Human beings require a handful of things for survival – air, water, and food. We can get away with the bare minimum of each, and still survive, but without them in ample supply our lives would be pretty miserable. In addition to quantity, quality of the nutrients we take into our bodies is also important … especially the vitamins our body needs for good health and overall function.
Every day cells are continually being manufactured to replace skin, muscle, and bone throughout the body. In the bone marrow of the skeleton, 100 billion red blood cells are produced every 24 hours to help our bodies’ function properly and thrive. But, in order to accomplish these amazing feats, our bodies require raw materials to build these cells, including 13 essential vitamins that help to boost immunity, heal wounds, and convert food to energy used for all functions of the body. Whether you get them from the food you eat or from vitamin supplements, they are essential for good health and overall wellbeing.
WHAT ARE VITAMINS?
Vitamins are nutrients found in the foods that we eat that our bodies need to ward off disease. Our bodies can’t produce vitamins and needs to consume them in ample quantities for good function. There are two types of vitamins – fat-soluble vitamins and water-soluble vitamins. Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the fat cells of the body and need fat to be present to be absorbed. Because they are stored they don’t need to be replenished daily or in high quantities. Water-soluble vitamins are not stored in the body at all and need to be replenished daily for good function. With these types of vitamins, the body uses what it needs and then gets rid of the rest.
Fat-soluble vitamins include:
- Vitamin A (you can find this vitamin in orange-colored fruits and vegetables, dark leafy greens, and eggs)
- Vitamin D (you can find this vitamin can be found in fortified milk and dairy products, fortified cereals, and by getting out in the sun)
- Vitamin E (you can find this vitamin in fortified cereals, leafy green vegetables, seeds, and various nuts)
- Vitamin K (you can find this vitamin in dark green leafy vegetables and turnip or beet greens)
Water-soluble vitamins include:
- Vitamin B1 (you can find this vitamin in whole grains, enriched grains, various types of liver, different nuts, and seeds; also known as thiamin)
- Vitamin B2 (you can find this vitamin in whole grains, enriched grains, and dairy products; also known as riboflavin)
- Vitamin B3 (you can find this vitamin in meat, fish, poultry, and whole grains; also known as niacin)
- Vitamin B5 (you can find this vitamin in meat, poultry, and whole grains; also known as pantothenic acid)
- Vitamin B6 (you can find this vitamin in fortified cereals and soy products; also known as pyridoxine)
- Vitamin B7 (this vitamin can be found in fruits and meats; also known as biotin)
- Vitamin B9 (this vitamin can be found in leafy vegetables; also known as folic acid or folate)
- Vitamin B12 (this vitamin can be found in fish, poultry, meat, and dairy products)
- Vitamin C (this vitamin comes from citrus fruits and juices, and red, yellow and green peppers)
UNDERSTANDING VITAMIN DEFICIENCY
When the body is deficient in any of these essential vitamins there are specific vitamin deficiency symptoms that can arise and an increased risk of disease. Symptoms evident in the eye, hair, nail, mouth and skin are among the early visible warning signs of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Although you can get these vitamins from a well-rounded diet many people consider store bought vitamins and supplements to get what they need for good health.
Below are examples of common vitamin deficiencies, symptoms to watch out for, and ways to ensure you are getting enough in your daily food and supplementation.
Vitamin A is involved in immune function, reproduction, cellular communication, and is absolutely essential for good vision. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of vitamin A for adults is 900 micrograms (3000 IU) for men and 700 micrograms (2300 IU) for women daily.
Although vitamin A deficiency is rare in North America, it is common in many developing countries where poverty limits access to foods containing high amounts of vitamin A. One of the most common signs of vitamin A deficiency is night blindness (aka., xerophthalmia; the inability to see in low light or darkness).
The best food sources of vitamin A include:
- Sweet potato
- Beef liver
- Red pepper
- Black-eyed peas
- Apricots (dried)
Vitamin A supplements are recommended if these foods are not readily available or if an individual begins to show signs of vitamin A deficiency.
Vitamin B6 is involved in protein metabolism, including more than 100 enzyme reactions in the body. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of vitamin B6 for adults is 1.3 milligrams for men and women ages 19 to 50, 1.7 milligrams for men aged 51 and older and 1.3 milligrams for women aged 51 and older.
Vitamin B6 deficiency symptoms include anemia, dermatitis, cheilosis (scaling on the lips and cracks at the corners of the mouth), glossitis (swollen tongue), depression and confusion, and compromised immune function.
The best sources of vitamin B6 include:
- Beef liver
- Chicken breast
- Breakfast cereals (fortified with vitamin B6)
- Ground beef
Vitamin B6 supplements are recommended if these foods are not readily available or if an individual begins to show signs of vitamin B6 deficiency.
Vitamin B12 is needed for the formation of red blood cells, brain function, and DNA synthesis. It is naturally found in animal products and is generally not found in plant foods. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin B12 for adults is 2.4 micrograms daily for ages 14 years and older.
Vitamin B12 deficiency symptoms are characterized by anemia (the cells in your body cannot get adequate oxygen because of lack of healthy red blood cells or low concentration of hemoglobin), fatigue, weakness, constipation, loss of appetite, and weight loss. Changes in sensation (numbness and tingling) in hands and feet may also occur.
The best sources of vitamin B12 include:
- Beef liver
- Breakfast cereals (fortified with vitamin B12)
- Rainbow trout
- Ground beef
Vitamin B12 supplements are recommended if these foods are not readily available or if an individual begins to show signs of vitamin B12 deficiency.
Vitamin C (also known as ascorbic acid) is involved in protein metabolism, the synthesis of collagen (component of connective tissue and wound healing), and certain neurotransmitters (brain chemicals that communicate information between our brain and body). The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin C for adults is 19 milligrams daily for men over 19 years of age and 75 milligrams daily for women over 19 years of age.
Vitamin C deficiency leads to scurvy (a condition that includes anemia, debility, exhaustion, swelling in some parts of the body, and ulceration of the gums and teeth). Signs and symptoms can occur within one month without vitamin C intake.
The best sources of vitamin C include:
- Red pepper
- Orange (whole or juice)
- Grapefruit (whole or juice)
- Kiwi fruit
- Green pepper
- Brussels sprouts
- Tomato (whole or juice)
Vitamin C supplements are recommended if these foods are not readily available or if an individual begins to show signs of vitamin C deficiency.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that is essential for good bone health. It helps to maintain adequate amounts of calcium in the bloodstream to promote the formation of bone and to prevent the loss of bone density. Without sufficient vitamin D, bones become thin, brittle, or deformed. Combined with calcium, vitamin D helps protect older adults from osteopenia and osteoporosis. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin D for adults is 15 micrograms (600 IU) daily for males and females up to 70 years of age and 20 micrograms (800 IU) daily for males and females over 70 years of age.
There are not a lot of foods available that naturally contain vitamin D. The skin from fish (primarily those with a higher fat content) and fish liver oils are the best sources of vitamin D. Most people are able to get some of their daily vitamin D through sun exposure. Ultraviolet rays penetrate the skin when it is exposed and produce vitamin D that the body can use. People who live in cold climates, where the body is covered for weeks (or months) at a time may need vitamin D supplementation.
Vitamin D deficiency symptoms are more common in diets associated with milk allergies, lactose intolerance, and veganism. Rickets (disease characterized by the failure of bone to mineralize, resulting in soft bones and skeletal deformities – primarily in young children) and osteomalacia (softening of bones in adults) are common conditions associated with vitamin D deficiency.
The best sources of vitamin D include:
- Cod liver oil
- Orange juice (fortified with vitamin D)
- Milk (fortified with vitamin D)
- Yogurt (fortified with vitamin D)
- Beef liver
Vitamin D supplements are recommended if these foods are not readily available or if an individual begins to show signs of vitamin D deficiency.
Vitamin E is an antioxidant (which helps prevent or stop cell damage caused by oxidants – free radicals in the body and the environment) that is also involved in immune function and other metabolic processes in the body. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin E for adults is 15 milligrams (22.4 IU) daily for men and women over 14 years of age.
Vitamin E deficiencies are not common but are more likely to occur with individuals with disorders of the digestive tract that inhibit fat absorption. Symptoms include peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage), ataxia (loss of bodily movements), skeletal myopathy (dysfunction of the muscle), retinopathy (damage to the retina which can lead to blindness), and impairment to the immune system.
The best sources of vitamin E include:
- Wheat germ
- Sunflower seeds
- Sunflower oil
- Safflower oil
- Peanut butter
- Corn oil
Vitamin E supplements are recommended if these foods are not readily available or if an individual begins to show signs of vitamin E deficiency.
Vitamin K, in conjunction with carboxylase, is involved primarily in hemostasis (blood clotting) and bone metabolism. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for adults is 120 micrograms daily for men over 19 years of age and 90 micrograms daily for women over 19 years of age.
Vitamin K deficiencies primarily result in excessive bleeding and hemorrhage (because the body cannot effectively clot the wound).
The best sources of vitamin K include:
- Turnip greens
- Soybeans (and oil)
- Carrot juice
Vitamin K supplements are recommended if these foods are not readily available or if an individual begins to show signs of vitamin K deficiency.
The recommended dietary allowance for many essential vitamins and minerals increase for women who are pregnant and expecting. Therefore, the benefits of prenatal vitamins can be significant. The need for adequate amounts of folic acid (vitamin B9), iron, iodine, and calcium are especially important.
Folic acid prevents neural tube defects (directly affecting the brain and spinal cord), iron helps the mother better utilize oxygen for the growing baby, iodine is important for good thyroid function during pregnancy, and calcium helps the mother prevent bone density loss as the baby uses calcium for its own bone growth.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrea Oh is an accomplished writer, published author, podcaster, and local blogger in Calgary, AB (Canada). Follow her adventures at www.sixfootcanasian.ca or on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (@sixfootcanasian).