Our bodies work nonstop to meet our conscious and unconscious demands. To breathe, sleep, walk, and exercise, they need a constant supply of food-derived energy. Regular consumption of foods rich in essential vitamins is necessary for our bodies to growth, develop, and function properly.
The word vitamin was coined by the Polish biochemist Casimir Funk who combined “vital” and “amine” to describe what he believed was a central organic compound containing nitrogen. Although his description was not entirely accurate as not all vitamins contain nitrogen, the name stuck.
Vitamins are organic substances derived from plants and animals and are essential to the proper functioning of the body. We know about the importance of vitamins in our daily diet thanks to the extensive research of biochemists and physiologists from the early 19th century onward. Though the concept of certain foods having medicinal properties is not new; in ancient Egypt, people were correctly told to eat liver, which is rich in vitamin A, to avoid night blindness. Knowledge about vitamins has evolved to include more defined identification, information about the roles they play in maintaining our bodies, and their most prevalent sources.
Thirteen vitamins are critical for the proper functioning of the body. They include vitamins A, the B group, C, D, E, and K. Each of these plays an important role in keeping your body healthy, but you should pay particular attention to vitamins A, C, and E as these are frequently deficient in American adult diets.
Vitamins are typically classified into two groups, fat-soluble and water-soluble. Fat-soluble vitamins – A, D, E and K – are absorbed through the intestinal tract with the help of fats and can be stored in fat cells and the liver for up to six months. Water-soluble vitamins – the B group and C – dissolve in water and are excreted through urine if not used immediately.
Vitamins A, C, E and certain minerals, like zinc, are also called antioxidants. Antioxidants protect the body from free radicals. These form when the body is exposed to pollutants and sunlight, or from by-products of the body's normal chemical reactions. Free radicals can damage cells, expedite the aging process, and increase the risk of developing diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart diseases. The body uses antioxidants to bind to the free radicals, making them inactive and protecting the body from their damaging effects.
Vitamin A: Vitamin A is an antioxidant that also contributes to strong bones, good vision, a healthy immune system, healthy sexual reproduction, and the growth of body cells. Foods rich in Vitamin A include dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, and collard greens, animal products such as liver, beef, milk, and eggs as well as oranges, carrots, cantaloupes, and sweet potatoes.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D aids in the absorption of calcium, which is important for the development and strengthening of bones. Eating a diet filled with Vitamin D rich foods can help you avoid bone-related problems such as osteoporosis and rickets. The health of the immune system, nerves, and muscles is also supported with the help of Vitamin D. Foods rich in Vitamin D include egg yolks, milk, saltwater fish, liver, and, when fortified, certain cereals. The body can also synthesize Vitamin D when exposed to sunlight.
Vitamin E: Vitamin E acts as an antioxidant, assists in the metabolic processes, and strengthens the immune system. It also protects the lungs from being damaged by pollution, and aids in the formation of red blood cells. Foods containing Vitamin E include nuts, seeds, eggs, sardines, wheat, oats, leafy green vegetables, and vegetable oils.
Vitamin K: Vitamin K helps the body make protein, which keeps the bones and tissues healthy. This super vitamin also makes proteins that help to clot blood. Vitamin K can be found in milk, yogurt, dark berries, broccoli, leafy green vegetables, and soybean oil.
Vitamin B: Vitamin B is a group of eight vitamins, which includes B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6, B7 (biotin), B12, and folic acid, also known as folate. These vitamins assist in various chemical reactions for energy production and help in the formation of red blood cells. Sources of Vitamin B include leafy green vegetables, beans, peas, fish, poultry, meat, eggs, and other dairy products.
Vitamin C: Like Vitamins A and E, Vitamin C is an antioxidant that helps rid the body of free radicals. The body also needs Vitamin C to absorb iron and to form collagen, an important protein used to make skin, scar tissue, tendons, ligaments, and blood vessels. Vitamin C is essential for wound repair. Good sources of Vitamin C include citrus fruits, red and green peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, and kiwi fruit.
Deficiencies of vitamins and minerals have grave consequences and can be prevented by consuming a balanced diet. A generous intake of fruits and vegetables in a minimum of five portions a day is recommended. Not only does this supply the adequate amount of nutrients, but it also makes your diet more colorful and interesting.
A nutrient-rich diet is as easy as grocery shopping on the outer edge of the store, where you find fresh foods, dairy, and meats. These foods are the most dependable sources of vitamins and minerals. The more colorful your food choices – leafy greens; orange, yellow and red fruits and vegetables - the more nutrients you'll find. Don't forget to include whole grains, rice, cereals, and beans for variety.
If you eat a variety of vitamin-rich foods and maintain a balanced diet, you may not need vitamin supplements. In cases where a vitamin rich diet is particularly essential but difficult to follow, supplements may be advised. This is often the case with pregnant women, women who are breastfeeding, or women with a heavy menstrual flow. Vitamin supplements may also be recommended for people suffering from diseases of the gallbladder, liver, intestine, and pancreas, in which case their bodies have difficulty absorbing vitamins from foods.
If you decide to supplement your diet with vitamin pills, it is important to consult a doctor before you do so. If taken without proper precautions, supplements may be harmful. Balance is crucial when it comes to vitamin consumption, and more is not always better. Vitamin poisoning, or “hypervitaminosis,” is a potentially dangerous complication that may result from taking vitamin supplements without proper oversight and careful attention to suggested intake. Hypervitaminoisis can cause harmful side effects like cloudy and frequent urination, eye irritation, rapid and irregular heartbeat, joint and muscle pain, seizures, fainting, headaches, rash, constipation, or diarrhea. In case of an overdose, call 911 or the National Poison Control team at 1-800-222-1222.