Oooh, vitamins! Do we need vitamin supplements? What are vitamins? This is the post for you.

Vitamins are nutrients needed in small amount to prevent deficiency diseases. A balanced diet contains all the vitamins in the required amounts. Measurements are usually in international units (iu because I’m too lazy to figure out how to make the fancy u with a front tail.)

13 Vitamins: Fat soluble – A, D, E, and K. Water soluble – B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B9, B12, C.

Vitamins are often labeled by their chemical names on nutrition labels. It’s funny yet sad to see people freak out when, in fact, it’s just an essential vitamin. “Oh noes! It has ascorbic acid in it!” [Insert facepalm]

History of Vitamins

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) – In the 15-17th centuries, sailors developed scurvy while on long voyages. Jacques Cartier learned from the natives of New France to brew pine needle (a rich source of vitamin C). On long trips, cabbage or sauerkraut was often packed. James Lind, 1753, developed prevention of scurvy through proper food nutrition via a clinical trial of potion vs food administered to different groups of sailors. Lime was at first believed helped due to the acidity so sailors took diluted sulfuric acid but that didn’t seem to help. A preparation of lime juice was mixed with alcohol or covering the lime juice barrel with oil to prevent oxidation. One ounce of lime juice was prescribed on long voyages per day. Sailor nickname – limey. In 1927, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi isolated the active ingredient in lime juice – vitamin C and received a Nobel Prize in medicine.

Vitamin B1 (thiamine) – Beri-beri, translating to “I can’t, I can’” is a neurological disorder of the limbs. Christian Eijkman, 1880’s, noticed a common link between chickens with Beri-beri and people was the dietary changes from brown rice to white rice. A substance in the husk of brown rice proved essential in prevention of Beri-beri, even though brown rice doesn’t store as long as white rice. Eijkman received a Nobel Prize in 1929 and the active ingredient was isolated to be Vitamin B1 – thiamine, later in the 1930’s.

Vitamin D – With the Industrial Revolution of the 1850’s and movement from rural to urban areas for factory work, one saw the onset of Rickets in youth, caused by a lack of Vitamin D, which is produced from the influence of the sun on cholesterol in the skin surface. Also present in fish/cod oil.

Vitamin B3 (niacin) – Pellagra (rough skin) is a four D disease – dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia, death. In the 1920’s, Joseph Goldberger, connected the diet of mental institution patients, who were fed a poor diet of starchy foods, vs the staff, with better foods such as meats a vegetables, and the development of pellagra due to the poor diet. His clinical trial on inmates of a penitentiary – one group was fed foods high in protein, while the other was fed one low in protein. He also took puss from patients with pellagra and infected himself to show it was not contagious.

Vitamin B3 – niacin was later isolated to determine its benefits to prevent pellagra.

Vitamins are micronutrients because the quantities needed are measured in milligrams (mg) and micrograms. In the 1940’s, RDA developed as the recommended daily allowances to prevent deficiency diseases, usually in milligrams or micrograms. In terms of nutrients in food, grams are usually used. Most vitamins are amines, and thus the name vital amines became vitamins. Most vitamins can be gotten from a well-balanced diet.

“If you are taking a multivitamin supplement, there is no reason to stop, but if you are not taking one, there is no reason to start…” – Paul Coats, National Institute of Health.

A few vitamin supplements thought to be helpful/unhelpful:

Niacin (B3) – at high levels up to 1000mg, MAY help lower cholesterol but should only be taken under the close direction of a doctor. Some can have negative reactions to high amounts.

Folic Acid (B9) – 800 iu, is known to help prevent spina bifida, neural tube defect, in the first months of pregnancy. Flour has been fortified with folic acid to make sure women are getting enough even before they know they are pregnant because that is the most important time of all.

B Vitamins for Alzheimer’s? – The School Sisters of Notre Dame have given their brains to science after death to determine if a diet rich in folic acid is essential in prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease. Heart Disease and B6 and B12, studies show little difference. Same with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

Antioxidant vitamins are C, A, E, and beta carotene. Oooh, that magical word – antioxidants.

Free radicals – reactive species with a single electron. Electrons like to be in pairs and so scavenge around to pick up an extra. Antioxidants help by donating an electron to a free radical to make a less reactive free radical and, therefore, less likely to cause damage. Free radicals can cause damage to our cells. Where to get antioxidants? Our food diet is best.

Vitamin C – Linus Pauling believed large orthomecular amounts (10,000+ mg) of vitamin C could cure and prevent cancer as well as the common cold – a contagious upper respiratory tract infection caused by over 200 different viruses, one being the rhinovirus. It may help alleviate symptoms but no, it is not a cure or preventative measure. Viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics because those are for bacterial infections. There is no causative relationship between cold weather and colds. They are more prevalent in winter because we spend more time indoors and in closer contact with other people. Cold remedies, including vitamin C, only make the cold more bearable, not curable. “If treated, it will last seven days. If left alone, it will last one week.”

Vitamin C might be of benefit as an antioxidant against oxidized LDL cholesterol (the ugly kind) as the body converts nitrates into carcinogenic nitrosamines and antioxidants help to block that, but orthomecular amounts would not be needed in this case. Sodium ascorbate (scientific name for vitamin C, did I catch you?) is occasionally used in hot dogs to counteract the nitrate preservatives.

Vitamin C has been proven beneficial in the prevention of bed sores as it forms collagen.

Oranges contain ~60 mg of ascorbic acid, whereas a green pepper contains 120 mg. (But who wants to drink green pepper juice when sick? Ew! Pass the OJ, please!)

Side effects may include diarrhea when taken in large amounts (as it is water soluble, which, one reason why North American’s pee is so expensive is that’s where the body sends the excess supplement it doesn’t need). It can also increase the absorption of iron (meaning those with hemochromatosis/iron overload should not take vitamin C supplements) and decrease the absorption of copper. It can also give false negatives for occult blood in the stool when testing for colon cancer.

Vitamin C is and can be used as a preservative, as it prevents the oxidization of foods, so any advertisements of a vitamin C supplement being preservative-free really are misleading. The only difference between natural and synthetic sources is price.

Vitamin A – essential for vision; retinoids; is fat-soluble, meaning it can accumulate in the liver; precursor is beta-carotene. A study with 18,000 subjects to determine if beta-carotene and vitamin A vs a placebo could be used as an antioxidant cancer preventative showed it increased the risk of cancer by 28%. This was confirmed with a second study of 29,000 subjects where lung cancer increased by 18%. There is a possibility that “beta-carotene may offer benefits only when consumed with other phytochemicals present in the diet.” So eat your carrots and spinach instead?

Vitamin A and the effects of aging on the skin – the sun causes premature aging by breaking down the collagen in the dermis layer. UVB is the burning rays of the sun that will give you sunburn and UVA is the tanning rays that break down the collagen in the skin. Both UVA and UVB cause burning, aging, and skin cancer. Retin-A compound may help wrinkles as it acts as an exfoliant and may even help treat acne. Accutane, isotretinoin, is also an acne treatment but can cause severe birth defects in utero.

Vitamin D – Rickets may be making a comeback because of 1) milk substitutes (esp. soy) without vitamin D, and 2) parental concern about sun exposure. Adults also need vitamin D for bone function. Infants need up to 400 iu, adults 600 iu, and aged 70 and up 800iu.

Vitamin D and (you guessed it) cancer – meta analysis and blind study may help prevent cancer, but still needs further confirmation so take with a grain of salt. Vitamin D might interfere with the multiplication of cancer cells. High amounts can lead to hypercalcemia, too much calcium deposit in the bone, but that is in amounts higher than 1,000 iu. Vitamin D may help reduce risk of multiple sclerosis, the hypothesis is because those living closer to the equator have a lower risk of MS as they are exposed to more sun and, therefore, their skin makes more vitamin D from cholesterol.

Vitamin E – a readily available vitamin, hardly ever deficient in it. Nicknamed the love vitamin as tocopherol translates to oil of fertility. In mice, a restriction of vitamin E made male mice impotent and female mice abort.

Vitamin E deficiency in premature babies is called hemolytic anemia.

In a study comparing vitamin E to a placebo, there was no difference with cardiovascular problems. In the next study comparing placebo to a heart medication, the heart medicine won out. However, a randomized study of 35,000 people showed an increase in prostate cancer when taking vitamin E.

Vitamins and questionable marketing approaches –

Biotin (B7) has been advertised for hair growth but humans are definitely not deficit in biotin and adding extra has no effect on hair growth.

Vitamin B17 (NOT a vitamin) –laetrile, a compound extracted from almond pits (I think he meant apricot pits) were touted to be a cancer cure but was banned due to being of no benefit. It was remarketed as vitamin B17, though it’s not even a vitamin. Steve McQueen, a heavy smoker and suffering from lung cancer, tried to treat himself with laetrile unsuccessfully.

Hair analysis – scam because there are no vitamins in hair and, though there are minerals, it is not an indication of the body being deficient in any. The professor sent in a student’s sample of hair and the results came back saying she was suffering from depression, endocrine disorder, hypoglycemia, osteoporosis, hypercalcemia, cancer, and impotence… So then they sent in a dog hair sample and received the same results. The vitamin suggestions also were insane amounts past the RDA.

I wish they would’ve covered blood microscopy as well. (Perhaps I’ll venture to the discussion board.) It’s where alternative practitioners look at your blood under a microscope to determine what diseases (esp. cancer) you have or what nutrients you lack in order to sell you supplements. It’s fraudulent as there is no scientific evidence backing it.

The best place to get all the vitamins you need comes from a well-balanced diet. You’ll get the added nutrients and they taste better than supplements.

Just after this lesson, I came across an interesting blog post – It asks, as so much of our food is fortified with vitamins, is it possible to overdose on fortified food? If taking supplements, yes, it could be possible, but just with fortified food? Highly unlikely. So really, if you are eating a well-balanced diet, supplementing is not necessary unless a doctor has highly suggests it.