The expert consensus is that generally it is achievable to get all the vitamins we need from our diets. There are exceptions where a supplement or two may help to prevent certain health issues; such as taking Folic acid when pregnant for example, this helps prevent spina bifida in the unborn child. However, as a rule we can keep ourselves healthy and balanced simply by eating the right foods.
We all know we are supposed to get our nutrients by eating well but do we know which vitamins we need and what they are for? To be educated on this and have a clear understanding of the reason behind what they actually do can help encourage us to maintain a healthy diet and keep us skipping and whistling through life.
What are Vitamins?
Vitamins are organic compounds found in foodstuffs that are essential to our metabolism, cell function, growth, and development and therefore to sustain life. A vitamin that cannot be produced by the body must be obtained through diet.
There are thirteen known vitamins which are divisible into two types; fat-soluble and water-soluble.
FAT-SOLUBLE VITAMINS: What they do, where to find them and how much we need
Fat-soluble vitamins can be stored in the liver and fatty tissues in the body for days, we do not need to replace these as fast as water-soluble vitamins.
Fat-soluble vitamins are: Vitamin A, D, E and K.
Vitamin A: Retinol, retinal, and four carotenoids, including beta carotene
Vitamin A is good for healthy vision, skin, bones and other tissues in the body. It works as an antioxidant, fighting cell damage. It is important for the immune system, and reproduction.
Vitamin A also helps the heart, lungs, kidneys and other organs to function properly.
Getting adequate amounts of vitamin A from your diet should prevent the symptoms of deficiency, which include hair loss, skin problems, dry eyes, night blindness and increased susceptibility to infections.
Good sources include: liver, cod liver oil, mackerel, salmon, tuna, goat’s cheese, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, trout, sweet potato, squash, kale, greens, carrots, red pepper, chard, spinach, mango, melon, grapefruit.
Recommended Daily Intake: Women: 700g, Men: 900g.
Vitamin D: Ergocalciferol, Cholecalciferol
Vitamin D has several important functions. One of the most important being that it helps maintain a healthy immune system and also regulates how our body absorbs calcium and phosphorous. Without this vitamin our bones and teeth would not be able to grow efficiently or become and remain strong. It is also paramount in resisting diseases as well such as Multiple Sclerosis, heart disease, and influenza. Vitamin D can also help to prevent and reduce depression. It is quite common for people to be deficient in vitamin D, especially those who rarely expose themselves to direct sunlight (this even includes wearing sunscreen), also it is not apparent in so many foods, therefore it is often one that is supplemented in order to avoid fatigue, aches and pains, generally feeling unwell, bone or muscle pain, mobility difficulties, stress fractures, rickets, softening of the bones, etc. It is vital for a healthy body.
This is a unique vitamin as it can be obtained from our diet as well as directly from the sun (see our blog on Vitamin D – the sunshine vitamin). Exposure to direct sunlight on your bare skin produces this essential nutrient naturally within the body.
Good sources include: salmon, herring, sardines, cod liver oil, canned tuna, oysters, prawns, egg yolk, mushrooms. Other fortified foods which contain vitamin D are; milk, soy milk, orange juice, cereal, and oatmeal.
Recommended Daily Intake: Women: 5mg, Men: 5 mg.
Vitamin E: Tocopherols, Tocotrienols
Free radicals form as a result of normal body processes. They cause damage that shortens the life of your cells. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that may help reduce free radical damage and slow the ageing process of your cells.
Good sources of vitamin E include: Wheatgerm oil, sunflower seeds and oil, almonds and almond oil, hazelnuts and oil, pine nuts, peanuts, brazil nuts, salmon, avocado, trout, red pepper, mango and kiwi.
Recommended Daily Intake: Women: 15mg, Men: 15mg.
Vitamin K: Phylloquinone, Menaquinones
Vitamin K is an important nutrient that plays a vital role in blood clotting and bone and heart health.
Good sources of vitamin K include: kale, swiss chard, spinach, leafy greens, broccoli, brussel sprouts, green beans, kiwi, prunes, hard cheeses, avocado, peas, parsley, cabbage, pomegranate, blueberries, blackberries as well as most (unprocessed) meats especially liver.
Recommended Daily Intake: Women: 90ug, Men: 120ug.
WATER-SOLUBLE VITAMINS: What they do, where to find them and how much we need
Water-soluble vitamins (the B vitamins and vitamin C) are not stored by the body and so need to be replaced more often as they are excreted via our urine.
Vitamin B: Thiamine or Vitamin B-1
All bodily tissue relies on this vitamin to function correctly. Thiamine makes ATP which is a molecule that carries energy within cells throughout the body. Lack of B-1 can affect the nervous system, heart and brain; this is quite uncommon thankfully, but more prone are those with alcoholism, Crohn’s Disease, kidney function issues, and anorexia. More serious effects of Thiamine deficiency are Beriberi and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Beriberi is caused by an overload of Pyruvic acid in the blood, this happens when your body is not capable of turning food into fuel. It affects breathing, eye movements, and heart function. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is technically two different disorders first affecting the nervous system causing visual impairments, a lack of muscle coordination, and mental decline. Then, if left untreated this can permanently impair memory functions in the brain.
Good sources of vitamin B-1 include: yeast, pork, cereal grains, sunflower seeds, brown rice, whole-grain rye, asparagus, kale, cauliflower, potatoes, oranges, liver, and eggs.
Recommended Daily Intake: Women 1.1mg, Men: 1.2mg.
Vitamin B2: Riboflavin
Vitamin B2 assists in the production of red blood cells and supports other cellular functions which provide us with energy including the breakdown of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates.
Having a riboflavin deficiency can lead to other nutritional deficiencies because it is involved with processing nutrients. The primary concern associated with other deficiencies is anaemia, or iron deficiency. It’s especially important to make sure you get enough during pregnancy as a lack could endanger your baby’s growth and increase your chances of preeclampsia, a serious condition that can be life threatening.
Good sources include: eggs, red meat, dairy, salmon, tuna, almonds, grains, chard, green beans, bananas, asparagus.
Recommended Daily Intake: Women: 1.1mg, Men 1.3mg
Vitamin B3: Niacin
Every part of our body requires niacin to function properly. As with all of the B vitamins, niacin helps convert food into energy by helping enzymes do their job. It is a major component of NAD and NADP, two coenzymes that are involved in cellular metabolism.
Furthermore, it plays a role in cell signalling and making and repairing DNA, in addition to acting as an antioxidant. It also helps to lower cholesterol, reduces blood fats, helps prevent heart disease, boosts brain function, improves our skin and helps to reduce arthritis symptoms. Niacin can be obtained via a healthy diet, supplements only being recommended for certain conditions such as high cholesterol. Supplements are otherwise not advised as they can have negative side effects including liver damage, stomach irritation, and gout.
Good sources include: liver, heart, kidney, chicken, beef, fish (tuna, salmon), milk, eggs, avocados, dates, tomatoes, leafy vegetables, broccoli, carrots, sweet potatoes, asparagus, nuts, whole-grains, legumes, mushrooms, and brewer’s yeast.
Recommended Daily Intake: Women: 14mg, Men: 16mg.
Vitamin B5: Pantothenic acid
This is one of THE most important vitamins for our life, it is essential in the making of red blood cells, and converting food into energy. It also promotes healthy skin, hair and eyes, proper function of the nervous system, liver and digestive tract, and the production of hormones. It is also often used in cosmetic products for hair and skin. Symptoms of a deficiency in B5 include headaches, fatigue, irritability, impaired muscle coordination, and gastrointestinal problems. Usually if you have a balanced healthy diet a deficiency is unlikely however people often take B5 to help with existing conditions.
Good sources include: meats, whole-grains, broccoli, avocados, royal jelly, fish eggs, nuts, beans and peas, lentils.
Recommended Daily Intake: Women: 5mg, Men: 5mg.
Vitamin B6: Pyridoxine
Vitamin B6 helps to maintain a healthy nervous system, it is also needed for proper brain development and function. It also makes the essential hormones serotonin and norepinephrine which regulates our mood and helps our body to deal with stress.
Deficiency may cause anaemia, peripheral neuropathy, or damage to parts of the nervous system other than the brain and spinal cord.
Good sources include: mik, ricotta, salmon, tuna, eggs, liver, beef, sweet potato, green peas, carrots, spinach, bananas, whole-grains, vegetables, and nuts.
Recommended Daily Intake: Women: 1.3mg, Men: 1.3mg.
Vitamin B7: Biotin
This vitamin helps convert certain nutrients into energy assisting in a healthy metabolism, and plays an important part in the health of your skin, hair and nails. Deficiency may cause dermatitis or enteritis, or inflammation of the intestine.
Good sources include: egg yolk, liver, nuts, legumes, whole grains, bananas, cauliflower, mushrooms.
Recommended Daily Intake: Women: 30ug, Men: 30ug.
Vitamin B9: Folic acid
This vital vitamin supports healthy cell division and promotes healthy fetal growth and development. Women are advised to take supplements during their pregnancy to avoid birth defects. It is found in our food as well as in fortified foods.
Good sources include: leafy greens, legumes, asparagus, eggs, beetroot, citrus, avocado, banans, papaya, broccoli, liver, baker’s yeast, some fortified grain products, and sunflower seeds. Several fruits have moderate amounts, as does beer.
Recommended Daily Intake: Women: 400ug, Men 400ug.
Vitamin B12: Cyanocobalamin, hydroxocobalamin, methylcobalamin
This vitamin helps to keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and makes DNA. It also helps prevent megaloblastic anaemia, which makes people weak and lethargic.
Good sources include: fish, shellfish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk and dairy products, some fortified cereals and soy products, as well as fortified nutritional yeast.
Vegans are advised to take B12 supplements.
Recommended Daily Intake: Women: 2.4ug, Men: 2.4ug.
Vitamin C: Ascorbic acid
This vitamin is a great antioxidant and helps to protect our cells from any damage caused by free radicals – the compounds formed when our body converts food into energy. It reduces the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, gout, improves iron absorption and boosts our immunity.
Good sources include: fruit and vegetables. The Kakadu plum and the camu camu fruit have the highest vitamin C contents of all foods, other sources are kiwi, peppers, broccoli, kale and spinach. Liver also has high levels. Be warned that cooking destroys vitamin C!
Recommended Daily Intake: Women: 75mg, Men: 90mg.
Become a Nutritional Therapist
Here at the School of Natural Health Sciences we offer 7 nutrition-based courses – all of which are accredited in 26 countries worldwide: Clinical Nutrition, Advanced Nutrition, Child & Adolescent Nutrition, Nutrition for Age 50+, Sport & Exercise Nutrition, Vegetarian & Vegan Nutrition and Ethical & Sustainable Eating. All of these courses are Distance Learning Diploma Courses which means you can learn at a time and a place that suits your lifestyle. Our courses don’t expire either, so there is no rush, no stress and life doesn’t get in the way of you finishing them.