 percent.
Low-income families in both cities and rural areas of the world may be at risk, as may (to be expected) individuals where drug or alcohol dependence is a factor. Sometimes elderly individuals don’t eat enough, and what they omit may be a nutrient like vitamin C.
In some cases, however, children with similar problems are diagnosed with a disorder that is entirely preventable, which a pediatric dietician for the British Dietetic Association, Lucy Jackman, called “fussy eaters.” She told BBC News:
“The key is to catch it early, get the message across about balanced eating and to make sure they are eating five portions of fruit and vegetables every day.”4
The good news is adding vitamin C and other important nutrients to your diet isn’t an expensive proposition.
Fruits and vegetables come fresh, raw, cooked and canned, dried and frozen, and are arguably available in most stores where food is sold. Fruits, veggies and other foods containing some of the highest amounts of vitamin C include:
✓ Lemons, limes and grapefruit
✓ Black currants
✓ Sweet potatoes
In fact, the vitamin C in one large orange or a bowl of strawberries a day is enough to prevent scurvy. BBC News noted, however:
“Without it, we lack a protein called collagen which can't be replaced and we end up with symptoms that were common hundreds of years ago in sick sailors and malnourished children.”5
If a vitamin C deficiency is serious enough, medical intervention may include vitamin C injection until dietary supplementation or food intake is sufficient.
Recommended Vitamin C Intake for Children and Adults
Vitamin C deficiency is particularly detrimental to developing fetuses. One study indicated that when pregnant mothers don’t get enough ascorbic acid, their babies’ brains did not develop properly.6 According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the current recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin C is as follows.7 However, some experts recommend amounts of 1,000 mg or even higher.
✓ Infants up to 6 months need around 40 milligrams (mg)
✓ Babies 7 to 12 months need around 50 mg
✓ Children aged 1 through 3 need around 15 mg
✓ Children aged 4 through 8 need around 25 mg
✓ Children aged 9 through 13 need around 45 mg
✓ Boys aged 14 through 18 need 75 mg; girls need 65 mg
✓ Male adults need around 90 mg; women need 75 mg
✓ Pregnant women should ingest 80 to 85 mg of vitamin C, and breastfeeding mothers from 115 to 120 mg
✓ People who smoke require about 35 mg more per day than non-smokers
Other Dietary Deficiencies Cause Problems Just as Debilitating
Nutritional deficiencies in general may be increasing, and again, not just in developing nations. The Environmental Working Group reports that more than 40 percent of adults in the U.S. are experiencing vitamins D, A and E deficiencies and also get inadequate levels of calcium and magnesium.
“Inadequate intake of vitamins and minerals is most common among 14-to-18-year-old teenagers. Adolescent girls have lower nutrient intake than boys. But nutrient deficiencies are rare among younger American children; the exceptions are dietary vitamin D and E, for which intake is low for all Americans, and calcium. Approximately one-fifth of 2-to-8-year-old children don’t get enough calcium in their diets, compared to a half of adults and four-fifths of 14-to-18-year-old girls.”8
Research from 2014 confirms that in the U.K. 1 in 40 people suffer from gout, commonly linked with “too much port” and a generally unhealthy lifestyle, something not uncommon throughout the world.