6 Vitamins You Should Know About
“A vitamin is a substance that makes you ill if you don’t eat it.”
– Albert Szent-Gyorgyi (Hungarian Biochemist, 1937 Nobel Prize for Medicine, 1893-1986)
Eating well involves more than watching calories and fat intake. The food in your diet should do more than satiate hunger. Food should provide your body with the nutrients it needs to keep you strong and healthy, which involves getting the right amount of essential vitamins in your diet. If you don’t eat the right foods your body will become deficient in any one of the important vitamins, and this could lead to unpleasant effects, such as bone loss, anemia and eye problems.
But what exactly are Vitamins?
Nutrition textbooks dryly define vitamins as organic compounds that the body needs in small quantities for normal functioning. Here’s the translation:
Vitamins are nutrients you must get from food because your body can’t make them from scratch.
Vitamins and minerals are now recognized in playing a role in the health and vitality of every organ in the body, from skin and bones to the nervous and immune systems, right up to the brain. Studies have shown that being well nourished with vitamins and minerals can lower cholesterol levels, help wounds heal faster, raise your sperm count and make you more resistant to colds and flu, asthma, cataracts, and even gum disease.
So here is a list of six essential vitamin you should know about in order to improve your health and life:
1. Vitamin A (retinol):
Why it’s good for you: This vitamin helps keep your skin, your nose and mouth lining in tiptop shape. It also helps maintain your vision, and keeps your digestive and urinary tracts functioning properly. Vitamin A stimulates the production and activity of white blood cells, takes part in remodeling bone, helps maintain the health of endothelial cells (those lining the body’s interior surfaces), and regulates cell growth and division. This latter role had researchers exploring for years whether insufficient vitamin A caused cancer. Several studies have dashed this hypothesis, as have randomized trials of supplements containing beta carotene, a precursor of vitamin A.
Where to find it: Carrots, liver, milk, butter, cheese, and spinach all contain healthy amounts of vitamin A.
Signs of deficiency: Contrary to what your grandfather may have told you, eating copious amounts of carrots won’t enable you to see in the dark, but a vitamin A deficiency can lead to night blindness – so Gramps wasn’t too far off. Other symptoms that come with a lack of vitamin A are dry, flaky skin, a decreased appetite, anemia, and kidney stones.
2. Vitamin B2 (riboflavin):
Why it’s good for you: Riboflavin helps your body turn food into energy and it promotes healthy skin, good eyesight and a properly functioning nervous system.
Where to find it: You’ve probably seen riboflavin listed on the back of the cereal boxes you’ve been reading since you were a child. Enriched breads and cereals contain good amounts of the vitamin, as well as dairy products, green vegetables, poultry, and fish.
Signs of deficiency: A prolonged lack of riboflavin could lead to cracks at the corners of the mouth, a constant sore throat, skin rashes, hypersensitivity to light, and a purple tongue.
3. Vitamin B12 (pyridoxine):
Why it’s good for you: Vitamin B12 performs a critical role in the synthesis of red and white blood cells and it helps your body create DNA. An exciting discovery about folic acid and two other B vitamins is that they may help fight heart disease and some types of cancer. It’s too early to tell if there’s merely an association between increased intake of folic acid and other B vitamins and heart disease or cancer, or if high intakes prevent these chronic diseases.
Folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 play key roles in recycling homocysteine into methionine, one of the 20 or so building blocks from which the body builds new proteins. Without enough folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12, this recycling process becomes inefficient and homocysteine levels increase. Several observational studies show that high levels of homocysteine are associated with increased risks of heart disease and stroke.
In addition to recycling homocysteine, folate plays a key role in building DNA, the complex compound that forms our genetic blueprint. Observational studies show that people who get higher than average amounts of B vitamins from their diets or supplements have lower risks of colon cancer and breast cancer.
Where to find it: You can easily meet your daily requirement of vitamin B12 by eating eggs, milk, meat or other foods derived from animals. This vitamin is also present in some fortified cereals.
Signs of deficiency: If you’re not getting enough vitamin B12, you could experience anemia, fatigue, constipation and loss of appetite. In severe cases, a deficiency can lead to neurological symptoms, such as a tingling sensation in the hands and feet.
4. Vitamin C (ascorbic acid):
Why it’s good for you: Vitamin C has been in the public eye for a long time. Even before its discovery in 1932, nutrition experts recognized that something in citrus fruits could prevent scurvy, a disease that killed as many as 2 million sailors between 1500 and 1800. More recently, Nobel laureate Linus Pauling promoted daily megadoses of vitamin C (the amount in 12 to 24 oranges) as a way to prevent colds and protect the body from other chronic diseases.
There’s no question that vitamin C plays a role in controlling infections. It’s also a powerful antioxidant that can neutralize harmful free radicals, and it helps make collagen, a tissue needed for healthy bones, teeth, gums, and blood vessels.
Where to find it: The most obvious source of vitamin C is in citrus fruits, but it can also be found in red bell peppers, broccoli, spinach, brussels sprouts, berries, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, and kiwifruit.
Signs of deficiency: Without a proper amount of this vitamin, you could be plagued with anemia, loose teeth, joint pain, poor healing, and hair loss.
5. Vitamin D (calciferol):
Why it’s good for you: If you don’t, or can’t, get outside for at least a 15-minute daily walk in the sun, odds are you don’t get enough vitamin D. African-Americans and others with dark skin tend to have much lower levels of vitamin D, due to less formation of the vitamin from the action of sunlight on skin. A study of people admitted to a Boston hospital, for example, showed that 57% were deficient in vitamin D.
Vitamin D helps ensure that the body absorbs and retains calcium and phosphorus, both critical for building bone. Laboratory studies also show that vitamin D keeps cancer cells from growing and dividing.
Some preliminary studies indicate that insufficient intake of vitamin D is associated with an increased risk of fractures, and that vitamin D supplementation may prevent them. It may also help prevent falls, a common problem that leads to substantial disability and death in older people. Other early studies suggest an association between low vitamin D intake and increased risks of prostate, breast, colon, and other cancers.
Where to find it: You can get your required amount of vitamin D through simply spending time outside, as the vitamin is transmitted through sunlight. Milk, fish oils, butter, and egg yolks also contain good levels of vitamin D.
Signs of deficiency: While children experiencing a vitamin D deficiency often have the ill fortune of developing rickets — a bone disease characterized by soft, easily breakable bones — adults can develop osteomalacia, a similar disorder that also leads to weak muscles and an increased risk of bone
6. Vitamin K (phylloquinone):
Why it’s good for you: Vitamin K helps make six of the 13 proteins needed for blood clotting. Its role in maintaining the clotting cascade is so important that people who take anticoagulants such as warfarin (Coumadin) must be careful to keep their vitamin K intake stable.
Lately, researchers have demonstrated that vitamin K is also involved in building bone. Low levels of circulating vitamin K have been linked with low bone density, and supplementation with vitamin K shows improvements in biochemical measures of bone health. A report from the Nurses’ Health Study suggests that women who get at least 110 micrograms of vitamin K a day are 30% less likely to break a hip as women who get less than that. Among the nurses, eating a serving of lettuce or other green leafy vegetable a day cut the risk of hip fracture in half when compared with eating one serving a week. Data from the Framingham Heart Study also shows an association between high vitamin K intake and reduced risk of hip fracture.
Where to find it: Green, leafy vegetables are the best source of vitamin K, though many other foods, such as dill pickles and soybeans contain smaller amounts of it.
Signs of deficiency: If you have a deficiency of vitamin K, your skin may have a tendency to bruise and bleed easily.
A standard multivitamin supplement doesn’t come close to making up for an unhealthy diet. It provides a dozen or so of the vitamins known to maintain health, a mere shadow of what’s available from eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Instead, a daily multivitamin provides a sort of nutritional safety net.
While most people get enough vitamins to avoid the classic deficiency diseases, relatively few get enough key vitamins that may be important in preventing several chronic diseases. A standard, store-brand, RDA-level multivitamin can supply you with enough of these vitamins for under $40 a year. It’s about the least expensive insurance you can buy.
And remember, vitamins are found in nearly every food you eat, and without them you could feel weak and vulnerable to ailments. Luckily, in most cases, getting the proper vitamins is simply a matter of maintaining healthy eating habits on a daily basis.
So load your diet with green leafy vegetables, lean meats and fruits.
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