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February 14, 2024 9 mins

Scurvy is a serious condition that's easily cured with access to vitamin C. Learn why humans get it (and why it was the scourge of the high seas) in this episode of BrainStuff, based on this article: https://health.howstuffworks.com/diseases-conditions/rare/scurvy.htm

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to Brainstuff, a production of iHeartRadio. Hey brain Stuff,
Lauren Vogelbaum. Here, there's a huge gulf between your standard
pop culture pirates and the real life criminals who inspired them. Movies, novels,
and TV shows expect pirate characters to embrace sort of

(00:22):
rigid stereotypes, including some with no historical basis, But these
narratives tend to get one thing right, just like many
of their fictional counterparts. The pirates of your had a
healthy fear of scurvy caused by a prolonged lack of
vitamin C in one's diet. Scurvy has been affecting people

(00:43):
since time immemorial. Symptoms include tooth loss, slow healing wounds,
and arrested bone growth, and if left unchecked, it can
ultimately result in death from internal bleeding. So, in other words,
this ailment is far more danger than you may realize,
and scurvy remains at large today, with those living in

(01:05):
poverty being especially prone to the disorder. Many animals, including
over four thousand kinds of our fellow mammals, never get
scurvy because they produce their own vitamin C, but a
handful of creatures are unable to manufacture it. These unlucky
beasts include fruit bats, guinea pigs, and primates. Like us,

(01:28):
Scientists don't know why our ancestors lost the ability to
make vitamin C. Other species use a specific gene to
create an enzyme that's needed for the vitamin's production process. However,
in the human body, that gene isn't functional. We thus
have no choice but to acquire vitamin C by ingesting it. Lemons, oranges,

(01:49):
and other citrus fruits are loaded with the stuff, as
are fresh green veggies like broccoli and spinach. You can
also find it in potatoes, tomatoes, and red peppers, among
other things that actually might help explain humankind's gene problem.
Our distant ancestors lived in lush tropical areas and got
plenty of vitamin C in their fruit heavy diets, so

(02:11):
if a random mutation prevented some individuals from manufacturing the vitamin,
it wouldn't have hurt their odds of survival because fruits
and vegetables were widely available. Since the mutation was harmless,
natural selection didn't weed it out, and over time the
genetic quirk spread. Unfortunately, by the dawn of human civilization,

(02:32):
Homo sapiens had settled in places where vitamin C rich
foods weren't always easy to find. But okay, why do
we need vitamin C and what happens when we don't
get it? Vitamin C plays a critical role in the
synthesis of collagen. Collagen is a type of protein that
your body uses to add structure, strength, and flexibility to

(02:55):
all kinds of different tissues. Tendons and bones derive much
of their support opacity from collagen fibers. A Collagen also
makes your skin tough but elastic, and helps blood clot
and cuts to heal when injured. It also lends a
hand in reinforcing the walls of your blood vessels and
your internal organs to keep making collagen. A healthy and

(03:17):
properly fed human body will burn through about eight to
ten milligrams of vitamin C every day. That's about zero
point zero zero zero three ounces, although it's recommended that
adults eat at least ten times that amount, and if
that sounds like a small number, it kind of is.
You can get your daily recommended intake by eating an
orange or a cup worth about two hundred and fifty

(03:39):
milli liters of fruit or vegetables like strawberries, bell pepper,
or brussels sprouts, and fruits and veggies aren't the only
place you can get vitamin C. A case in point
many of the Arctics indigenous peoples who for millennia subsisted
on traditional meat based diets with very few vegetables and fruits,
but they rarely experienced scurvy outbreaks because it turns out

(04:02):
that some raw meats are a pretty good source of
vitamin C, and lots of organ meat like caribou liver,
is naturally rich in it. However, you get your vitamin C,
your bloodstream is really good at distributing it around the body.
But if you go sixty to ninety days without ingesting
any and your internal supply dips too low, a scurvy

(04:24):
will begin to take hold. At first, it's hardly noticeable.
In the early stages, a person will feel lethargic, a weak,
and achy. They may also experience weight loss and a
reduced appetite. As time wears on, symptoms get more grotesque
unless the person writes the ship by ingesting more vitamin C.

(04:45):
Unchecked scurvy causes the gums to swell, bleed, and loosen
the teeth at their roots. A pain breaks out in
the joints and muscles. The skin loses its ability to
form scar tissue, so old wounds may reopen and new
ones will refuse to hear. Internal bleeding causes splotchy marks
to appear under the skin, and deeper down the bones

(05:07):
themselves will become weak. If the disorder isn't treated, a
fevers arise and gangrene sets in. Slowly but surely. The
person will die, often as the result of a fatal
hemorrhage in the heart or brain. The explorer Robert Falcon
Scott wrote that once late stage scurvy has taken hold, quote,

(05:27):
death is a merciful release. Scott famously died in the
Antarctic in nineteen twelve, by which time scurvy had been
a global nuisance for thousands of years. Hippocrates was aware
of it, and an Egyptian document written in fifteen hundred
BCE describes the malady symptoms. A scurvy was prevalent during

(05:47):
the Crusades, when armies were made to march across vast
distances with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables. It
also claimed a number of lives during the Irish potato
famine and the American Civil War. Early seafarers like the
Phoenicians and the Vikings carried fresh food on voyages, and
they didn't report the disease. However, scurvy became associated with

(06:11):
sailing when between around fifteen hundred and eighteen hundred CE,
some two million sailors died of it. Scurvy was the
leading cause of naval death at the time, outstripping battles
and disasters. This was due to the poor diet of
colonial era sailors. They ate mainly food that wouldn't spoil
on long voyages, like salted meats, hard biscuits, beer, and peas,

(06:35):
no fresh fruits or veggies on the menu. A living
conditions aboard ship were also cramped and damp, which worsened
the disease, as research has shown that people need more
vitamin C in cold, damp conditions. The affliction's prevalence on
the high seas started to decline after seventeen forty seven,
which is when Scottish position James Lynde conducted the world's

(06:57):
first clinical trial to demonstrate that lemons and oranges could
cure scurvy. He gave different groups of sailors a variety
of treatments for scurvy, and the citrus eating group was
the only one to recover. Although Lynde wasn't the first
person to suggest citrus as a cure, his published writings
have been credited with spreading the knowledge. Some forty years later,

(07:19):
in seventeen ninety five, the British Navy finally decreed that
each sailor be given a daily ration of lemon juice.
A later lime juice, and scurvy started to disappear from
its fleet. Yet, despite the breakthroughs of lind and other researchers,
scurvy was never completely eradicated. Around the world, scurvy cases

(07:40):
tend to pop up in communities where residents don't have
reliable access to foods that are rich in vitamin C.
For example, following a drought in twenty seventeen, an outbreak
of the disorder occurred in Kenya. It's also been reported
that a full ninety five percent of the houseless population
in Paris, France, is vitamin C deficient and therefore vulnerable.

(08:03):
Over in the United Kingdom, the rate of scurvy related
hospital admissions rose by twenty seven percent between twenty nine
and twenty fourteen with a corresponding increase in malnutrition, and
in recent years, multiple cases of scurvy have been documented
within the United States, usually in low income populations a children,

(08:24):
elderly people, people with food allergies, and crash dieters may
also be at risk of developing scurvy. But there is
good news. Scurvy isn't hard to treat. Post diagnosis, it
could be remedied by increasing the patient's supply vitamin C.
One can usually expect to make a complete recovery after
about three months, and bleeding in the gums and skin

(08:45):
can stop and as little as twenty four hours after
receiving treatment. Today's episode is based on the article Scurvy,
The Scourge of the High Seas Remains at Large Today
on House Tofforkstyle, written by Mark Mancini. Brain Stuff is
production of iHeartRadio in partnership with how stuffworks dot Com,
and it is produced by Tyler Klang. Four more podcasts

(09:08):
from my heart Radio visit the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts,
or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

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