From the time you were a young child, you probably heard your mom say something about getting your vitamins and minerals. But what are these mysterious substances that we seem to hear so much about and be told by almost anyone and everyone always to take them?
In this article I would like to offer you a quick, comprehensive and practical guide to understanding vitamins and minerals for yourself, and be able to apply the knowledge in your everyday life.
Brief Overview of Vitamins and Minerals
It is no surprise that most people out there are not scientists and doctors and yet when it comes to health, too often random people listen to other random people regarding medical advice. This results in obtaining a whole load of information that usually comes from old wives tales, hear-say myths or other non-credible sources. This misleading information then continues to pass on, causing a negative and spiraling chain reaction that often tends to hurt more than it helps.
I have therefore compiled here some basic questions you may have regarding the vitamins and minerals and easy to understand, practical answers.
What is a vitamin?
A vitamin is a chemically organic compound (organic here meaning made with carbon), that our bodies need on a regular basis to function properly. Lacking appropriate vitamins leads to deficiencies which manifest themselves through all sorts of negative symptoms and illnesses.
Vitamins are also referred to as micro nutrients as we only need them in small amounts, compared to their counterparts macro nutrients which we need in large quantities, the carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
The most common are: vitamin A, vitamins B [B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pryidoxine), B9 (folic acid), B12 (cyanocobalamin) and biotin], vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E and vitamin K
Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat soluble.
Vitamins B and C are water soluble.
What is a mineral?
A mineral is a chemically inorganic substance (not made with carbon), that our bodies need on a regular basis to function properly. Lacking appropriate minerals also leads to deficiencies which manifest themselves through all sorts of symptoms and illnesses.
Minerals are also known as micro nutrients as we only need them in small amounts. However minerals are further grouped into 2 divisions, the major minerals and the trace minerals which are needed in really tiny amounts and almost never need to be supplemented.
The most common minerals are calcium, magnesium, iron, manganese, potassium, iodine, copper, zinc, chromium, selenium, phosphorus, molybdenum and fluoride.
How do vitamins and minerals work?
I will give you a relatively short answer on this as the biochemistry of how each vitamin and mineral works is very complex. Basically vitamins and minerals work extremely closely together. One of them doing the right thing almost always depends on a chain reaction of the others being present and doing the right thing. Above all just know that there is an incredible dependency between the vitamins and minerals and lacking one or being in excess of one can destroy the whole chain reaction that performs the correct reactions in your body and keeps you healthy.
Each vitamin and mineral has specific functions which to perform in your body. Here is a link to a list of vitamin functions and mineral functions from the Merck Manuals Online Medical Library. These two sources contain detailed information on vitamins and minerals and also contain nice reference charts that you may choose to print and maybe even post on the fridge for a quick reference in making more nutritious meals as they also contain food items for good sources of each.
What can deficiencies from specific vitamins and minerals cause?
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies can cause many problems in our bodies. These ailments can be small and annoying such as splitting nails or big and serious such as chronic diseases and even death. Serious deficiencies however in today’s times are not that common in developed countries. Sure we have many minor deficiencies, but as long as you have access to good health care small problems are usually caught early and prevented from becoming worse.
Serious deficiencies are a huge concern however in underdeveloped countries and have been everywhere before the 20th century. Perhaps you have heard the stories of the explorers or other workers who spend many months aboard ships. Most of the crew developed very unpleasant symptoms of bleeding gums and rotting teeth which we now know are attributed to a deficiency of vitamin C called scurvy. Naturally this condition was brought on by being away from fresh fruits and vegetables for extended periods.
Coming back to us today, most of us have heard of calcium being good for your bones and iron being necessary for the production of red blood cells. But there are many more symptoms and conditions associated with mild, moderate and severe deficiencies and it would be worthwhile for any of us to get acquainted with them.
Therefore for a detailed list check out Dr. Decuypere’s mineral information chart and vitamin information chart. They are one of the nicer and easy to read charts that I find to be very practical. For another good chart, just not as comprehensive you can also check out the Merck Vitamin and Mineral deficiency table.
Can the body make its own vitamins and minerals?
Generally speaking – no. A couple of vitamins like vitamin K and D can be synthesized in the body but only under the right conditions and usually not in sufficient amounts. Some plants can make their own vitamins. Unlike vitamins, minerals cannot be synthesized by the body.
Can the body store vitamins and minerals?
Yes. Fat-soluble vitamins more so then water soluble vitamins. The fat soluble vitamins can be stored in fat tissues, where as water soluble vitamins are easily excreted in urine. Some minerals get stored in various places in our body such as calcium in bones; others get used up too quickly to be stored.
Is it possible to overdose on vitamins and minerals?
Yes! This always comes as a shock to most people. If you take too many water soluble vitamins, usually there will not be any noticeable damage as any excess the body does not need, it excretes in urine right after metabolizing them. However some water soluble vitamins can cause unpleasant effects such as too much Vitamin C can cause diarrhea and stomach upset. The bigger problem is with fat soluble vitamins as they are not able to be easily excreted in urine and can build up in our fat cells. Aside from a toxic state, any imbalance of vitamins and minerals may actually disable other vitamins and minerals and prevent them from doing what they are supposed to do.
Therefore do not treat vitamins and minerals like candy! Just because you can get them without a prescription does not mean they cannot do harm to your body. This is especially important for parents who sometimes give their children multivitamins for kids, that look and taste like candy, as frequent snacks throughout the day.
Or the next time your doctor tells you that you are deficient in some vitamin or mineral, do not necessarily look right away to supplementing it, as the answer to your problem may simply be an imbalance from another vitamin or mineral you may already be taking. Remember research and examination of your lifestyle and eating habits will usually lead you to the solution to your problems naturally.
How much vitamins and minerals do I need each day?
This is a rather complicated question as it depends mainly on your age and sex and whether you have pre-existing conditions, are taking any other medications or are pregnant. Any general charts or tables you read regarding dosage, you have to keep that in mind are made for the “average person”. Quality tables have specific quantities by defined ages and for each sex separately.
Most people want numbers to know how much they need of each. However, practically and truthfully speaking this is useless to most people as quantities for vitamins are expressed in tiny scientific units which most of us cannot relate to, such as micrograms or international units. Then even if you have got to know or memorized these numbers, you will only see relevance to them on vitamin and mineral bottles. Our food nutritional information labels give vitamin and mineral information as a percentage of the daily total you need. And you should now ask, “Whose daily total?” Exactly, the daily percentage number given is again for the “average person”, so if that is not you, even those percentages cannot help you. So what do you do?
First, don’t stress about the numbers. If you are eating a balanced diet everyday with lots of fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, you should not need any supplemental vitamins or minerals. Exceptions exist if you have a serious disease or deficiency.
Secondly, you should only be considering supplemental vitamins or minerals if you have a very poor diet or you have been diagnosed with some specific deficiency. In such cases, it is best to work with a nutritionist to learn how to improve your diet, as this is the most effective solution and should always be the first choice. Of course, you may need a supplement to correct an existing deficiency in the interim.
Thirdly, you should release the false idea that taking a vitamin, mineral, or multivitamin formula will protect you from health problems and make up for a poor diet. No isolated or synthetic substance will ever make up for real nutrients or be able to compete with real, whole, nutrient-rich food. So be sure to be honest with yourself about your priorities and have your actions reflect them properly.
Our goal is to live longer, have less disease, and be happier. Traditional isolate multivitamins will not do that for us, and there’s now LOTS of evidence that proves that. Somehow, it bled into our collective knowledge that using these vitamins in those who aren’t deficient is as good as eating foods that contain those nutrients. No matter how much we want it, traditional multivitamins are just a box with steering wheels, radio knobs, and windshield wipers—they are not the whole car and will not drive us anywhere. We must eat a healthy, varied diet to accomplish this goal.
Neal Smoller, PharmD — Woodstock Vitamins
Good sources of specific vitamins and minerals
The best place to start to obtain ALL the right vitamins and minerals are fruits and vegetables. This means aiming for at least 7 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. In practical terms, this means that ALL of your meals and snacks contain either some fresh fruits or vegetables or both. Fruits and vegetables contain all of the vitamins and minerals we need, aside from vitamin D and vitamin B12. Vitamin D is actually a hormone and we are naturally supposed to get it from being exposed to the sun. Vitamin B12 comes from bacteria in the soil and water and plant foods today are no longer a reliable source of it, given our unnatural farming, food production, and sterile environments. Thus, it is a good idea to supplement with a B12, especially if you consume a vegan or whole food, plant-based diet, or if you are over 50 years of age, regardless what you eat, or if you consume alcohol and other drugs, pharmaceutical or recreational, regularly.
I provide you with a plant-based recipe section where you can find lots of quick and easy meal ideas that help to incorporate several fruit and vegetable servings at once into your meals. For specific sources of each of the vitamins and minerals, check out the links near the bottom of each recipe, where I talk about the nutritional value of each of the food ingredients used.
Ultimately your diet, one that is balanced with lots of natural, highly nutrient dense foods, like fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds is your best source for natural sources of vitamins and minerals. It is essential to keep in mind the synergistic behavior of vitamins and minerals for optimal function, and this is where whole natural foods provide us with the perfect nutritional packages. So instead of wasting time scanning the supplement aisles, invest your time and energy in getting creative with your food to make meals that truly satisfy your body’s health needs and tastebuds. It is time that we move from poor and adequate nutrition that we try to supplement with pills to optimum nutrition made up of a good diet.