Vitamin C and Breastfeeding

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is a water soluble vitamin found in fruit and vegetables. It is an important antioxidant (has a protective function in the body). Vitamin C protects cells and keeps them healthy, helps wound healing and aids the absorption of iron. It is popularly used for preventing and treating infections, fatigue and cancer (Hale, 2015). Our bodies can’t make vitamin C for ourselves so we rely on food, good sources include berries, peppers, kiwi, citrus fruits, leafy vegetables, tomatoes and more. Our kidneys carefully control the amount of vitamin C in the body keeping it at the right level and excreting any excess that isn’t needed. A deficiency in vitamin C causes scurvy.

Vitamin C in breast milk

With respect to vitamin C and breastfeeding; a well nourished mother with a healthy diet will have just the right concentration of vitamin C in her breast milk for her baby. Taking vitamin C supplements doesn’t influence the concentration of vitamin C in a heathy mother’s breast milk very much (Hoppu et al, 2005; Hale, 2015). However, if mothers with a poor diet have very low levels of vitamin C in their bodies, levels of this vitamin can be doubled or tripled in breast milk by taking vitamin C supplements (Daneel Otterbech et al, 2005).

Can I take vitamin C while breastfeeding?

Yes, in moderation within recommended guidelines. The Office of Dietary Supplements say the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for vitamin C in a breastfeeding mother over age 19 is 120mg/day. Thomas Hale MD and Hilary Rowe, authors of Medications and Mothers’ Milk 2014 (or online at Medsmilk) say that only undernourished mothers need vitamin C supplementation and to avoid excessive amounts and avoid having vitamin C intravenously:

Recommend normal RDA (100mg/day) in mothers, and avoid excessively high oral doses. Avoid intravenous [through a vein] vitamin C during breastfeeding, or in those cases where it is used, mothers should avoid breastfeeding, pump and discard milk, for a minimum of 12-24 hours after therapy.

Hale and Rowe also say:

  • Pregnant women shouldn’t use excessive vitamin C as it could be harmful to the baby.
  • Avoid taking excessively high amounts of ascorbic acid if you are the mother of a baby with poor kidney function and G6PD deficiency.
  • Ascorbic acid can affect some medications either increasing their effect, e.g. aspirin, or decreasing their effect, e.g. some antidepressants; your health professional will advise on any possible drug interactions.
  • The adult dose is: 45-60 mg/day (orally).

If you want to take higher than recommended doses, discuss this with your health professional who will be able to advise you based on the amount of vitamin C already in your diet, any medical conditions you have and any medications or supplements you already take.

Safety of vitamin C

The Mayo clinic says:

Vitamin C is generally regarded as safe in amounts normally obtained from foods. Vitamin C supplements are also generally regarded as safe in most individuals in recommended amounts.

However they list various side effects, and warnings to be aware of.

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Smoking and vitamin C

Smoking while breastfeeding reduces the amount of vitamin C in a mother’s breast milk. Smoking causes a baby extra oxidative stress (a type of cell breakdown) so anything that reduces antioxidants e.g. beta carotene, vitamins C and E can cause more peroxidation (an undesirable reaction stimulated in the body by some toxins and infections) (Ortega et al, 1998). The fact sheet by the Office of Dietary Supplements 2013 states:

individuals who smoke require 35 mg/day more vitamin C than non smokers.

Vitamin C and mastitis?

Wambach and Riordan, 2015 discuss that in the dairy industry, giving antioxidants to cows is a way to prevent mastitis. They very briefly mention that mothers with mastitis have reported taking vitamin C supplements (Wambach, 2003) to fight infection however they do not give any discussion on suitable amounts or success rates. Sheila Humphrey in The Nursing Mother’s Herbal also says:

Immune-System-stimulating herbs such as echinacea, adaptogenic or tonic herbs such as ginseng, and vitamin C are often recommended for treating mastitis.

Vitamin C and milk supply

In Mother Food, p 123 author Hilary Jacobson lists vitamin C supplements as a possible anti-lactogenic food i.e. one that could decrease a milk supply. For some sensitive mothers, she says citrus fruits can be problematic and are also reputed to be anti-lactogenic.

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