Scurvy: Vitamin C Deficiency
Symptoms | Remedies
A terrible and gruesome disease, scurvy is caused simply by a lack of vitamin C (also known as Ascorbic Acid) and Vitamin B. The first recording of the symptoms was in ancient Egypt in 1550 BC, but it certainly had been a problem before that date. Its causes were not understood. Some thought it a chronic disease, while others believed it to be the result of bad air, especially at sea where it often became manifest.
Nautical explorers on long voyages were particularly subject to scurvy. They had to be away from land for long periods, without access to fresh fruits and vegetables (which is the primary source of vitamin C). Symptoms of scurvy begin to appear after three or four months of deficiency. Ferdinand Magellan on the voyage in which his ship circumnavigated the world, lost 80% of his crew to scurvy. In the 1740s a squadron under Commodore George Anson lost 1400 of 2000 men on an expedition to the Pacific. On his return, people in England were horrified at the news.1
Symptoms of Scurvy
The symptoms of those suffering from scurvy on Anson's expedition were described: the skin turned black, ulcers formed, there was difficulty in breathing, rictus of the limbs, teeth fell out and, strangely, gum tissue sprouted from the mouth and then rotted. There were mental effects as well, which cause sensory perceptions to have an exaggerated effect on the mind. It was said that the sound of a single gunshot cause a man to die.
The British National Health Service lists the early symptoms of scurvy as a vague feeling of discomfort and lethargy, coupled with muscle and joint pain. Later, there is poor healing, loosening of teeth, tiny bleeding spots form around hair follicles, gum disease, easy bruising, anemia, with muscle and joint pain from hemorrhaging. In the final stages before death, there is jaundice, fluid retention, high body temperature, damage to the nervous system, and seizures.2
Scurvy occurs because the body needs vitamin C to repair cells. The body cannot produce its own vitamin C; it must be consumed from plant matter. Vitamin C is especially abundant in citrus fruits. An understanding of the underlying causes of scurvy was first developed by James Lind, a British naval surgeon in the mid-1700s. He recommended that British sailors be required to drink lime juice. It took several years, but the recommendation was finally adopted in the late 1700s. It is a curious fact that a remedy was concocted by an English housewife, Mrs. Ebot Mitchell, who published her cure in a book of home remedies in 1707. It included orange juice, white wine, and beer. It would have been an effective cure or preventative.3
Today, scurvy is not a problem in industrialized countries, but still has a deleterious effect in developing nations, where food is not always readily available and health maintenance is not well understood.
Nutrition and the Food Pyramid
- UK National Health Service