Vitamins - The Basics

Vitamins are micro-nutrients. They were discovered by Eijkman (1897) in Indonesia, Java, while studying a disease called beriberi common among natives whose main diet was rice. He noticed that fowl fed on polished rice, developed beri beri, but not when fed on crudely milled rice.

In 1911 Funk obtained an alcoholic extract of the outer husk of rice which cured beri beri. This was thought to be a vital amine introducing the name vitamine. The "e" was later dropped to read "vitamin".

Vitamins Functions And Sources:

As micro nutrients, vitamins are required in small quantities. Generally your body cannot manufacture or synthesize vitamins from scratch. So you need to get them from the food you eat or from supplement pills. Though, vitamins can be synthesized by some bacteria, yeast, mould, algae and some plant species.

Some vitamins like vitamin B5 have been found to be synthesized by bacteria in the human large intestines. However it is not clear if the vitamins are available for absorption and use by the body.

Vitamins are required by the body for a variety of biological processes. These include growth e.g Vitamin B6; mental alertness e.g Choline, Niacin; resistance to infection e.g. Vitamin C and Vitamin E.

They also act as catalysts in the body chemistry as well as precursors to vital body factors. This enables the body to use carbohydrates, fats and proteins.

Vitamins in themselves do not have calories and therefore do not give energy to the body. Natural vitamins are found in living things that is plants and animals and are organic food substances. There are many artificially synthesized vitamins.

Vitamins exist in varying quantities in an array of food sources from yeasts, wheat bran, cooked egg that provides Biotin, citrus fruits and milk that provide Vitamin C, green leafy vegetables and legumes that supply Folic acid .

Vitamin Classification:

There are mainly two types of vitamins classified based on their solubility. These are water soluble and fat soluble vitamins.

i) Water soluble vitamins include:

Vitamin C also called citric acid

Vitamin B1 (thiamine)

Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)

Vitamin B3 (niacin)

Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)

Vitamin B9 (folic acid)

Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)

Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)



Water soluble vitamins are not stored in the body in any appreciable amounts. The surplus is washed out mainly through urine. They requires consistent replenishing using the diet we consume. This makes them safe because they do not collect in the body toxic levels, making large doses of vitamin supplementary safe. But caution should still be practiced because mega doses have side effects and even can be fatal.

For example, there is a low risk of vitamin toxicity from nicotinic acid with mega doses. Nicotinic acid a derivative of vitamin niacin, one may experience flushing, itching, nausea and vomiting, liver cell damage. So supplement with daily value doses. Do not use megadoses unless under ongoing expert advice.

ii) Fat soluble vitamins include

Vitamin A

Vitamin D

Vitamin E and Vitamin K.

Being fat soluble these vitamins are stored in the fat in our bodies. They can easily accumulate to toxic levels so if you choose to supplement be cautious.

Vitamin Deficiency:

The lack of these food factors i.e vitamins results to deficiency diseases. Vitamin defiency diseases are a manifestation of malfunctioning bio-chemical processes due to lack of the vital vitamins. Since the same vitamin may be used in a number of processes, deficiency in some vitamins can be quite serious and even fatal. For example over two hundred enzymes require the niacin vitamin coenzyme. So a lack of niacin makes this two hundred enzymes malfunction.

Vitamin deficiencies have been associated with long term latent deficiency diseases. These diseases occur after a long time of deficiency of some nutritional factors like vitamins. Long term latent deficiency diseases can be as severe as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. In our society today, these diseases are becoming the highest health concern.

The situation is grave because they are not only preventable but also cheaply preventable. A proper nutrition is all it takes to get all required nutrients including sufficient quantities of vitamins. General health benefits of vitamins include protection from a variety of diseases and conditions.

In case of a nutritional gap between what your body and what your diet provides, supplementing is necessary.

Whole foods are and will always be the best source of vitamins. This is because whole foods provide a combination of nutrients to the body including minerals and phytonutrients.

But many people do not receive all nutrients they need from their food choices. Either because they cannot or will not eat enough, or they cannot or will not eat right foods. This may be because of medical or physical conditions, your lifestyles, i.e. job, time, availability or even due to poverty. In such cases, supplementation is necessary.

Vitamin Supplementing:

Today's lifestyles make it more necessary to supplement our diets. There are groups of people to whom supplementing may really not be a choice. This will include you if;

i) You are sixty five years and older:- At this age some vitamins are not easily absorbed by your body system. Multivitamins may improve your immunity and lower risk of some infections.

ii) You are a post menopausal woman:- Supplement with calcium and vitamin D to help against osteoporosis.

iii) You do not eat the recommended five servings of fruit and vegetables a day.

iv) You are on a low calorie diet. E.g. You are trying to lose weight

v) You smoke -The tobacco interferes and diminishes vitamin uptake of vitamins like vitamin B6, vitamin C, folic acid and even niacin. Ps: This will not make up for the health risk of smoking.

vi) You drink excessively that is more than a bottle a day. Long term excessive drinking will reduce absorption of vitamins. Vitamins affected are thiamin (Vitamin B), Folic acid, Vitamin A & D, as well as Vitamin B12.

vii) You are pregnant or trying to be pregnant.

There is a wide choice of vitamin supplements in the markets to choose from. When choosing vitamins, consider the following:-

i) Bioavailability of the vitamin; Choose vitamin supplements whose source of ingredients is from the human food chain. Many vitamins are extracted from "natural sources", like algae, which we do not normally eat. This may not be easily available to your body.

ii) Wide spectrum of vitamins; Prefer to use multivitamins that give a number of positively interacting vitamins. Remember we require all nutrients in varying quantities. It is better to have a multivitamin providing daily values instead of megadoses of a single or few vitamins.

iii) Expiry date of the vitamin; Vitamins do expire. Buy to use only for the month. When you need more you can always purchase again.

iv) Store Vitamins safely; Store in a cool dry place away from sunlight and children

v) Health concern; If you have a health condition e.g diabetes or having medication, please first consult your physician.

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