Vitamin is a term that applies only to a specific group of organic, or carbon containing compounds that are essential to good health and normal functioning of the body. For a vitamin to be identified as such, its deficiency must result in identifiable and reproducible symptoms of disease.
In the early 1900’s, the first vitamins were isolated and identified when some innovative scientists began to believe that certain foods contained “accessory food factors” that prevented disease. Initially there were 2 of these factors: fat-soluble A which was extracted from butter and fish liver, and water-soluble B which was a water solution from rice bran.
From this early research came the vitamins we know today. Although many more have since been identified, we still use the basic classification of fat-soluble and water-soluble.
Fat-soluble vitamins are A, D, E, F, and K. What is significant about the fat-soluble vitamins is that they can be stored in the body such that we can function for longer periods of time without obtaining them from out diet. Also, toxicity is possible with large doses of the fat-soluble vitamins except for E.
Water-soluble vitamins are the B’s and C. They are found in raw fruits, vegetables, and grains but can be easily lost during cooking, storage or other processing. Water-soluble vitamins are not stored in the body and are needed regularly in our diets.
Some of our vitamins are synthesized in our bodies. For instance, true vitamin A is made from beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is not A, but is a water-soluble substance from which A is made.
Certain conditions in the body can interfere with the body’s ability to make vitamins. These include deficiencies of essential minerals, specific pathology, and chemical interference. For example, people with diabetes, low thyroid activity, zinc deficiencies and high intake of omega 6 oils have a lower ability to convert beta-carotene to A.
Another classification of vitamins is synthetic versus natural. Many of the vitamin supplements available are made chemically in the laboratory rather than extracted from food.
Synthetics lack the cofactors which are trace minerals and other substances that are necessary for utilization of the vitamin in the body. Synthetics can also be in a form that is not as usable by the body.
For instance, natural vitamin E with mixed tocopherols increases the oxygen efficiency of the blood by 250 percent and also preferentially rations oxygen to the heart. Synthetic vitamin E has only one third of the biological activity of natural E and none of the ability to ration oxygen to the heart.
There is much more to vitamins than simply the number of milligrams listed on the label. Knowledge of what to look for can help you be healthier.
Margaret Durst is a naturopathic doctor who owns The Green House, a vitamin, herb and health food store in Mason, Texas.