Vitamin supplements have become more important for us because of modern farming methods. We used to be able to depend on fresh foods for all the vitamins we need, but industrial farming techniques have depleted our soils to such an extent that the nutritional values in many vegetables and fruits have dropped significantly.
Vitamins are essential for normal cell function, growth, and development. The scientific discovery of these important substances is only about 100 years old and we are learning more every day how critical they are to human health.
There is a classic story about sailors dying of a mysterious disease while en route to the New World. Eventually, the British Navy figured out that it was a lack of citrus fruit, and so each ship began taking along limes and lime juice. Hence the use of the term “limeys” to denote sailors. Of course, we know today the missing substance was vitamin C, and citrus fruits were used as the first vitamin supplements.
Since vitamin supplements are not patentable, not much research is done on them, and the wide range of benefits they provide are not well known to the public.
However, that doesn’t stop the big pharmaceutical companies. They are trying to get patents for certain combinations of natural vitamin supplements in an effort to be able to corner the market and sell vitamin supplements at greatly elevated prices. The FDA, of course, is not doing much to stop them.
The Vitamin Essentials
There are 13 essential vitamins needed for human health. If they are not ingested in some way, a person’s health will deteriorate, and eventually, if the condition is not treated, the person will die from that deficiency.
These are divided into 2 groups:
- Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the body’s fatty tissue and liver. Taking large doses of fat-soluble vitamin supplements can result in the development of toxic levels in the body and resulting in health issues. Be very careful about taking high doses of these vitamins over time. There are 4 vitamins in this group: A, D, E, and K.
- Water-soluble vitamins must be used by the body right away. Any unused parts of water-soluble vitamin supplements are excreted through the urine. Riboflavin, in particular, will color your urine bright yellow. (The exception is vitamin B12, which can be stored in the liver for many years.) There are 9 vitamins in this group: eight in the B complex group and vitamin C.
The essential list of vitamins includes:
- Vitamin A: Vitamin A was the first fat-soluble vitamin discovered. In animal foods such as meat and eggs, vitamin A is found in the form of retinol, one of the most usable (active) forms of vitamin A. The vitamin A forms found in colorful fruits and vegetables are called carotenoids, one of which is the now-famous beta-carotene. Vitamin A deficiencies are serious. Vitamin A is critical not only in the process of vision in the eye’s retina, but in the maintenance of cells in the eye cornea, overall skin, mucous membranes, bone and tooth health, and immune system health.
Sources of vitamin A include liver, carrots, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, collard greens, kale, spinach, whole milk, cheese, sweet potatoes, asparagus, cantaloupe, carrots, winter squash, oatmeal, and cod liver oil.
- Thiamin (B1): Thiamin is present in all cells of the body, and is particularly important in the cellular processes for making energy in the body. Deficiencies affect the nervous system and the heart in particular and result in a condition known as beriberi, which is characterized by peripheral nerve cell damage, enlarged heart, cardiac failure, poor short-term memory, confusion and if untreated, death.
Sources of thiamin include most foods, but pork is an especially dense source. It is also found in egg yolks, beans, acorn squash, milk products, watermelon, oranges, and fish are good sources. Prolonged cooking methods, and boiling food in water destroys thiamin easily.
- Riboflavin (B2): Riboflavin plays a central role in cell metabolism. Like the other B vitamins, it plays a key role in energy metabolism and is required for the metabolism of fats, ketone bodies, carbohydrates, and proteins. Symptoms of deficiencies include cracked and red lips, inflammation of the lining of mouth and tongue, mouth ulcers, cracks at the corners of the mouth (angular cheilitis), and a sore throat. Sources include whole milk and all dairy products, meat, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, broccoli, turnip greens, asparagus, and spinach. Riboflavin is easily destroyed by both heat and light.
- Niacin or niacinamide (B3): A severe deficiency of niacin in the diet causes a disease known as pellagra, which is characterized by diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and if untreated, death. Mild deficiencies of niacin slow the metabolism, causing decreased tolerance to cold and a loss of memory. Sources of niacin include whole milk and dairy products, meat, poultry, eggs, fish, legumes, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, tomatoes, peanuts, carrots, and broccoli.
- Pantothenic acid (B5): Pantothenic acid is required to form coenzyme-A (CoA) and support cellular metabolism. It has a critical role in the metabolism and synthesis of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Deficiencies are rare as this vitamin is found in all foods. B5 is found in higher amounts in meat, liver, nuts, whole wheat, egg yolk, chicken, green vegetables.
- Biotin: Biotin is necessary for cell growth, the production of fatty acids, and the metabolism of fats and amino acids. It plays a role in the generation of biochemical energy during aerobic respiration. Biotin is also helpful in maintaining a steady blood sugar level, and it is often recommended for strengthening hair and nails. Consequently, it is found in many cosmetic and health products for the hair and skin. Sources include liver, kidney, pancreas, and egg yolks.
- Pyridoxine (B6): Pyridoxine assists in the balancing of sodium and potassium in the body, as well as in promoting red blood cell production. It is linked to cardiovascular health by decreasing the formation of homocysteine, an amino acid linked to heart disease. It is easily destroyed by modern processing methods. Symptoms of deficiencies include weakness, peripheral nerve pain, dizziness, depression, and irritability. Sources include all foods, but potatoes, chestnuts, turkey and turkey giblets, yellowfin tuna, chicken, pork, eggs, fish, meats peas, spinach, bananas, walnuts, sunflower seeds, salmon and avocadoes have higher amounts.
- Folate or Folic Acid(B9): Folic acid is essential to numerous bodily functions ranging from the synthesis of cellular DNA to the breakdown of homocysteine. It is especially important during periods of rapid cell division and growth. This vitamin is easily destroyed by heat and processing methods. Deficiencies result in depression, sore tongue, headaches, fatigue, and palpitations. Sources include rice, beans, and peas, turkey giblets, lentils, orange juice, chickpeas, okra, spinach, liver, turnip greens, asparagus, broccoli, cheese, mushrooms, oranges, whole wheat, root vegetables, and legumes.
- Vitamin B12: B12 plays a key role in the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system, and the formation of healthy blood components. It is involved in cellular metabolism and is a co-factor in DNA synthesis and regulation, fatty acid synthesis and energy production. Sources include most foods, with higher levels in the liver, kidney, and heart organ meat, clams, oysters, crab, salmon, sardines, and egg yolks. Other sources include chicken, pork, fish, camembert and Limburger cheeses.
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant, and is required for the production of collagen. Collagen is the main building block of your cartilage, ligaments, tendons, bone, and skin. Adequate levels of vitamin C are required for skin strength and elasticity, strong blood vessels and normal tissue development. Deficiencies result in a condition known as scurvy, which is characterized by dark purplish spots on the skin, spongy gums, and tooth loss. Other symptoms include bleeding from all mucous membranes, pallor, bleeding gums, sunken eyes, the opening of healed scars; separation of knitted bone fractures, nosebleeds, non-stop diarrhea, and nail loss. Untreated scurvy is invariably fatal. Vitamin C is easily destroyed by heat. Sources include berries, sweet peppers, broccoli, citrus fruit, melons, tomatoes, raw cabbage, spinach, turnip, and other greens. The liver also has it.
- Vitamin D: the two major forms of vitamin D are known as vitamin D2 (or ergocalciferol) and vitamin D3 (or cholecalciferol). Vitamin D can be produced within the body when the skin has access to ultraviolet sunlight. Deficiencies are linked to heart disease, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, hypertension, arthritis, depression, digestive disease, obesity, cancer, and other autoimmune diseases. Food sources include cod liver oil, fatty fish, sweet potatoes, egg yolks, butter, fortified milk. A large percentage of Americans are deficient in this vitamin because the standard American diet does not supply enough. In addition, Americans are constantly warned to avoid too much sun exposure.
- Vitamin E: Vitamin E is actually a family of eight antioxidants: four tocopherols (alpha-, beta-, gamma-, and delta-) and four tocotrienols (alpha-, beta-, gamma-, and delta-). Alpha-tocopherol is the only form of vitamin E that is actively maintained in the human body; therefore, it is the form of vitamin E found in the largest quantities in blood and tissues. Because alpha-tocopherol is the form of vitamin E that appears to have the greatest nutritional significance, it is the only form that meets the latest Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamin E. Deficiencies of vitamin E can result in neurological symptoms, including impaired balance and coordination (ataxia), injury to the sensory nerves (peripheral neuropathy), muscle weakness (myopathy), and damage to the retina of the eye (pigmented retinopathy). Sources include wheat germ oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, sunflower seeds, almonds, tomato paste and puree, peanuts, spinach, broccoli.
- Vitamin K: Vitamin K is essential for the functioning of several proteins involved in blood clotting. There are two naturally occurring forms of vitamin K: Phylloquinone, which is also known as vitamin K1 and menaquinone-n (MK-n), collectively referred to as vitamin K2. Vitamin K is easily destroyed by light and alkaline solutions. Deficiencies are rare because your intestinal gut flora can produce vitamin K. Deficiency symptoms include impaired blood clotting, usually demonstrated by laboratory tests that measure clotting time. Symptoms include easy bruising and bleeding that may be manifested as nosebleeds, bleeding gums, blood in the urine, blood in the stool, tarry black stools, or extremely heavy menstrual bleeding. Sources of Vitamin K include green leafy vegetables such as kale, collard greens, and spinach turnip greens, beet greens, mustard greens, brussel sprouts, broccoli. Whole milk, cheese, meat, eggs, cereal grains, fruit have smaller amounts.
For the most part, all 13 essential vitamins can be obtained from food, but a few are obtained by other means. For example, microorganisms in the intestine, commonly known as “gut flora”, produce vitamin K and biotin, so only small amounts are needed in vitamin supplements.
One form of vitamin D is synthesized in the skin with the help of natural ultraviolet in sunlight if you happen to live nearer to the equator. People living in more northern locations are advised to take vitamin supplements that provide at least 4000IU of vitamin D, especially in the wintertime.
Humans can also produce some vitamins from food “precursors” consumed. For instance, vitamin A can be produced from beta carotene, and niacin can be produced from the amino acid tryptophan.
Given that so much of the commercial food on the market has been processed in some way which decreases the vitamin content, taking vitamin supplements is the best way to ensure you get all the nutrition you need for good health.
Buying Vitamin Supplements
When purchasing vitamin supplements, look for those which are made from whole, raw foods. Most commercial vitamin supplements are created as isolated nutrients. “Isolated” vitamins are synthetic isolate versions of single vitamins.
The vitamins in real food are not isolated. They work in conjunction with a complex of other related nutrients called “co-factors”. These co-factors might include bioflavonoids, enzymes, phytonutrients, trace element activators, and essential fatty acids, among others.
In other words, whole foods are complex, containing a variety of the micronutrients your body needs. An orange, for example, provides vitamin C plus some beta carotene, calcium and other nutrients. Isolated vitamin supplements lack these other micronutrients, and aren’t as effective in treating a deficiency as a whole vitamin C complex. Synthetic, isolated vitamin supplements just don’t pack the nutritional punch that whole vitamin complexes do.
Resources for Further Reading about Vitamin Supplements
- The Doctor’s Complete Guide to Vitamins and Minerals by Mary Dan Eades, MD
- User’s Guide to Nutritional Supplements (User’s guides) edited by Jack Challem.
- USDA Lists of Dietary Sources of Nutrients
- USDA Nutrient Database Use this handy database to find out the facts about a specific food.