Welcome back to the Health Bar. Today we’re going to try something a little bit different. We’re going to stroll through the alphabet and look at those vitamins and minerals your body needs, and what happens when you either don’t get enough, or your body can’t use them properly.
The Name Game
Let’s start with the word vitamin itself. Vitamine – yes with an e on the end – was coined by the Polish biochemist Casimir Funk and his friend Max Nierenstein, from the idea that they are vital amines (amine being former derivatives of ammonia). This stuck and the name became synonymous, even after it was shown that not all vitamins contain amines – similar to how global warming is used as a term for climate change; it’s not entirely accurate but people are used to calling it that, so it stuck. In 1920 noted English biochemist Jack Drummond proposed the ‘e’ was dropped to help move away from the inaccurate link to amines, thus vitamin was born.
Originally the naming of vitamins was easy, A, B, C, D, etc, but over time some have been removed due to inaccuracy, and some had to be expanded because of their complexity. Just look at vitamin B, there are so many additional vitamins.
Why do we need them?
Simply put, to live. We use vitamins to grow even as fetuses, right up to adulthood. They are responsible for the safe and accurate functioning of the body. As adults they keep us on the straight and narrow of good general health. There are 13 essential vitamins to human life.
So how do we take them in?
Primarily in our diet, but there are a few other ways. We clever humans have found ways to synthesise certain vitamins from particular wavelengths of ultraviolet sunlight. We can also use some vitamins and minerals to produce new ones and our gut flora can produce some too. It’s amazing!
With this in mind, it is important to remember that some poorer countries often find that their people have deficiencies, because they don’t have the resources in some areas. This is why GM crops are so important; they can make grains and rice that are nutrient and vitamin dense, to help stop some of these deficiencies. In more developed countries, the dietary deficiencies tend to be because of what we choose to eat. Some people just struggle to uptake the vitamins though. These are referred to as secondary factors (with diet being primary) and can include lifestyle choices such as smoking or if the food is cooked (some vitamins’ bio-availability depends on if they are cooked or not). It could also just be that your body struggles with certain vitamins, which could require a greater amount in your diet or supplementary help, which we will come to shortly. You could also find that the medication you take has an effect, or you could have more serious issues that affect your gut, like Crohns disease.
Antivitamins. Just like Kryptonite to Superman, these are chemical compounds that inhibit the absorption of certain vitamins into the body. Some examples are oxalic acid, which inhibits calcium and is found in lots of green veg, or Glutathione which is found in tomatoes, cabbage etc. and has a huge inhibition effect on B12, which you need for Iron to be used properly. The balancing act is tough, which is why a good balanced diet is so important.
One thing a lot of people don’t talk about is excess vitamin intake. Whilst most vitamins are harmless in excess and just contribute to the content of your urine, some, like folate or vitamin A, can cause vitamin poisoning. Nearly all cases of vitamin poisoning come from people who take supplements regularly. It is widely accepted that, unless you have a diagnosed deficiency in one or more vitamins, there is no good evidence that taking vitamin supplements daily offers anything other than expensive pee or, in the worst cases, vitamin poisoning.
Symptoms and diagnosis
Diagnosis is almost always with blood tests. These are easily done at a local clinic, but you will need a referral from your GP.
Symptom wise, if you can have it, it will be on the list. I will try to keep to the most common overarching ones though.
- Feeling weak, tired and/or dizzy often
- Muscular aches
- Blurred vision
- Irritability and depression
- Shortness of breath
If you have any of these it is well worth speaking to your GP about getting a blood test, because if your issue is a nutrient deficiency, this is often a simple fix and can make a great difference to your general health.
Let’s now go through the list of the 13 essential vitamins: what they do, how you get them and what issues come from deficiencies – not including the generic ones listed a moment ago.
Vitamin A – Retinoic Acid
- This is stored in the body in fat, and carotin is turned into vitamin A in the liver.
- It can help with your eyes, strong teeth and bones, your mucous membranes, soft tissues and skin.
- It can also aid in red blood cell production and fighting infection.
- You get it from dark or orange fruit and veg, beef, fish, egg yolks and some dairy products.
- Issues from a deficiency can include night blindness and keratomalacia (eye disorder).
Vitamin B1 – Thiamine
- B1, along with the other complex B Vitamins listed here, are not stored in the body as it is water soluble, so it needs more regular intake.
- It helps the body turn carbohydrates into energy, which means it’s especially important that pregnant women get plenty of B1.
- It helps with maintaining brain cells and nerves, the digestive system and respiratory systems as well.
- You get B1 from legumes, nuts and seeds, lean meats, and whole grains.
- A deficiency in B1 can lead to Beriberi. Wet Beriberi affects the heart and can cause heart failure, whereas dry Beriberi affects the nervous system and can lead to muscle paralysis. Both can be fatal.
Vitamin B2 – Riboflavin
- Riboflavin is important for helping body growth, energy conversion and adrenal function.
- You get this mainly from breakfast foods; through cereals, grains, breads, dairy and poultry, which are all good sources.
- A vitamin B2 deficiency is one of the more common B complex issues and causes Ariboflavinosis, which can include symptoms like mouth sores, angular stomatitis (sores on the corner of your lips) and glottitis (red and raw tongue).
Vitamin B3 – Niacin
- B3 helps the body maintain healthy skin and nerves.
- At high doses it can have a cholesterol lowering effect.
- You primarily get this from fish, lean meats, poultry, nuts, along with some breads and cereals.
- A vitamin B3 deficiency can lead to Pellagra which primarily affects the skin, causing sores, broken skin and darkening skin tones.
- It can also cause diarrhoea and even dementia.
We will skip over B4 as it is not considered essential, unless you are a worm. It’s the same for B8,10 and 11, they are just not good enough to make the list.
Vitamin B5 – Pantothenic Acid
- B5 helps the body with hormone regulation and metabolising food.
- You can get B5 from most foods.
- Being deficient in B5 can cause paraesthesia, which can include pins and needles, itching, and numbness in some areas, mostly the extremities.
Vitamin B6 – Pyridoxine
- B6 is important for protein and carbohydrate metabolism. It helps the proteins that are an important part of most of the chemical reactions in the body.
- You can get B6 from meat, fish and poultry primarily, but also from soy, non-citrus fruits and legumes.
- Being deficient in B6 can cause anaemia and peripheral neuropathies (tingling, burning, numbness and weakness in extremities).
Vitamin B7 – Biotin
- B7 helps the body metabolise food and is important in the production of hormones and cholesterol.
- It is found in egg yolks, dairy products, legumes and nuts. Small amounts can be found in pork as well.
- A deficiency in B7 often leads to dermatitis.
Vitamin B9 – Folic Acid
- The pregnancy one. This is important to help the body form DNA. So, only slightly important.
- B9 is often found in liver, yeast, cereals, legumes, leafy green veg, asparagus and orange juice.
- B9 deficiencies are linked to a whole host of birth defects, which is why it is highly recommended that women take it whilst pregnant.
Vitamin B12 – Cobalamin
- The final B complex vitamin. It is different to the other B complex vitamins in that it can be stored in the liver.
- B12 helps the body with red blood cell formation, DNA, RNA and brain function.
- B12 is found in all animal products including dairy. For our vegan friends, your best bet is fortified cereals.
- B12 deficiencies lead to megaloblastic anaemia. This means that DNA, RNA and protein synthesis is impaired, which damages red blood cell production in the bone marrow.
Vitamin C – Ascorbic Acid
Finally, out of the Bs.
- Vitamin C is similar to the B vitamins, in that it isn’t held for long in the body, so we need to keep up intake.
- It is important for wound healing and helping teeth and gums stay healthy.
- We find Vitamin C in lemons and limes, a variety of fruits and veg, with very little gained from meat
For all you pirates out there, you’re probably aware of what issues arise from a lack of vitamin C, Scurvy ya sea dogs! Scurvy leads to bleeding gums, weakness in arms and legs and can lead to death via infection from bleeding.
Vitamin D – Cholecalciferol and Ergocalciferol
Ok, I am cheating here a little as Cholecalciferol is D2 and Ergocalciferol is D3. The difference is that D2 is absorbed via the skin, whereas D3 comes via food and can be stored in the body’s fatty tissues.
- Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium which is important for bone growth and strength.
- It is primarily gathered by getting sunlight onto your skin – roughly 15 minutes, 3 times a week is enough. From food though, fish or fortified cereals are your best option.
- A deficiency in vitamin D can lead to Rickets in children and osteomalacia, which is where the bones soften and can deform.
Vitamin E – Tocopherol
- Vitamin E is also stored in the body’s fats.
- It helps the body form red blood cells and use vitamin K.
- It will also help keep the skin and eyes healthy, and help fight infection.
- You can find it in plant oils like sunflower or olive oil, dark green veg, nuts and some fruit.
- Being deficient in Vitamin E can lead to haemolytic anaemia which causes a breakdown in the red blood cells
Vitamin K – Phylloquinone (K1) and Menaquinone (K2)
Same situation as D here, but K1 is plant and K2 is synthesised in the body from K1, or taken from animal sources.
- Vitamin K is important for blood clotting as the blood doesn’t stick together without it.
- ]It also helps with bone health
- Vitamin K is found in dark green, leafy veg, cereals and some fish and beef.
- A deficiency in this can lead to bleeding diathesis. This is a susceptibility to bleeding because of hypercoagulability – blood not clotting.
Well there we have it, our A-Z – well A-K with a lot of diversions – of the Vitamins you need.
A good all-round diet is important. Finding a good, healthy balance of all these essentials can take a bit of work and experimenting with foods to get that intake. You should also never be scared of going to your GP with any of the symptoms we discussed, as you don’t want to leave deficiencies unchecked and end up with one of the horrible conditions. That’s assuming you are not one of those Sea of Thieves players who really wants that authentic experience.
As always, take care of yourselves and happy geeking!