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The Vitamins

Dr Noureen Ahmad

General Practitioner, Belgium

Vitamins are nutrients that are essential for the normal functioning of our body. Most of these vitamins cannot be created in our body, so we need to obtain them through a healthy diet or supplements.

It was in 1912 that the term “vitamin” was introduced to the world. From this moment on, the discovery journey for all vitamins started. After 1950, vitamins were commercially produced as multivitamin tablets by pharmaceutical companies. Henceforward, some governments also agreed to add vitamins to basic foods (like milk and flour) to prevent vitamin shortages in people and prevent diseases. 

Vitamins play a major role in our body, like cell growth and regulation which is important for maintaining normal health. There are two groups of vitamins: fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) and
water-soluble vitamins (group B, C). Fat-soluble vitamins, as the name suggests, are associated with fats of plant or animals, whereas water-soluble vitamins can usually be found in fresh fruits and vegetables. 

There are thirteen vitamins required for the normal functioning of the human body: vitamin A (retinols and carotenoids), vitamin D (cholecalciferol), vitamin E (tocopherols), vitamin K (quinones) and vitamin C (ascorbic acid). The group of B vitamins contains the following: vitamin B1 (thiamine), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B3 (niacin), vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid), vitamin B₆ (pyridoxine), vitamin B7 (biotin), vitamin B9 (folic acid) and vitamin B12 (cobalamins). To some extent, vitamin A and vitamin D can be synthesised in our body. 

Now we will take a look at an overview of the aforementioned vitamins and why vitamin intake is important.

Firstly, vitamin A. This vitamin plays a big role in vision growth and deficiency that can cause night blindness and other eye disorders. Good sources for vitamin A are dairy products, fish and animal products such as meat and liver. Carotenoids from which vitamin A can be made in our body are found in vegetables such as carrots, cauliflower and cabbage. It is also in fruit, such as oranges, mandarins and bananas.

The next vitamin is vitamin D, which is also known as the “sunshine vitamin”. This is because vitamin D can be synthesised in our body from UVB through sunlight. Vitamin D plays a big role in regulating bone growth and is needed for the normal functioning of our immune system. A deficiency of vitamin D can cause softening of the bones and joints and muscle complaints. Shortage of this vitamin can also lead to less protectivity against some cancers. It is naturally found in oily fish such as herring, salmon and mackerel. Meat and eggs also supply vitamin D, but much less than oily fish. 

Vitamin E acts as an antioxidant to protect cells, organs and tissues. Margarine, nuts and a variety of grain products are the base for this vitamin. Because of its very common source, vitamin E shortage is very unlikely to occur. 

Vitamin K is an important factor in the blood clotting mechanism. Deficiency of this vitamin can cause bleeding problems, though it is rare. Green leafy vegetables and dairy products are a good source for vitamin K. 

Vitamin C is the best-known vitamin, it has a function as an antioxidant, just like vitamin E, and is important for the uptake of iron from digested food. It also maintains the resistance of the human body. Shortage of vitamin C can lead to a reduced resistance and higher exposure to infections. This vitamin can be found in citrus fruits, kiwis, strawberries and vegetables like potatoes and cabbage. 

The final and the last group of vitamins, are the B-complex vitamins. Each of these B vitamins are needed to mediate and help many biochemical reactions in our body. Vitamin B-complex deficiencies can cause malfunctioning of the nervous system and mental disorders. These B-complex vitamins can be gained from many grain products, vegetables, meat and dairy products.

Currently, there are different kinds of multivitamin tablets manufactured around the world. For some people, it is necessary to take these multivitamins as supplements. The most specific group is pregnant women. Pregnancy increases the need for nutrition to maintain the normal growth and health of the unborn child. 

Many studies recommend that healthy people should try to avoid multivitamin supplements. Healthy people can get enough vitamins through balanced diet with variety of food. Just because a supplement is promoted as “natural” does not mean it is safe. Always discuss with your doctor what supplements you want to take or are taking so your wellbeing can be carefully managed. 

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