{STEP 1.6}  What are Vitamins?

Answering the question of "What are vitamins?" is more complicated, but we need these nutrients in our diet to help with cell processes throughout our bodies.  Vitamins do not provide energy like the macronutrients - carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins - but without them we would develop a number of debilitating diseases.

They are classified as micronutrients because we only need them in very small amounts and there are six types, all of which are represented by a letter in the alphabet and grouped based on how on our body absorbs each.

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Four of the vitamins are found in the fats and oils of food, known as fat-soluble, and undergo the same process for digestion using bile as lipids.  Once absorbed in our body, they can be stored in the liver until the body needs them.  This ability is generally regarded as advantageous to our health, but the downside is that there is a risk of taking in too much.  Toxic levels can have serious consequences in our body. The fat-soluble vitamins are:

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin K

The remaining two vitamins are absorbed in water, known as water-soluble.  Due to the fact our bodies are primarily water, they are quickly dissolved and excesses are easily removed.  Toxic levels have been established for this group of vitamins but it is very rare to see cases of toxicity because they are stored extensively through our body tissues.  The water-soluble vitamins are:

  • Vitamin B
  • Vitamin C

Vitamins are a key component of a healthy diet that get overlooked.  They allow hundreds of processes in the body to take place and chronic deficiencies can lead to long-term problems.

Understanding what are vitamins means knowing more about each one.  Despite their commonalities, each vitamin takes on specific roles in the body.

Vitamin A:  The Versatile Vitamin

This vitamin is responsible for a number of processes within our bodies.  Most notably, vitamin A is a critical component of our eyesight.  Each time light passes through the eye, a small amount of this vitamin is destroyed in a chemical reaction that allows you see.  

Our skin and internal protective linings of our lungs, digestive tract, and reproductive system depend on cells which perform specific functions.  Vitamin A helps these cell develop and provides support to fight infections.  It also regulates gene expression, a critical part of building proteins, growth of bone and teeth, and acts as an antioxidant.

Vitamin A comes in two forms.  The animal-based source is retinol.  Beta-carotene is the plant-based source and is known as a precursor to Vitamin A.  This means that beta-carotene is passive, but can be turned into the active form, retinol, as needed.  This versatile vitamin is incredible, but it is vulnerable to reaching toxic levels.  Reducing your risk of toxicity can be achieved with intaking mostly Vitamin A in its passive form.

Vitamin D:  The Sunshine Vitamin

This vitamin is vital to the health of our bones.  It acts as a hormone to help regulate blood calcium and phosporus mineral levels, keeping bones dense and strong.

It is the most dangerous of all vitamins if levels reach a toxic point in our bodies.  A consistent excess can lead to the hard mineral calcium to be deposited in to vital soft tissue organs such as the heart, lungs, and kidneys.  This process can lead to serious health issues and a decline in our health.

The good news is most of the world's population relies on natural exposure to sunlight to prevent a Vitamin D deficiency.  Excess sun exposure does carry its own risks, but overdose of the sunshine vitamin is not one of those risks.  Much like beta-carotene acting as a precursor to Vitamin A, UV rays from the sun begin a reaction that transforms a type of cholesterol into an active form of Vitamin D.

While the old saying "A little sun never hurt anyone" might be more controversial than ever considering skin cancer risks, it holds weight in our conversation on what are vitamins, especially Vitamin D.

Vitamin E:  The "Bodyguard" Vitamin

Vitamin E is one of the body's premier antioxidants.  Antioxidants stop oxidation caused by free radicals.  These enemies are molecules that are chemically unstable and attack fatty acids, proteins, and DNA inside our bodies.  

Free radicals create a chain reaction of damage within these vital cells and, according to generally-accepted theory, can lead to the onsest of heart disease, cancer, and degeneration of the eyes.  

Vitamin E effectively acts as a wall to stop the chain reaction, sacrificing itself in the process.  

The "bodyguard" vitamin is very active in the lungs where the process of delivering oxygen to cells begins, leaving these tissues  very vulnerable.  

It also plays an active role in supporting our immune system's white blood cells and the development of nerves.  

Vitamin K:  The Life-Saver Vitamin

Among the most phenomenal talents of our body is the ability to naturally stop the loss of our blood after injury.  Proteins are responsible for the actual clotting, but Vitamin K is a key helper in their creation.  This vitamin is often overshadowed its sibling Vitamin D, but it is also necessary to create proteins in our bones.

As newborns, one of the first things we experience is to ingest a dose of vitamin K to prevent hemorraging while our young body begins to establish bacteria in its digestive tract.  Some of the billions of intestinal bacteria we have are able to produce Vitamin K.  

For this reason, a deficiency of the life-saver vitamin is very rare.  

Vitamin C:  The Popular Vitamin

Even if this is your first time learning about what are vitamins, you have likely heard the mention of Vitamin C in the past.  Why?

Its storied history.  Vitamin C was found to be the cure for scurvy, a disease that plagued sailors on voyages across oceans in the 17th and 18th centuries.  This disease often claimed many lives on these trips and after a nutrition experiment (one of the first of its kind) on British sailors, it was discovered that citrus fruits would prevent and cure the life-threatening scurvy.  The ascorbic acid found in these fruits would later come to be known as Vitamin C.

Nowadays, most people associate it a way to naturally treat the common cold.  Research has shown a large dose of vitamin C taken at the onset of a cold can reduce its duration and reduce the severity of symptoms, but it also performs a variety of other functions in our body.

Vitamin C is always hard at work creating and maintaining collagen, which is the foundation of bones, teeth, skin, tendons, and other connective tissues.  Vitamin C works in conjuction with Vitamin E as an antioxidant.  It has the ability to recycle Vitamin E back into an active form, protect vulnerable molecules in the bloodstream from oxidizing, and promote the absorbtion of the mineral, iron.  

Vitamin B:  The Complex Vitamin

This vitamin is actually a group of eight vitamins that work together to activate enzymes in our body, which transform separate compounds into a new integrated compound to perform a function in our body.

Each of the B vitamins has its own personality traits.  The common association is that they are energy boosters,
however, they serve this cause indirectly.  Macronutrients are the energy-yielding nutrients.  The B Vitamin complex help our bodies use that fuel.

Every one of these vitamins is involved in some aspect of energy metabolism:

  1. B1: Thiamin
  2. B2: Riboflavin
  3. B3: Niacin
  4. B5: Pantothenic Acid
  5. B6: Pyridoxine
  6. B7: Biotin
  7. B9: Folic Acid
  8. B12: Cobalamins

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Our introduction to what are vitamins explains the basics and has opened up a door to learn more about how they work to benefit our body.

Step-by-step, we've worked to learn the fundamentals of nutrition.   Check below for more information finding the first piece of the healthy diet puzzle and continue on our journey.

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Read these articles to get a basic understanding of the concepts...

  1. Benefits of a Healthy Diet:  Reasons to Change Your Life for the Better

  2. What are Carbohydrates and Do You Really Need Them?

  3. What are Lipids and Are They as Scary as They Sound?

  4. What is Protein and How Does My Body Actually Use It?

  5. What is Fiber and Why is It So Important to a Healthy Diet?

  6. What are Vitamins?  For Starters... They're Essential Nutrients

  7. What is a Healthy Diet?  Its Core Components Explained

**As always, feel free to use the navigation below to backtrack and get an overview of Healthy Diet Mentor and our plan to get you on your way to a lifelong healthy diet.

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