In everyday language, we would generally describe vitamins as elements that are essential for maintaining good health. And this is absolutely true! A vitamin is defined as an organic substance which the body needs in order to function properly. Indeed the word ‘vitamin’ comes from the Latin ‘vita’ for life. Suffice to say then that these substances offer countless benefits for health and that our bodies need them on a daily basis!
To be a little more specific, scientists classify these substances as micronutrients - as distinct from macronutrients which include proteins, carbohydrates, fats and fibre. The micronutrient family encompasses vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, calcium and iron, and as the name suggests, the body needs only small amounts of these nutrients to ensure a multitude of functions.
Vitamins are involved in the development, functioning and maintenance of the human body. The majority act as coenzymes or cofactors during various biological reactions. They are therefore recognised as playing a role in many of the body’s functions. Though by no means exhaustive, the following list gives an overview of the function of vitamins:
However, all vitamins are different and they do not fulfil the same roles. This article will explore their respective benefits,
It is the structural differences between vitamins that make their roles so varied. The chemical structure of these substances gives them specific biochemical properties, roles and benefits. To differentiate between them, scientists have established an international system of classification: each vitamin is allocated a letter from A to K.
Today, we recognise thirteen different families of vitamins of which the B group vitamins, or vitamin B complex constitute a special case. There are eight different B vitamins, each with its own number: B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B8, B9 and B12.
Vitamins are sometimes also classified according to whether they are water- or fat-soluble. A fat-soluble vitamin is able to dissolve in fats and can thus be stored in the body, whereas a water-soluble vitamin generally circulates in the body for a limited time before being used or eliminated. There are thus:
As mentioned, vitamins have different roles and effects within the body. They act at various levels and participate in many functions. Here we describe the principal vitamin benefits.
Vitamin A: This is a fat-soluble vitamin offering many benefits, particularly for eye health. Indeed, vitamin A is a key component of rhodopsin, a protein that absorbs light. It also acts at various other levels in the body as it plays a role in cell growth and differentiation. It is essential for maintaining the skin, mucous membranes, lungs and kidneys. Studies also show that vitamin A contributes to the body’s immune defences and reproductive system.
Vitamin B1: Also known as thiamine, this B group vitamin is particularly important for energy production. It plays an essential role in metabolising energy from carbohydrates. It therefore participates in cell development and function throughout the body. Vitamin B1 is also recognised for its action on the transmission of nerve impulses.
Vitamin B2: Also known as riboflavin, this second B group vitamin is again central to the body’s energy production. It participates in all the biochemical reactions that take place when energy is produced from carbohydrates and fats. It also offers benefits for vision, the skin and mucous membranes.
Vitamin B3: Sometimes referred to as vitamin PP or niacin, B3 is another of the body’s vitamins for energy. It helps to reduce fatigue, as well as offering numerous other benefits. Vitamin B3 is primarily known for its positive effects on the digestive tract, nervous system and skin. In a general sense, it helps maintain normal physiological function.
Vitamin B5: Also known as pantothenic acid, this vitamin’s main function is the synthesis of coenzyme A (CoA), a very important molecule that participates in many of the body’s metabolic pathways. It is involved in carbohydrate, fat and protein metabolism – for example, it breaks down fats to produce energy. It also contributes to the synthesis of certain hormones and neurotransmitters.
Vitamin B6: The body needs this vitamin for many different reactions. Also called pyridoxine, vitamin B6 is primarily known for its role in protein metabolism. It is also involved in glycogenesis – the release of glucose from stored glycogen. As well as helping to meet the body’s energy needs, vitamin B6 plays a part in synthesising neurotransmitters and producing haemoglobin in red blood cells.
Vitamin B8: In some countries, this is known as vitamin B7 or vitamin H. Scientists refer to it as biotin. Like other B group vitamins, it plays a role in energy production. It is recognised as contributing to normal energy metabolism, nervous system function, and mental function. It may also help maintain the health of the hair, skin and mucous membranes.
Vitamin B9 : One of the best-known of the B vitamins, this is also called folic acid or folate and is often highlighted for its importance during conception, pregnancy and breastfeeding. In fact, this vitamin plays a key role in the development of all the body’s cells: nerve, skin, liver, intestines, etc. It is also involved in the renewal and functioning of red blood cells which are essential for healthy oxygenation of the body. Finally, vitamin B9 contributes to the synthesis of neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers required for healthy nervous system function.
Vitamin B12: Also referred to as cobalamin, the last of the B group vitamins is an anti-anaemic: it prevents various forms of anaemia. Anaemia is characterised by a lack of red blood cells which are vital for healthy oxygenation and which require vitamin B12 for their synthesis. This vitamin also plays a key role in the healthy functioning of the nervous system and in DNA synthesis.
Vitamin C: Offering multiple health benefits, vitamin C is unsurprisingly one of the best-known vitamins of all! It is primarily known for stimulating the body’s immune defences against infections, particularly bacterial or viral infections. It is also a powerful natural antioxidant, defending the body against damaged caused by oxidative stress - the accumulation of highly-reactive oxygen species which are harmful to cells and are involved in premature ageing of the body. Vitamin C also plays a role in other biochemical processes including intestinal absorption of iron and production of collagen, a protein essential for the formation of connective tissue in the skin, ligaments and bones.
Vitamin D: This the famous sunshine vitamin! While vitamin D is produced in the skin as a result of the action of the sun’s ultraviolet rays, supplementation is very popular for ensuring the body’s needs are met. Vitamin D offers a wealth of benefits. Its main function is to increase intestinal absorption of calcium and phosphorus, two minerals essential for bone strength, tooth mineralisation and maintaining healthy cartilage. Adequate vitamin D intake is therefore recognised as helping to prevent diseases such as osteoporosis and arthritis, which are characterised by a loss of bone density and the breakdown of cartilage in joints. Vitamin D is also involved in cell renewal, and in maintaining healthy muscle function and the body’s immune defences.
Vitamin E: This shares certain features with vitamin C. Firstly, it is a potent antioxidant, acting primarily to prevent free radicals from damaging cell membranes and lipoproteins. Vitamin E is also able to stimulate the body’s immune defences and thus combat certain bacterial and viral infections.
Vitamin K: This vitamin plays a major role in blood coagulation: the ‘K’ comes from the German word ‘Koagulation’: However, this is not its only function. It also promotes the binding of calcium to bone matrix proteins thus contributing to bone strength. Studies show that an adequate intake of vitamin K helps to both prevent certain cardiovascular problems and maintain healthy bones.
Note: Vitamins continue to be widely studied today. New findings may emerge at any time which may contradict or confirm the information provided in this article. If you have any doubts, please consult a health professional.
Despite their importance for our health, the vast majority of vitamins cannot be produced by the body and must be obtained from external sources. Vitamin D is one exception which can be synthesised in the skin through the action of the sun’s rays. However, this endogenous production still relies on their being adequate sunshine levels which is not always the case! What’s more, daily life is not always conducive to prolonged sun exposure which in any case is not recommended by health authorities due to the risks posed by UV rays.
We therefore have to rely on food to meet our vitamin requirements and obtain their benefits. Below is a list of all the main dietary sources of vitamins.
Vitamin A: This is found in the form of retinol in animal-source products (for example, beef liver and fish such as salmon) and in the form of carotenes (provitamin A) in plant-source products (fruits and vegetables such as spinach, carrots, mangoes and apricots)..
Vitamin B1: This is found in bread, wholegrains, meat and fish.
Vitamin B2: This is found in various animal-source foods such as eggs, offal (liver) and milk.
Vitamin B3: This is found in animal-source products (liver, white meat, fish, milk etc) as well as in plant-source products (peanuts, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, wholegrains, avocadoes, etc).
Vitamin B5: This is found in various foodstuffs such as beef, chicken, certain types of offal, some grains and avocadoes.
Vitamin B6: This is in oily fish such as salmon and tuna, some offal (liver), meat, potatoes and grains.
Vitamin B8: This is mainly found in egg yolks, offal, milk, soya, oats, mushrooms, sprouted seeds, brewer’s yeast and royal jelly.
Vitamin B9: This is found in, amongst others, offal (liver), green vegetables (spinach, Brussels sprouts, etc), yeasts, asparagus, seeds, eggs and seafood..
Vitamin B12: This is only present in animal-source products such as seafood, meat and eggs.
Vitamin C: This is primarily in raw fruits and vegetables such as oranges, peppers, papaya, mango and kiwi.
Vitamin D: This is present in dairy products, cod liver oil and several species of fish including horse mackerel, swordfish, sardines, herring, mackerel and salmon.
Vitamin E: This is found in oilseeds and the oils extracted from them (olives, nuts, rapeseed, etc.).
Vitamin K: This is in green vegetables such as spinach and broccoli, vegetables oils, meat, cheese, eggs, etc.
Note: This is by no means an exhaustive list. Moreover, it should be remembered that vitamin content can vary from one food to another. It is also affected by factors such as storage, packaging and preparation.
While many foods are rich sources of vitamins, these micronutrients are extremely fragile – they can be sensitive to oxygen, light and heat. Cooking fruits and vegetables at high temperatures can, for example, significantly affect their vitamin content.
A wide range of vitamin supplements has thus been developed to ensure adequate intake and prevent or correct deficiency. Dietary supplements enable you to fully capitalise on the benefits of vitamins, for example in the case of a course of vitamin C supplements, often recommended for supporting the body’s defences at the start of autumn and winter. Nutritional supplements can also prevent or correct a deficiency. There are certain vitamins in which a shortfall is more likely. Such deficiencies are often under-diagnosed and can have multiple consequences for our health.
Given the many roles and benefits of vitamins, deficiency can result in a variety of health problems depending on the particular vitamin involved. Here are some examples:
Worth knowing: Many people have an inadequate intake of certain vitamins without necessarily realising it. Signs of vitamin deficiency can go unnoticed for quite some time or be confused with other health issues (for example, feeling tired, loss of appetite, etc) and may thus be unwittingly inciting more serious problems. Experts estimate, for example, that half the population may be lacking in vitamin D.
Whatever your supplementation objective, there are several factors that need to be taken into account to ensure you choose the right vitamin supplement. Once you’ve identified which vitamin/s you need, it’s important to look carefully at the various forms offered. Different forms of vitamins are available as nutritional supplements and they don’t all have the same properties or bioavailability – ie, they are not all absorbed by the body to the same degree. Bioavailable forms include:
Worth knowing: There are now many multivitamin formulations available which combine several vitamins and minerals in a single capsule. Check out SuperSmart’s multivitamins!
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