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One Ugly Side Effect of Not Getting Enough Vitamin C, According to a Dentist

Could your oral health be a clue about an essential vitamin deficiency?
FACT CHECKED BY Cheyenne Buckingham
unhappy african american woman suffering from toothache and holding coffee cup

Bleeding gums are usually linked to gingivitis, an early stage of periodontal disease that's characterized by inflammation and related to poor oral hygiene. But a new study in Nutrition Reviews suggests that tackling the problem with brushing and flossing alone may not be enough. Instead, you may want to boost your consumption of vitamin C-rich foods.

"Oral hygiene is important, but with bleeding gums, it's also helpful to figure out why that may be happening," says the study's lead author, Philippe Hujoel, DDS, a dentist and professor of oral health sciences at the University of Washington School of Dentistry. "Since nutrition plays a major role for your health, and that includes your oral health, we looked at whether vitamin deficiency may be a factor."

Along with another dentist and two other researchers, Hujoel did a meta-analysis of clinical trials that included ascorbic acid, also known as vitamin C, with a particular focus on how low levels might affect bleeding. Data came from 15 trials conducted in six countries, representing over 1,000 predominantly healthy participants. (Related: The One Vitamin Doctors Are Urging Everyone to Take Right Now).

They found that supplementation of vitamin C reduced gingival bleeding compared to people who hadn't received the extra dose of C. They concluded that low levels of the vitamin might cause what's called microvascular fragility—basically, tiny blood vessels like those in your gums become weakened and that makes them more susceptible to bleeding from even minor trauma, like brushing and flossing.

That's a big deal because that doesn't just affect your mouth. Blood vessels like these can be found throughout your body, so when they weaken, it might cause other problems, especially in the heart, brain, and kidneys. Bleeding gums could just be the wake-up call to a larger issue, says Hujoel.

"We've known for some time that gingival bleeding could be associated with lack of vitamin C, but over time, that insight has been marginalized by attention to treating the symptom instead of the cause," he notes. That means more emphasis has gone to brushing and flossing rather than getting more vitamin C in your diet.

In terms of making up for that deficiency, there are plenty of supplement options that can give you ascorbic acid on its own. But a better first step would be to incorporate more whole-food options since they also include fiber, antioxidants, and other vitamins and minerals, according to dietitian Cara Schrager, RDN, clinical programs manager at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston.

She says it's easy to get enough vitamin C with choices like bell peppers, citrus fruit, kiwi, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, strawberries, and even potatoes and kale.

The good news, Hujoel adds, is that once you're back to a proper C-level, you're likely to see significant improvement in your oral health.

For more, be sure to read This Unexpected Vitamin May Help Weaken COVID Symptoms.

Elizabeth Millard
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer specializing in health, fitness, and nutrition. Read more