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Dental Bites: Scurvy

Dental Bites: Scurvy

Dental Bites: Scurvy

I was watching a tv show recently and heard the term “Limey” used in reference to some characters on the show. This got me thinking about how fortunate we are living in a time and place where we have easy access to basic nutrition. The term “Limey” has an interesting background as well as a connection to oral health.

On a sailing ship in 1747, twelve sailors who had begun the voyage feeling fine were overcome with fatigue. Their gums were swollen and sore, making it difficult to eat.

Their teeth began falling out and their legs became swollen and purple from bruising.

Dr. James Lind was a passenger on that ship, and he set out to find the cause. He decided on 6 groups of treatments, 2 sailors in each group:

Group 1 drank one quart of cider a day

Group 2 gargled with sulfuric acid

Group 3 had two spoons of vinegar, 3 times a day

Group 4 drank ½ pint seawater a day

Group 5 drank barley water

Group 6 ate two oranges and 1 lemon a day

Within six days, the sailors who ate the oranges and lemons felt better and were able to work again. The other sailors in the experiment felt worse. The ill sailors were suffering from a lack of vitamin C, now known as Scurvy. They had plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables when they first set out on the voyage. As fresh foods ran out on the long voyage, they suffered symptoms from this lack. After this finding, sailors often brought lime juice aboard ship because it could be stored longer. This is how sailors earned the nickname “limey”.

The term is thought to have originated in the 1850s as a lime-juicer, later shortened to “limey”, and used in reference for sailors in the British Royal Navy. Since the beginning of the 19th century, it had been the practice of the Royal Navy to add lemon juice to the sailors’ daily ration of grog (watered-down rum). The vitamin C (specifically L-ascorbic acid) in citrus fruits prevented Scurvy and helped to make these sailors some of the healthiest of the time. At that time, it is believed that “lemon” and “lime” were used interchangeably to refer to citrus fruits.  Initially, lemon juice was used as the additive to grog on the Royal Navy ships but was later switched to limes, not realizing that limes contained only a quarter of the vitamin C the lemons had, and that the way the juice was stored and processed destroyed much of that, leaving the lime juice unable to prevent Scurvy. 

So, next time you’re enjoying a nice glass of iced tea, notice that lemon wedge on the rim of the glass and consider how something so common today could cause such health problems when absent.

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