When you were a kid, did your parents always have to remind you to take your vitamins? Did it ever occur to you back then why you had to take them at all?
Vitamins, in the grand scheme of our knowledge of human health, are a relatively new discovery. They were discovered by a number of scientific researchers in the early 20th century, when they realized that artificially created foodstuffs lacked some component of nutrition, since animals fed these compounds did not grow or thrive . Since then we have learned a lot about the many essential roles vitamins play in the systems of the human body.
In this week's article, we’re getting back to basics: What are vitamins, why do you need them, and why should you consider vitamin supplements?
- What Are Vitamins and Why Are They Important?
- Types of Vitamins and Their Functions
- Water-Soluble Vitamins
- Fat-Soluble Vitamins
- What About Minerals?
- The Difficulty of Getting Enough Vitamins From Food Alone
- Benefits of Vitamin Supplements
- Do I Need To Take Supplements? Which Ones?
What Are Vitamins and Why Are They Important?
Vitamins are organic compounds required for human health, including growth and development, neurological health, and generally maintaining vitality .
Vitamins were designated in 1912 by the delightfully named Polish biochemist Casimir Funk, who originally spelled the word as “vitamines,” thinking that all vitamins were all chemical amines. After it was later discovered that not all vitamins have a nitrogen atom, and, therefore, are not amines, the terminal “e” was dropped, leaving the word we know today .
Further research on vitamins helped scientists recognize that many common and devastating illnesses of the time, like rickets and beriberi, were in fact the result of severe vitamin deficiencies, and these illnesses could be corrected by supplying more of that vitamin.
To some extent vitamins are present in all of the foods we consume to sustain our bodies. But of course, the presence of different vitamins and their ratios vary from food to food, especially from plant to animal sources. For example, B vitamins are typically quite low in plants, but they are extremely abundant and bioavailable in animal foods like red meat and organ meats.
We are also able to synthesize some vitamins in our bodies, for example, converting vitamin D2 to active vitamin D3 in our skin when we are exposed to sunlight . But for the most part, we need to consume enough vitamins to meet our daily requirements.
The short version? We need vitamins to survive and thrive; they are non-negotiable for our health and wellbeing.
Types of Vitamins and Their Functions
The 13 essential vitamins our bodies need to function on a daily basis include :
- Vitamin A
- The B vitamins: B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7 or biotin, B9 or folate, and B12
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D, which can also be classified as a hormone
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K.
We can break these down into two categories: the water-soluble vitamins and the fat-soluble vitamins.
The water-soluble vitamins are:
- The B vitamins
- Vitamin C.
These vitamins are dissolved and carried in water, instead of fat or oil. As a result, they don’t easily stay in the body and are excreted in the urine in excess amounts, or when they are not absorbed properly. In general, we have to consume them on a more regular basis to keep up with the body’s needs. B12, however, can be stored in the liver, so it is an exception. `
A lack of B1 or thiamin causes Beriberi, an illness that leads to neurological problems and eventually heart failure . A deficiency of B2 may lead to inflammation of the lining of the mouth. Also called riboflavin, B2 is responsible for the reactions of enzymes, as is its partner, B3 (niacin) [7, 8].
In general, all of the B vitamins are involved in the same metabolic processes. To be classified as such, each B vitamin must meet specific criteria: it must be water-soluble, it must be essential for all cells, and it must function as a coenzyme. B12 and folate have the added responsibility of being involved in the synthesis of nucleic acid. Folate is the form of the nutrient naturally found in food, while folic acid is synthetic .
Since they work together so intricately, great excesses of one B vitamin can cause deficiencies of the others. Therefore, if taken as supplements, it is recommended that they be taken together.
Besides preventing scurvy––a severe vitamin C deficiency characterized by anemia, gum disease, and weakness––vitamin C helps to make collagen, the protein that acts as the framework for the body. Collagen is a major component of ligaments and cartilage, it strengthens blood vessels, and it is responsible for skin strength and elasticity.
The fat-soluble vitamins include:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K.
The fat-soluble vitamins are, you guessed it, dissolved and stored in oil or fat. In the human body, that means we can store them in fatty tissues like the liver as well as the muscles. We can more easily absorb these vitamins when we consume them with a source of fat.
Vitamin A is essential for the formation and maintenance of teeth, bones, skin, soft tissue, and mucous membranes in the body. It is also well known for promoting eye health, and it produces the color in the retina of the eye. We can get preformed, meaning biologically available, vitamin A from animal products like meat, fish, and dairy. Plant foods contain only precursors to vitamin A like beta-carotene, meaning we have to take that precursor and transform it into active vitamin A, retinol, within the body .
Vitamin D is technically a prohormone, meaning that it is a precursor to a hormone, called 1,25-D, which helps the body to make its own steroids, including cholesterol, a substance absolutely necessary to the integrity of each of our trillions of cells.
Vitamin D is required to maintain correct calcium and phosphorus levels, to assure proper bone mineralization, and to support the immune system. A severe deficiency leads to a condition called rickets, a softening of the bones usually seen in children. [13, 14, 15]
Vitamin E is actually a group of isomers (like-structured molecules) that function as antioxidants. Research on this fat-soluble nutrient has often focused on its purported benefits to the cardiovascular system, but these days it is also well known as a trendy skin care ingredient. University of California researchers discovered vitamin E while studying green leafy vegetables in the 1920s [16, 17].
Another fat-soluble substance, vitamin K is used by the body to assist in making bone, and in the manufacture of blood-clotting proteins, without which serious bleeding episodes may occur. This nutrient is also available from green leafy vegetables and from the brassica family, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and kale .
What About Minerals?
We often discuss vitamins and minerals in the same context as essential nutrients, but they are distinctly different categories.
Minerals are elements––that come from the soil, our drinking water, and foods––that our bodies need to function. There are 20 essential minerals that we classify into essential and trace minerals. The essential minerals we need more of while the trace minerals we need less, but they are all critical to total body health .
The Difficulty of Getting Enough Vitamins From Food Alone
There are many factors that affect the nutrient quality of our food, which make it difficult to get all of the vitamins we need from diet alone.
Modern Farming Methods Deplete Nutrients in Food
While our ancestors may have been able to get all of their nutrients from their diet, modern farming methods, pesticide use, and nutrient depletion in our soils mean that it is very difficult to get all of the vitamins you need solely from your diet today. Some innovative farming techniques have given rise to faster-growing crops, which, by virtue of their seed-to-market time, do not have sufficient time to develop their nutrients. They do not have the chance to absorb everything they need from the soil .
The practice of monocropping is another key factor. Crop rotation has fallen into disfavor by some farms because it requires more planning and management skills, thus increasing the complexity of farming. But crop rotation was standard practice before the era of modern farming equipment, by necessity. Rotation of crops helps to reduce insect and disease problems, improves soil fertility, reduces soil erosion, and limits biocide carryover.
If, however, a single crop is a big moneymaker for the farm, why bother to try to grow something else? Why bother to rotate crops when chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides can help to guarantee a bumper crop? We are now learning that these chemicals and monocrops are destroying our soil quality, and this has incredible downstream effects on our health [21, 22].
Processing, Packaging, and Preparation Affect Nutrient Levels
Even with nutrient-rich soil and harvesting crops at peak ripeness, produce can lose nutrients in transit from farm to distributor to your table, using canning or other preservation methods, and in cooking (not that we shouldn’t cook our food).
To prevent the growth of pathogenic bacteria, some canned foods are exposed to temperatures that compromise their nutritional value. Acidic foods, like tomatoes, are excused from excessive heat because their nature does not support the growth of food poisoning bacteria.
Others are heated to temperatures high enough to destroy bacteria, yeasts, and molds that could cause foods to spoil. Heating to 250 degrees Fahrenheit for three minutes not only kills pathogens, but also denigrates the potency of water-soluble vitamins. So, if these foods are consumed without also consuming the water in which they are prepared, much of the nutrient content is lost .
Food Choices and Stress on the Body
Lastly, we may be getting more or less of some nutrients than others, depending on our dietary choices. Even choosing organic produce and grass-fed animal products are not a guarantee of full nutrient content or a complete lack of pesticide residue [24, 25].
We may even simply not be eating enough food to handle the expanded nutrient requirements brought on by things like daily exposure to chemicals and pollutants in our environment, frequent travel, and the high expenditure of mental and emotional energy that comes with modern life. Every demand on the body requires nutrients to deal with it, from moving physically to the thoughts we think.
With all of these factors and demands affecting our vitamin intake through food, this is where targeted supplementation can be useful alongside a healthy diet.
Benefits of Vitamin Supplements
Naturally, each vitamin has its own set of unique benefits and roles to play within our cells. But let’s zoom out to the big picture: how can taking vitamin supplements benefit you generally?
Taking vitamin supplements can help you make up for nutrients lost in your food as well as supply extra nutrients during times of stress, such as when you have a cold or when you are undergoing a challenging time emotionally.
Depending on a person’s physiological state, he or she may need more of a particular nutrient than is available from a multivitamin. This is why supplementing specific vitamins based on your individual needs, like taking extra vitamin C when you have a cold for example, can be more beneficial than simply taking a multivitamin every day.
Everyone’s needs are different depending on their life stage, stress levels, and existing health conditions. With the guidance of a healthcare provider, you can determine what vitamins are most beneficial for you to supplement.
The bioavailability of a specific nutrient from a high quality supplement is close to 100%, compared to a food whose life experiences might have been less than ideal. This means that while you may spend a little more money on select supplements than you would on equivalent food, you are getting the best value out of that nutrient with a supplement, and ultimately it becomes an investment in your future health.
An Insurance Policy
You can also see taking vitamin supplements as an insurance policy to guard against common nutrient insufficiencies. Even if you don’t have a specific condition or issue that you’re trying to address with vitamin supplementation, you may be able to prevent issues from coming up in the future by supporting your body now.
Easy examples include boosting immunity with vitamin C, supporting your mental health with vitamin D, and maintaining skin and eye health with vitamin A.* The key is to still make sure to eat a healthy diet along with targeted supplementation, and keep reevaluating your need for specific nutrients as you go with appropriate testing.
Do I Need To Take Supplements? Which Ones?
You may benefit from supplementing vitamins on a daily basis or as needed, depending on your situation.
However, this does not mean that you should take a little of this and a little of that. On the contrary, supplementation with vitamins, minerals, and herbs is a scientific enterprise that entails your medical history, both distant and recent past, your current physiological state, and even your blood chemistry.
Start by consulting your doctor or healthcare provider about appropriate testing and identifying what vitamins you may need to support with good-quality supplements.
Vitamins Support Your Total Body Health and Wellbeing
Vitamins, among other nutrients like minerals, are essential to full body health and wellbeing. They are widely available in our food as long as we eat a diverse diet, but due to environmental factors, modern farming methods, transportation, and even cooking, foods can easily lose some of their nutrition, including vitamin content.
Therefore, strategic supplementation of vitamins may support your health, as long as you work with your healthcare provider and choose high-quality supplements.