Vitamins are essential for the normal growth and development of humans. For the most part, vitamins are obtained from food, but a few are obtained by other means. For example, microorganisms in the intestine – commonly known as “gut flora” – produce vitamin K and biotin, while one form of vitamin D is synthesized in the skin with the help of natural ultraviolet in sunlight. Humans can produce some vitamins from precursors they consume. Examples include vitamin A, produced from beta carotene, and niacin, from the amino acid tryptophan. Throughout life, vitamins are essential for healthy maintenance of the cells, tissues, and organs, and also enable us to efficiently use chemical energy provided by food as well as help process the proteins, carbohydrates, and fats required for respiration.
Deficiencies of vitamins are classified as either primary or secondary. A primary deficiency occurs when we do not get enough of the vitamin in our food. A secondary deficiency may be due to an underlying disorder that prevents or limits the absorption or use of the vitamin, due to a ‘lifestyle factor’, such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, or the use of medications that interfere with the absorption or use of the vitamin. People who eat a varied diet are unlikely to develop a severe primary vitamin deficiency. In contrast, restrictive diets have the potential to cause prolonged vitamin deficits, which may result in often painful and potentially deadly diseases.
Vitamin B1 (thiamin):
Why it’s important: Most cells in the body depend on sugar as an energy source. When oxygen is used to help convert sugar into usable energy, the process of energy generation is called aerobic energy production. This process cannot take place without adequate supplies of vitamin B1. Vitamin B1 also plays a key role in support of the nervous system where it permits healthy development of the fat-like coverings which surround most nerves. A second type of connection between vitamin B1 and the nervous system involves its role in the production of the messaging molecule acetylcholine. This molecule is used by the nervous system to relay messages between the nerves and muscles. Acetylcholine cannot be produced without adequate supplies of vitamin B1. Because acetylcholine is used by the nervous system to ensure proper muscle tone in the heart, deficiency of B1 can also result in compromised heart function. (Vitamin B1 is most famous for its role in the nutritional deficiency disease beriberi.) Note: The leading risk factor for vitamin B1 deficiency in the US is alcoholism. Heavy users of coffee and tea may also have increased risk of B1 deficiency, since these beverages act as diuretics and remove both water and water-soluble vitamins (like B1) from the body. Our need for B1 is also increased by chronic stress, chronic diarrhea, chronic fever, and smoking. Individuals with these health problems may need 5-10 times the ordinary amount of vitamin B1. Medications such as diuretics, birth control pills, antibiotics, and sulfa drugs have all been shown to decrease the availability of vitamin B1 in the body.
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin):
Why it’s important: B2, or riboflavin, acts as a coenzyme to help metabolize carbohydrates, fats and proteins in order to provide the body with energy. It doesn’t act alone, however, it works in concert with its B-complex relatives, particularly B6. B2 has a connection to glutathione, one of the enzymes that rids the body of free radicals. It helps in the regeneration of this beneficial compound. B2 helps to decrease migraines, helps prevent cataracts, and even alleviate sickle-cell disease. Older women who exercise have higher B2 needs than their sedentary counterparts. Note: Large doses of B2 are not toxic.
Vitamin B3 (niacin):
Why it’s important: B3, or niacin, also works to metabolize food and provide energy for the body. Adequate amounts prevent a disease called pellagra, which is characterized by red, rough skin, weakness, loss of appetite, and digestive disturbances. If left untreated, pellagra can be fatal. B3 is very effective at correcting high cholesterol and preventing or reversing heart disease. It can be used to treat insulin-dependent diabetes. It might also be effective in treating arthritis and migraine headaches. Note: Taking niacin supplements (beyond the amount in your daily vitamin) in high doses can be dangerous and should only be taken under the supervision of a health care professional.
Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid):
Why it’s important: B5, or pantothenic acid, like the other B vitamins, helps the body extract energy from carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. It also helps to metabolize fats and produce red blood cells and hormones from the adrenal gland. B5 might be useful in treating rheumatoid arthritis. It could also be used to lower blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels. B5 is commonly found in “anti-stress” formulas because it works with the adrenal gland to produce stress hormones. Note: There are no known toxicity problems with high doses of B5.
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine):
Why it’s important: B6, or pyridoxine, functions mainly by helping to metabolize protein and amino acids. Because of its work with proteins, it plays a role in the synthesis of protein substances such as muscles, antibodies, and hormones. It also helps out in the production of red blood cells, and neurotransmitters. This vitamin gets together with more than 60 enzymes in the body, working to get many functions accomplished. In addition to building substances in the body, B6 can be effective against diseases such as heart disease, mental depression, kidney stones, MSG sensitivity, PMS, asthma, morning sickness and memory loss. B6 has been used to treat more than 100 health conditions. While B6 is widespread in our daily diet, many people are still not getting enough. One survey showed that B6 intake was below 70% of the RDA in half of the people surveyed. Many foods lose valuable vitamin content during cooking, or when processed, and certain medications increase the need for B6. Note: Supplemental dosage of this vitamin should stay between 50—100 mg per day, divided in several doses to prevent toxicity. Food sources of B6 present no toxicity problems.
Vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin):
Why it’s important: B12 is essential to cells because it’s needed to assist folate in making DNA and RNA, which carry and transmit genetic information for every living cell. This information tells a cell how to function and must be passed along each time a cell divides. Rapidly dividing cells need a continuous supply of vitamin B12 and folate. Vitamin B12 plays a central role in folate metabolism. It releases free folate from its bound form so it can be absorbed, and it helps in the transportation and storage of folate. A deficiency of B12 can create a folate deficiency even when dietary intake of folate is adequate. That is why a deficiency of either vitamin causes a similar type of anemia. B12 also functions in the production of a material called myelin, which covers and protects nerve fibers. Without enough B12, nerve transmission suffers and people experience irreversible nerve damage. B12 has health benefits for young and old alike, and everyone in between. It combats asthma in children, has shown promise against HIV in adults, and has helped the elderly who find their minds aren’t as sharp as they used to be, may help alleviate depression and help older adults sleep better. The average American diet supplies plenty of B12, however, strict vegetarians are at risk for deficiency as well as people with pernicious anemia (an inherited disease in which B12 cannot be absorbed). Note: Vitamin B12 is non-toxic.
Every vitamin has an important role to play in our bodies, and they also work with each other to keep us healthy. When we’re deficient in one or more vitamins, it affects every system in the body, directly or indirectly and when deficiency goes on for years, illness and disease results. Achieving better health is as simple as a balanced diet and a daily multivitamin for insurance.