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It is well known that malnutrition is one of the main problems affecting long-term crew members. Diseases ended for centuries with the lives of those who ventured out to sea on expeditions. Seafarers were at risk of contracting diseases whose cure was unknown at the time.
Among the conditions was one that killed thousands of adventurers: scurvy. This disease was fatal if it was not treated in time. At that time it was unknown what caused it and it was not clear how to combat it. At present it is treated with a simple vitamin dragee.
The main problem was the feeding of the ancient sailors, which consisted of seeds and dried meat. They used the salting method to prevent food from spoiling. However, there was still a high risk of disease.
Many of them began to suffer ailments after trying the foods. The main symptoms they suffered were: malaise, fatigue, bleeding gums and mucous membranes, spots and wounds on the skin, and breathing difficulties.
The situation worsened in the following months with fever, seizures and, finally, death. The sailors attributed this disease to the poor diet they carried when they entered the sea. The first solutions aimed at citrus fruits. The recommendation was eating fresh food or drinking orange or lemon juices.
But they didn't always work. Many people contracted the disease despite eating the recommended foods. On the other hand, peoples who lived in the Arctic - and who only ate meat - did not suffer from any symptoms of the disease.
Although some people attributed it to bad food, it was not until 1932 that a chemical compound was isolated whose deficiency was related to scurvy. It was called ascorbic acid, popularly known as vitamin C.
The essential nutrient
Vitamin C is a water-soluble nutrient found in certain foods. It is an antioxidant that helps protect cells against damage caused by free radicals. The latter are formed when the body converts the food we eat into energy.
With the discovery of the vitamin, several doubts were clarified. For example, it was known that people living in the Arctic did not suffer from scurvy because they ate fish and the entrails of some animals, rich in vitamin C. Furthermore, the ease with which this nutrient oxidizes in the air was the a reason why juices did not always protect sailors.
¿Why is ascorbic acid important? The body needs it to build blood vessels, muscles, and collagen in bones. It also intervenes in the body's healing process. Examinations of bone tissue in ancient human remains confirm the effects of the disease.
A study conducted by the Autonomous University of Yucatan (Mexico) confirmed remains with typical scurvy lesions. These are the bodies of people who lived in the first city founded by Christopher Columbus in America in 1494, which he baptized with the name of La Isabela.
After four years the city was abandoned due to different factors, among them the absence of gold, the resistance of the indigenous population and poor administration. However, those who remained in the place died from different diseases: influenza, malaria and smallpox, mainly. But Signs of scurvy were also found in bone remains.
Something that caught the attention of the researchers is the spread of scurvy despite the fact that in the place there were countless fruits with vitamin C, such as guava or sweet potato. The thesis is that the colonists preferred to consume the few fruits they knew and not risk trying new foods for them.
In this way, scurvy and malnutrition in general, killed thousands of Spaniards.
Image: Pixel2013 from Pixabay