Vitamins & Minerals - The Basics

Vitamins are organic molecules required by living organisms in minute amounts for proper health. An organism deprived of all sources of a particular vitamin will eventually suffer from disease symptoms specific to that vitamin. Certain activities (such as intense exercise) and many pharmaceutical medications can accelerate the loss of vitamins in the body. This creates a greater need for nutritional support through proper diet and high-quality supplementation.

Vitamins can be classified as either water soluble, which means they dissolve easily in water, or fat soluble, which means they are absorbed through the intestinal tract with the help of lipids. Different vitamins have been identified to play specific roles in specific areas of the body. For example, Vitamin A (also called retinol) is known as the "eye vitamin" because it is essential for proper function of the cells that make our eyes.

In general, vitamins must come from diet, and supplements. Some vitamins can be converted from "precursors". For example, Vitamin A can be produced from beta carotene; niacin from the amino acid tryptophan; and vitamin D through exposure of skin to ultraviolet light.

The term vitamin does not encompass other essential nutrients such as dietary minerals, essential fatty acids, or essential amino acids, nor the large number of other nutrients that merely promote health. Often, people incorrectly refer to any dietary supplement as a "vitamin." This is like referring to a glass window as a "brick" because it is a part used to manufacture a house.

Dietary minerals, as well as Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen and Oxygen are the chemical elements required by living organisms. They can be either bulk minerals (required in relatively large amounts) or trace minerals (required only in very small amounts). Dietary minerals include Magnesium, Iron, Iodine, Selenium and others.

These can be naturally occurring in food or added in elemental or mineral form, such as calcium carbonate or sodium chloride. Some of these additives are derived from natural sources such as ground oyster shells. Appropriate intake levels of each dietary mineral must be sustained to maintain physical health.

What, Exactly, Are Vitamins?

Nutrition textbooks dryly define vitamins as organic compounds that the body needs in small quantities for normal functioning.

Here's what that means:

Vitamins are nutrients you must get from food because your body can't make them from scratch.

You need only small amounts (that's why they are often referred to as micronutrients) because the body uses them without breaking them down, as happens to carbohydrates and other macronutrients.

So far, 13 compounds have been classified as vitamins.

Vitamins A, D, E, and K, the four fat-soluble vitamins, tend to accumulate in the body. Vitamin C and the eight B vitamins - biotin, folate, niacin, pantothenic acid, riboflavin, thiamin, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 - dissolve in water, so excess amounts are excreted.

The "letter" vitamins sometimes go by different names.
These include:

  • Vitamin A = retinol, retinaldehyde, retinoic acid
  • Vitamin B1 = thiamin
  • Vitamin B2 = riboflavin
  • Vitamin B6 = pyridoxine, pyridoxal, pyridoxamine
  • Vitamin B12 = cobalamin
  • Vitamin C = ascorbic acid
  • Vitamin D = calciferol
  • Vitamin E = tocopherol, tocotrienol
  • Vitamin K = phylloquinone
Dietary Insurance: A Daily Multivitamin

If you eat a healthy diet, do you need to take vitamins? Not long ago, the answer from most experts would have been a resounding "no". Today, though, there's good evidence that taking a daily multivitamin makes good sense for most adults.

What's changed? Not only have scientists determined why we need pyridoxine (vitamin B6), but they are also accumulating evidence that this vitamin and others do much more than ward off the so-called diseases of deficiency, things like scurvy and rickets. Intake of several vitamins above the minimum daily requirement may prevent heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and other chronic diseases.

Just be sure, though, that you are taking natural vitaminsderived from food sources, that can be absorbed into your body.Many (in fact, most) of the vitamin products easily available to us are synthetic.

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