Vitamins are essential nutrients for our various bodily functions. They don’t provide energy like carbohydrates and fat but play an important role in various functions like immunity, digestion, and metabolism. They strengthen the bones, help in wound healing, improve our eyesight and help in overall growth.
Though required in small quantities they play an important role in sustaining life and prevent the occurrence of various problems. We get vitamins from food, because the human body either does not produce enough of them, or none at all. A vitamin deficiency occurs when you do not get enough of a certain vitamin. Vitamin deficiency can cause serious health problems.
There are 13 essential vitamins which are broadly divided into two categories: fat soluble and water soluble.
Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the fat tissues of our bodies, as well as the liver. Fat-soluble vitamins are easier to store than water-soluble ones, and can stay in the body as reserves for days, some of them for months. Fat-soluble vitamins are absorbed through the intestinal tract with the help of fats (lipids). The four fat-soluble vitamins are vitamins A, D, E, and K. These vitamins are absorbed more easily by the body in the presence of dietary fat.
Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the body’s cells and are not excreted as easily as water-soluble vitamins. They do not need to be consumed as often as water-soluble vitamins, although adequate amounts are needed. If you take too much of a fat-soluble vitamin, it could become toxic. A balanced diet usually provides enough fat-soluble vitamins.
Water soluble vitamins
The water soluble vitamins are the B complex group and C. They cannot be stored in our body, so we need to replenish them regularly. The body must use water-soluble vitamins right away. Any leftover water-soluble vitamins leave the body through the urine. Vitamin B12 is the only water-soluble vitamin that can be stored in the liver for many years.
The body needs water-soluble vitamins in frequent, small doses. These vitamins are not as likely as fat-soluble vitamins to reach toxic levels. But niacin, vitamin B6, folate, choline, and vitamin C have upper consumption limits. Vitamin B6 at high levels over a long period of time has been shown to cause irreversible nerve damage. A balanced diet usually provides enough of these vitamins. People older than 50 and some vegetarians may need to use supplements to get enough B12.
Vitamin A helps form and maintain healthy teeth, bones, soft tissue, mucus membranes, and skin.
It is an important antioxidant, enhances our immune system and is extremely essential for our eyesight. Its deficiency can lead to night blindness. It contains beta carotene, which helps in repair of the cornea and eye membranes.
Sources: Fortified milk, cheese, cream, butter, fortified margarine, eggs, liver, leafy vegetables, dark orange fruits (apricots, cantaloupe) and vegetables (carrots, winter squash, sweet potatoes, pumpkin) including pepper, broccoli, spinach.
Vitamin D is also known as the “sunshine vitamin,” since it is made by the body after being in the sun. Ten to 15 minutes of sunshine three times a week is enough to produce the body’s requirement of vitamin D for most people at most latitudes. People who do not live in sunny places may not make enough vitamin D. It is very hard to get enough vitamin D from food sources alone. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and maintain proper blood levels of calcium and phosphorus, which you need for normal development and maintenance of healthy teeth and bones. It also helps in proper immune function and muscle development. It’s deficiency has been associated with weak bones, pain and muscle weakness.
Sources: Sunlight is the best source of vitamin D. When the sun shines on your bare skin, your body makes its own vitamin D. Other sources are egg yolk, liver, mushrooms, fatty fish, salmon, tuna, fish oils, fortified margarine, fortified cereals and fortified milk.
It is a very powerful antioxidant and promotes cardiovascular health, protects cell walls and helps in skin repair. Its deficiency is linked to muscle weakness, nerve damage and skin problems. Vitamin E is also known as tocopherol. It helps the body form red blood cells and uses vitamin K.
Sources: Foods rich in vitamin E are cloves, nuts, seeds, whole grains, tomatoes, mangoes, polyunsaturated plant oils (soybean, corn, cottonseed, safflower), leafy green vegetables, wheat germ, liver and egg yolks.
It is a co-factor in the blood clotting pathway and is needed for stopping the bleeding. Some studies suggest that it is important for bone health.
Sources: Leafy green vegetables and vegetables in the cabbage family, milk; also produced in intestinal tract by bacteria.
Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)
Thiamine helps the cells change carbohydrates into energy. It forms part of an enzyme needed for energy metabolism and is important to nerve function. It is also essential for heart function. It helps in the production of certain neurotransmitters and multiple enzymes. A deficiency of vitamin B1 can lead to conditions called Beri Beri and Wernicke’s encephalopathy, and Nerve degeneration.
Sources: Peas, sunflower seeds, cauliflower, potatoes, oranges, whole-grain or enriched bread and cereals, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
Riboflavin works with the other B vitamins as a co-factor. It is important for body growth and the production of red blood cells. It is part of an enzyme needed for energy metabolism and is important for normal vision and skin health.
Sources: Milk and milk products, leafy green vegetables, whole-grain, enriched breads and cereals.
Vitamin B3 (Niacin)
Niacin helps maintain healthy skin and nerves. It also has cholesterol-lowering effects. It forms part of an enzyme needed for energy metabolism; important for nervous system, digestive system, and skin health.
Sources: Meat, poultry, fish, whole-grain or enriched breads and cereals, vegetables (especially mushrooms, asparagus, and leafy green vegetables) and peanut butter.
Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic acid)
Pantothenic acid is essential for the metabolism of food. It also plays a role in the production of hormones and cholesterol. It is part of an enzyme process needed for energy metabolism.
Sources: Widespread in natural foods.
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine)
Vitamin B6 helps form red blood cells and maintain brain function. This vitamin also plays an important role in the proteins that are part of many chemical reactions in the body. It helps in improving the metabolism, burning calories, strengthening the immunity, and supporting the function of nervous system. It’s deficiency may cause anemia and peripheral neuropathy. Humans cannot produce vitamin B6 so it should be obtained from the diet.
Sources: Foods rich in vitamin B6 are fish, chicken, spinach, chickpeas, bananas, whole grains, nuts.
Vitamin B7 (Biotin)
Biotin is essential for the metabolism of proteins and carbohydrates, and in the production of hormones and cholesterol. It is part of an enzyme needed for energy metabolism.
Sources: Widespread in natural foods; also produced in intestinal tract by bacteria.
Vitamin B9 (Folic acid)
Folate or Folic acid is part of an enzyme needed for making DNA and new cells, especially red blood cells. It helps in tissue growth and cell function. Any woman who is pregnant should be sure to get enough folate. Low levels of folate are linked to birth defects such as spina bifida and neural tube defects. Many foods are now fortified with folic acid.
Sources: Foods rich in vitamin B9 are green leafy vegetables like spinach, asparagus, fortified cereals, legumes, seeds, orange juice, and liver.
Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin)
Vitamin B12 also called cyanocobalamin or methylcobalamin like other B vitamins is important for metabolism. It is required for making new cells; and is important to nerve function It helps in converting homocysteine to methionine which plays an essential role in protecting the heart. Deficiency of vitamin B12 can lead to megaloblastic anemia, and neurological problems.
Sources: Foods rich in vitamin B12 are animal products like meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, milk and milk products; It is not found in plant foods, so vegans who avoid dairy products completely require supplementation.
Vitamin C (Ascorbic acid)
Vitamin C is an antioxidant that promotes healthy teeth and gums. It is part of an enzyme needed for protein metabolism, and helps the body absorb iron and maintain healthy tissue. It also promotes wound healing. It is crucial for our body’s immune system, development of connective tissue like collagen, and maintenance of cardiovascular health.
Sources: Found only in fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruits like lemons, oranges, amla and vegetables in the cabbage family, cantaloupe, strawberries, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, papayas, mangoes, kiwifruit, broccoli, and strawberries.