Understanding Micro Nutrients.
In this article, we will be working to identify fat soluble and water soluble vitamins and explain the various functions of individual vitamins in the body. We will also specify problems associated with vitamin deficiency and toxicity. Further, we will identify good food sources for the vitamins and explore the role of supplements to uncover if they are truly effective.
The “Vita” in vitamins means life, while “amines” means a nitrogen containing compound. The “e” was dropped later on because it was shown that not all vitamins contained nitrogen. Many of these vitamins were actually discovered through deficiency related diseases such as scurvy, beriberi and pellagra.
Unlike macronutrients, micronutrients including vitamins are not a source of energy for the body, though they are absolutely necessary for many functions in the body. Being a micronutrient, we do not need a lot of it, just enough. If you consume less than the needs of your body, you can develop symptoms ranging from fatigue to more serious complications associated with deficiency diseases.
Vitamins contain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen and are present in living things. Vitamins are involved in numerous biochemical activities in our bodies and in particular, they work mostly with enzymes as coenzymes. You need these enzymes for many reactions in the body ranging from digestion all the way to energy production in the mitochondria. You also need vitamins to build tissues in your body as well as for healing and immunity.
Vitamins are broken down into two categories, those that are fat-soluble and those that are water-soluble. The fat-soluble vitamins are A, D, E & K and the water-soluble vitamins we will be discussing are Vitamin C and the B family of vitamins. Vitamins often do not work in isolation, but together or even with other minerals. Many of the B vitamins often work together throughout the body and you can find them together present in foods as well. For example, we know that vitamin C helps absorb iron and we know vitamin D is necessary for the proper absorption of calcium. Many of the vitamins are also antioxidants, working together to defend the body against free radicals. Some also have the ability to regenerate another. For instance, vitamin C has the ability to regenerate vitamin E.
Lipid-soluble or fat-soluble means that these vitamins need to be consumed with a fat to be absorbed and are stored in your fatty tissues. Vitamins A, D, E and K fall in this category. An easy way to remember this so you don’t forget is (KADE my personal) using the mnemonics “All Dogs Eat Kidney”, though this may not be a true statement, it is often used to remember which of the vitamins are fat-soluble. Because fat-soluble vitamins can be stored in the body, the body generally has a supply to use when needed, though the stores may become depleted when not replaced through the diet or supplementation over time. Because they are stored in the body, toxicity associated with high dosages may be a concern ranging in vague and mild acute symptoms to even chronic conditions.
Vitamin A was one of the first fat-soluble vitamins to be discovered. Early in the 1900s, researchers found that when animals were given a diet that were lacking in fats, their growth were hampered and they were getting sick more often. In particular what was noteworthy was that their eyes became inflamed and was often accompanied with an infection. When these animals were fed cod-liver oil and or butter, they recovered. This special ingredient we know today as vitamin A was then referred to as the “Anti-Infective” vitamin according to The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods.
The two classes of Vitamin A are either in pre- and pro- forms. The pre-formed is a form of vitamin A that the body can use as is and they are your retinoids. Food sources that provide these include animal liver, fish liver oil such as cod liver oil, eggs and dairy products. This is the form of Vitamin A that is often associated with toxicity. The other form is the pro-vitamin A. These are your carotenoids such as beta-caroten. They have to first be converted in the body to a pre-form. Toxicity associated with this form is not a major concern because it is believed that the body will only convert what it needs. Food sources of these include orange and yellow fruits and vegetables, as well as your leafy green vegetable. So yes, eating enough spinach, carrots sweet potatoes, squashes, kale, dried apricots and other S.O.U.L. foods should get you enough. In fact, as Haas suggests, 2 medium carrots should do the trick. If you eat too much carotenoid however, the palms of your hands and soles of your feet may turn a little orange, a condition called carotenemia which is typically nothing to worry about and reducing the amounts of carotenoids, particularly beta-carotene in the diet should bring it back to normal.
Vitamin A keeps many of your mucous membranes like those of the eyes, nose and mouth as well as the vagina and the rectum moist. We all know that vitamin A is the vision vitamin in that it helps with vision and as an antioxidant helps in reducing the risk of macular degeneration. It is a very important vitamin for keeping you youthful and healthy. According to Murray, “other body functions aided by vitamin A include reproduction; adrenal and thyroid hormone manufacture and activity; maintaining structure and function of nerve cells; immunity; and cell growth”.
When someone doesn’t get enough vitamin A in their diet, they are at risk for things like dry and cracked skin, night blindness, reduced perspiration, impaired ability to heal wounds and even frequent infections. On the flip side, due to it being fat soluble and stored in the body (versus our water soluble vitamins are typically excreted in the urine) vitamin A can be toxic in very high doses. Acutely, this can cause nausea, vomiting, headaches and weakness. Long term or chronic overdose symptoms include anorexia, hair loss, dry skin and liver problems to name a few.
Vitamin E was actually discovered in the 1920s, At the time, researchers studying rats found that when they were given a diet without vitamin E, they became sterile and were not able to reproduce. Once they incorporated wheat germ oil which is high in vitamin E, this problem was resolved. This vitamin was called tocopherol, derived from two Greek roots “tocos” and “phero”, meaning “to bear offspring” and was known to be the “anti-sterility” vitamin.
The most potent or active form of vitamin E is known as alpha-tocopherol, though it is safer and considered best to take in a mixed tocopherol form of vitamin E. Vitamin E is a strong antioxidant, anticoagulant (which means it acts as a blood thinner) and therefore reduces the risk of strokes or heart attacks caused by clots. Vitamin E is also a potent antioxidant playing a very important role in protecting our cell membranes from free radical damage.
Polyunsaturated oils are highly prone to being unstable and to damage. Vitamin E protects against this damage and it is very interesting that nature’s intelligence combines Vitamin E in foods that have polyunsaturated fats such as certain vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds. As mentioned earlier, wheat germ oil is one of highest amounts of vitamin E. Green leafy vegetables such as spinach and fruits like avocado are great sources as well. Those that have an inability to digest fats properly and those that take iron supplements may have an impaired ability to absorb vitamin E from foods.
It is debatable as to whether or not vitamin D is truly a vitamin, as it functions more like a steroid hormone in the body because it can be synthesized in our body from sunlight. Therefore, it is also known as the “sunshine” vitamin. Vitamin D is needed for the absorption of calcium, without it, we would become calcium deficient and at risk for diseases such as rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults. Vitamin D3 is the active form and it is this form that helps calcium to be absorbed from our GI tract and plays a role in decreasing the calcium excreted by the kidneys. Another important role of Vitamin D is in maintaining the right amount of calcium and phosphorus levels in the blood, and in helping to stimulate the bone to reabsorb them. Vitamin D related deficiencies can also be a factor in Multiple Sclerosis, insulin resistance and depression. Ever heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder – where people get depressed during the months with less sunlight available? They are making less vitamin D!
Besides sunlight, you can also get vitamin D from your diet. When we started fortifying food products with vitamin D such as bread and milk, we started to get more into diets. Good natural food sources of vitamin D include cod liver oil, egg yolks, butter and cold water fish such as salmon and mackerel. Green leafy vegetables have some but are not considered the best sources for this vitamin.
The three forms of vitamin D include calciferol, cholecalciferol (D3), and egrocalciferol. Calciferol is found in the different types of fish oils as well as in egg yolks. This is the form that is used to fortify foods like margarine and milk. Cholecalciferol is made when your skin synthesizes the rays from the sun and Ergocalciferol is created in plants through the exposure to sun rays. When the UVB rays from the sun hits your skin, the skin converts it with the help of a specific form of cholesterol to a form of D3 called Cholecalciferol. This travels through the bloodstream to the liver and is converted with the help of an enzyme to a potent form of D3 called 25- hydroxycholecalciferol which Murray states is at least 10 times more potent than the form of D3 that is converted by the skin. This then travels to the kidney and is once again converted by another enzyme to the most potent form of D3 called 1,25-dihydroxycholecalciferol. Murray suggests that this is at least 10 times more potent than form of D3 converted by the skin. You don’t have to know the names of the various D3’s involved in the stages of conversion, but do understand the role of the various organs involved in the conversion.
So what can cause a deficiency? Limited exposure to sunlight, low cholesterol levels in the blood, and a high concentration of melanin in the skin are some of the contributing factors that may inhibit vitamin D absorption in the body.
There are basically two forms of vitamin K that are useful for us humans. The first form is K1 which can be obtained from plants such as the cruciferous family and dark green leafy greens such as kale and K2. This is made by our gut bacteria or obtained from some fermented foods. You may have seen K3 in your pets foods. Because that is a synthetic version, it’s safety for human consumption is still questionable.
Vitamin K is important for bone health as well as for blood clotting. It has been shown in numerous studies that those that consume vitamin K on a regular basis had a lowered risk of severe fractures caused by osteoporosis. Some studies have also pointed to its cancer protective qualities in particular for cancers such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Deficiencies can lead to an increased risk of hemorrhage and osteoporosis. Due to its blood clotting capabilities, a Vitamin K rich diet and supplementation is generally not recommended for those on pharmaceutical blood thinners.
Water soluble vitamins include vitamin C and the B vitamin family. They are generally excreted in the urine and therefore, are not typically considered toxic. Due to this fact, it is hard to overdose on them unless you are taking an exorbitant amount of them as supplements. However, because most of them not stored in your body, you need to make sure you are taking in adequate amounts in your diet; otherwise you may develop deficiency related diseases quite easily.
Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is very important in our bodies. The production and maintenance of collagen in the body is dependent on vitamin C. Collagen is what keeps the body together and is what gives strength and flexibility to our connective tissues which include cartilage, ligaments, skin, blood vessels, etc. It is also part of our nails and hair.
Vitamin C also plays a vital role in immune health in various capacities from improving white blood cell functions, to increasing antibodies in the body to ward off infections. It is therefore found to be beneficial as an immune stimulant in times of colds and flus and even allergies. Some studies have also pointed to benefits that make it anti-carcinogenic as well.
As an antioxidant, it offers protection from the elements – which could be any form of toxins ingested or even sun exposure. It also plays a role in regenerating vitamin E, another antioxidant after free radical damage. The body’s need for vitamin C INCREASES when you are under increased stress or are ill. Also if you are a smoker, live in a very polluted area or consume a lot of luncheon meat, vitamin C replenishment on a regular basis is essential for your health.
Since Vitamin C is not made in our bodies, it has to be obtained from the diet or supplemented. Good foods sources of Vitamin C include not only the citrus fruits but fruits such as guavas, kiwis, berries, papayas and pineapples. Bell peppers, chili pepper, kale, and broccoli are good sources too. Vitamin C also helps in the absorption of iron so it is a good idea to combine vitamin C rich foods with iron rich foods, particularly for those that have iron-deficiency anemia.
Deficiencies of vitamin C can have many implications, but scurvy or collagen wasting disease is most noted. Symptoms of Vitamin C deficiencies can include bleeding gums, slow wound healing, trouble concentrating, susceptibility to infection due to lowered immunity, bruising, and in a worse- case scenario, even strokes according to several studies. Thankfully, vitamin C is NOT toxic, however, overdose of vitamin C can cause osmotic diarrhea.
The vitamin B family are water soluble and are often found in foods together. Their functions are so interrelated that there is a need for all of them. Besides food sources, some of the B vitamins are created by your gut flora.
Regarding the B vitamins, Haas states that they act “as catalytic sparkplugs in the human body; they function as coenzymes to catalyze many biochemical reactions, such as converting carbohydrate to glucose, and they are important in fat and protein/amino acid metabolism”. In addition to this, they play an important role in the health of our nervous system. The refining process, excess sugar as well as caffeine, the consumption of alcohol and even stress all deplete B vitamins in the body. Deficiencies could have dire consequences including nerve damage as well as impaired metabolism and biochemical activities in the body. Therefore, we need to be mindful that we are obtaining enough from our diet.
Thiamin, or vitamin B1, as with all of the B vitamins is an important cofactor in energy production and plays an imperative role in carbohydrate metabolism. They also assist in the functions of the nervous system. Most of all tissues and organs in your body contain some of this vitamin. It is found in whole grains, seeds, beans, and nuts. Fish such as trout and pork have a good amount as well. Among the fruits, avocados have among the highest B1 content.
We often see deficiency of B1 in alcoholics and sometimes in vegans. Some of the symptoms can include slurred speech and stuttering. It can also include fatigue, which is common to most of the vitamin B deficiencies, and can lead to problems with concentrating, confusion, depression, decreased appetite, and leg numbness. Severe thiamin deficiency which develops over time can cause beriberi which can lead to problems with the peripheral nervous system and wasting of the muscles in the case of dry beriberi, and even fluid retention in the case of wet beriberi.
Fun Fact: If you are one of those that tend to attract mosquitoes wherever you go, this vitamin may work for you since it is eliminated through the skin and bugs don’t like the smell.
In addition to activating energy systems in the body, Vitamin B2 or riboflavin is needed for red blood cell formation and as a cofactor for other B vitamins. Haas states that “riboflavin is also instrumental in cell respiration, helping each cell use oxygen more efficiently, helpful in maintaining good vision and healthy hair, skin, and nails, and is necessary for normal cell growth”. We find it in high amounts in molasses, dark leafy greens, meat, eggs, dairy and whole grains. Deficiency can cause tongue inflammation called glossitis or skin problems called dermatitis. Early signs of deficiency can include cracks or sores in the corner of the mouth sometimes even sensitivity to light. It affects the mucous, and therefore can lead to disorders of the tissues in the eyes, mouth, and even the vagina and the rectum. Excess riboflavin will give your urine a fluorescent yellow-green color, but this is nothing to freak out about….It is water soluble so the excess is excreted in the urine.
B3 or Niacin is needed for synthesis of B1, B2 and B6. Technically, if you have sufficient amount of tryptophan in your diet, it can be converted to niacin. Niacin is involved in more than 50 chemical reactions in the body and as a coenzyme, it plays “an important role in energy production; fat, cholesterol, and carbohydrate metabolism; and the manufacture of many body compounds, including sex and adrenal hormones” according to Murray. We find it in high amounts in peanuts, organ meats like liver, chicken, eggs, legumes, and brown rice. Breads and cereals are fortified with this in the US by law.
Severe deficiency can lead to pellagra, a condition that manifests in the 3 D’s: dementia, dermatitis, diarrhea. Over time it can result in death. Toxicity can occur with supplemental niacin and is USUALLY but not always self-limited. Symptoms of toxicity include: flushing, increased uric acid, itching, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, anxiety, panic, etc.
Pantothenic Acid, or B5, is necessary for fat and carbohydrate metabolism, synthesis of cholesterol, and cellular metabolism. According to Murray it s also called the “anti-stress” vitamin because of the important role in plays in supporting adrenal functions. Haas suggests that this vitamin may lessen the negative effects of antibiotics and radiation because the support it gives the adrenal glands. We find it in high amounts in organ meats, chicken, fish, mushrooms, whole grains, cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower, nuts, and legumes. To some degree, the gut flora is capable of producing some of this as well.
The root word “panthos” in pantothenic means ‘everywhere’ in Greek, therefore it is one of those vitamins that are found in many foods so deficiency is rare. Perhaps one of the signs which is common to most of the B vitamins will be fatigue. A condition called parathesia may develop where there is a sort of a tingling and burning sensation especially in your feet.
Pyridoxine, commonly known as vitamin B6, is necessary for the energy pathway, to support metabolism, for the formation of red blood cell, and is a cofactor in over 100 different enzymes and neurotransmitters. We need B6 for our DNA. It is also necessary for hormonal balance and the health of our immune system. Homocysteine levels can also be lowered with its presence. Pyridoxine is found in berries, organ meats, whole grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, as wells cruciferous vegetables and potatoes. Deficiency can leads to insomnia, depression, nervous system problems, and even convulsions. Toxicity only occurs at VERY high doses and is associated with numbness and tingling.
Folic acid, or vitamin B9, is an important vitamin necessary for DNA synthesis which allows the cells to divide correctly. Protein metabolism is also dependent on the presence of folic acid. Folic acid works with B12 for many functions including reducing homocysteine in the body. The root word “folium” in Latin means foliage, so as you might suspect, folic acid is found in leafy green veggies such as kale, spinach and chard. It is also found in cruciferous veggies and legumes. Meat is not the best source for folic acid.
Deficiency is actually quite common world-wide. Common symptoms can include anemia, growth problems, and cervical dysplasia. Deficiency during pregnancy can lead to neural tube defects called spina bifida in the baby. Too much folic acid intake may mask the symptoms of B12 anemia which can be dangerous and the nerve damage may be irreparable. Folic acid deficiency anemia manifests very differently from iron deficiency anemia and you cannot use iron to correct the problem. Haas also informs that if there is an increased intake of more than 2000 mg of vitamin C, the need for folic acid increases as well. Certain medications such as birth control pills as well as some cholesterol lowering medications and diuretics may deplete folic acid levels in the body so it also may warrant additional intake.
Biotin, also known as vitamin B7, is needed for many metabolic processes such as synthesis of fats and amino acids, as well as making sugar available to the body. It is found in organ meat, other meat, nuts, beans, and barely. Egg yolks are a good source, but the protein in raw egg whites actually hinders its absorption, though this protein is destroyed when cooked. Your intestinal flora also creates biotin. Deficiency of biotin cause scaly skin, anorexia, hair loss and fatigue. In infants, cradle cap is thought of as a result of biotin deficiency.
Cobalamin, or Vitamin B12, is arguably the most discussed of the B vitamins. It is known for being an energy producer and mood supporter, hence it is also called the “energy” or “anti-fatigue” vitamin. It is necessary for creation of healthy blood cells and for proper nerve functions. Animal foods have B12 as well as fermented foods and sea vegetables, tempeh and nutritional yeast also contain some B12. Additionally, your intestinal bacteria are able to produce some of it. However, foods from the plant kingdom are generally lacking in this important vitamin.
Unlike the other B vitamins, this vitamin is actually stored in the liver and it can take a long time for deficiency symptoms to occur. B12 absorption in the digestive tract is dependent upon hydrochloric acid and intrinsic factors.
Deficiency is common among the elderly who tend to have lowered production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach. Vegans and vegetarians that do not consume eggs or dairy are especially susceptible to B12 deficiency, and also simply because plant foods lack this vitamin. Therefore supplementation of B12 may be necessary for these individuals. Deficiency in B12 can lead to pernicious anemia, nerve problems, fatigue and mental confusion, inflamed red tongue, and even depression.
Many of the vitamins work in synergy with each other, often one promoting the benefits of the other. Some of the vitamins that we explored this session, especially vitamins A, E and C, also work together as potent antioxidants, protecting us from free radical damage.
This Information will allow you to explore both sides of the argument for and against the use of supplements. The choice of course is yours to make as to whether you believe taking vitamins on a daily basis as an insurance policy is warranted, or whether taking therapeutic dosages of specific vitamins are necessary for the prevention or treatment of certain conditions.
As your primary goal will be to learn more about the benefits of Holistic Nutrition which entails eating a wide variety of S.O.U.L. foods. Having the knowledge of the importance of vitamins in the body will surely empower you to communicate more effectively as to why eating whole S.O.U.L. foods is the way to go.
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