Ask A Scientist

Why is it that when you don’t have enough fruit and vegetables you could get scurvy?

Asked by: Michael Slilaty
School: Vestal Hills Elementary School
Grade: 5
Teacher: Mrs. Bogart
Hobbies/Interests: Swimming, playing the trumpet
Career Interest: Scientist, trumpet player, musician, swimmer

Answer from Lina Begdache-Marhaba

Adjunct lecturer, Binghamton University

Research area: Nutrition and obesity, cell and molecular biology, neuroscience
Ph.D. school: Binghamton University
Family: Ali Marhaba, MD, Jade 15 and Rani 11
Interests/hobbies: Tae Kwon Do, basketball, and jogging

Scurvy is known to be the sailors’ disease of the Middle Ages.   Being at sea for months, explorers did not have access to daily consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, which are good sources of vitamin C (or ascorbic acid). With prolonged deficiency, sailors ended-up with pale skin, bleeding gums, muscle pain, loss of teeth, and internal bleeding.  Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin that needs to be supplied by the diet. Human beings are among the few mammals that are unable to synthesize it, since they lack a key enzyme for vitamin C biosynthesis (gulonolactone oxidase). Normal development of cartilage, blood vessels, bone and gums depends on adequate supply of vitamin C. This vitamin plays a vital role in the formation of a structural protein called collagen. Collagen is the "glue" that holds skin cells together, and the intracellular “cement” that provides support and strength to blood vessels and bones and helps to anchor teeth firmly in place. Scurvy is rare in the United States, thanks to vitamin C supplementation of commercial food. However, people who have poor diets coupled with alcohol and drug abuse or people with diseases such as diabetes mellitus and certain cancers are at a higher risk. Hypovitaminosis C or vitamin C insufficiency is a more common condition, especially in people who do not consume often fruits and vegetables. Our body is in a constant state of forming collagen for maintenance of body tissues and repair of injuries. With little vitamin C, collagen synthesis is disturbed leading to a variety of problems such as bruising, sports injury, joint pains, delay in wound healing, etc.. In addition, eating fruits and vegetables provide the body with various antioxidants, including vitamin C, to tame the destructive activity of the free radicals. The latter are powerful oxygen radicals (with an unpaired electron) produced in the body either through normal respiration and/or through activation of certain enzymes. Free radicals attack biomolecules like cell membrane constituents, enzymes, and DNA, which could lead to a range of diseases including cancer. Antioxidants have the ability to donate an electron and render the free radical an inert molecule. By eating your fruits and vegetables, you are providing your brain with enough vitamin C to produce “the happy mood” brain chemicals such as serotonin and norepinephrine. In addition, eating fruits and vegetables supplies adequate vitamin C needed for the synthesis of a transport protein called carnitine, which shuttles fatty acids to be used as energy by the muscle. Adequate carnitine levels were found to be important in maintaining a healthy weight and in prevention of early fatigue in athletes. Vitamin C, from fruits and vegetables, enhances the antimicrobial and natural killer cell activities, which make the immune system stronger to fight infections including common colds.  Obviously, the benefit of eating fruits and vegetables goes far beyond prevention of scurvy. This food group is packed with nutrients, vitamins and minerals needed for an optimal health, a normal development and a healthy brain. Next time you look for a snack, make sure you reach first for your fruits and vegetables, because now you’re the expert!  

Last Updated: 3/1/17