Have you ever wondered What exactly are vitamins? or What vitamins should I take?  You’ve probably heard of taking multivitamin supplements to maintain good health or that this food is high in vitamin X and that food is high in vitamin Y. But why does it matter? Why do you need vitamins in your body? Or, more importantly, what ARE all the different types of vitamins out there? What are the best sources for these vitamins? And do we really need them?

Welcome to the Ultimate Vitamin Guide!

Part 1:
– background information on vitamins
– the different types of supplements and related terms
– should you be taking supplemental vitamins?

Part 2:
– the sources, functions, and other information for fat-soluble vitamins

Part 3:
– the sources, functions, and other information for water-soluble vitamins

What Are Vitamins?

Vitamins are a group of micronutrients that are found in plants and animals. Our bodies cannot make vitamins (with the exception of some B vitamins), therefore it is essential for us to obtain them from our diet. Why is it essential? Because vitamins are a key component to vitality, health, and resistance to disease.

Vitamins mainly function as coenzymes – meaning that they help enzymes in various metabolic and biochemical reactions in the body. These important biological mechanisms are what convert macronutrients (i.e., carbohydrates, fats, and protein) to a more useable form for the body – to be used for energy, as building blocks for tissue and cell regeneration, and other essential body functions. So although vitamins themselves do not provide any energy and are not a part of our body tissues, they are a fundamental component for our survival.

The discovery of vitamins first came from observing diseases that were a result of vitamin deficiency. Scurvy, the ailment of thousands of sailors aboard ships in the 1500s, resulted from a deficiency in vitamin C. This deficiency arose due to a diet solely composed of cured or salted meats, dry grains, and beer. The lack of fresh fruits and vegetables caused rotting gums, tooth loss, swollen legs, and easy bruising. Amazingly, introducing vitamin C-rich sources of food to the sufferers quickly reversed all symptoms.

A lot more research and discovery has been done since then, and we now have a comprehensive list of all the different types of vitamins, as well as their primary sources and their key functions in the body. They are divided into two main groups:
(1) fat-soluble vitamins, which are vitamins A, D, E, and K.
(2) water-soluble vitamins, which includes the B vitamins and vitamin C.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this guide which covers the fat-soluble vitamins in more detail, and Part 3, which will cover the water-soluble vitamins.

The Supplemental Spectrum

The overwhelmingly huge amount of supplement brands and varieties available in stores today has created a spectrum of vitamin quality and cost. This ranges from cheap vitamins, that are synthetic, full of added fillers, and have low bioavailability, to high-quality vitamins from natural sources and good bioavailability, but at a higher price tag. Here are some of the factors to consider when distinguishing between vitamins:

Bioavailability
The bioavailability of a vitamin describes how well it is absorbed and used by the body.

Natural vs. Synthetic
Natural – these vitamins come exclusively from food sources. This means that a whole complex of other nutrients is extracted along with the vitamin itself. These other nutrients can include enzymes and minerals that help the body use the vitamin (i.e., aid with the vitamin’s bioavailability). Some common sources include yeast, liver, corn, rosehips, and alfalfa.

Synthetic – in contrast to the natural vitamins extracted from food, synthetic ones are made in a laboratory. Binders and fillers are often added to these vitamins, which can be problematic for some people in terms of allergic reactions or gastrointestinal upset.

Time-release
These types of vitamins are made as micropellets, which are digested and absorbed by the body at a slower pace (usually over 8 – 12 hours). The drawback of these pills is that they involve one large dose, which requires constant stomach acid output, and can be taxing to the elderly or those in a weakened state.

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Tablets vs. Capsules vs. Powder vs. Liquid

Tablets: the most common form of vitamins due to their conveniently long shelf life. The biggest downside of this form of vitamins is that they are more likely to be filled with binders, coatings, and other fillers, and that they are harder to digest, thus less bioavailable to the body.

Capsules: you can easily open these to release the contents, which are either powdered or in liquid form, and add them to foods or beverages. There is no real downside except that the gelatin casings may be made from animal products, although there are gelatin-free capsules that are becoming more widespread.

Powder: this form of vitamin can be mixed with water or other liquids and have the advantage of being rapidly absorbed. Unfortunately they may not be the best tasting, however they can be a great solution for people with weak digestion or that have trouble swallowing pills. Because they do not have to be manufactured into a tablet form, they are more likely to be free of fillers and other unnecessary substances.

Liquid: often used for children, liquid vitamins offer the same advantages as powdered vitamins, in terms of bioavailability. The downside is that they are more likely to have artificial sweeteners and flavours, which can (ironically) counteract the effectiveness of vitamin supplementation, and in fact nutritionally deplete the person even more.

What Vitamins Should I Take?

In an ideal world, we would get all of the necessary vitamins and other essential nutrients from the earth in the form of delicious fruits and vegetables. We would also lead lives with minimal stress and clean air and water. Unfortunately, the soil in many places around the world is depleted of nutrients due to mass agriculture. Add to that the fact that many people work at stressful jobs and lead busy lives; if these people also lack a healthy, balanced diet, then vitamin supplementation can certainly improve the quality of life.

The #1 priority for everyone should be to obtain all essential nutrients from the diet. This is done through well-balanced meals, that include a diversity of fruits and vegetables in order to maximize nutrient intake. High consumption of sugary foods, alcohol, and tobacco severely depletes the body of its nutrients, therefore cutting out these unhealthy foods and habits is important to maintain good health. The next two parts of this Vitamin Guide will go into more detail about the functions and sources of the various types of vitamins.

There are certain situations that warrant an extra boost in nutrients through supplementation. This includes a high-stress job and lifestyle, certain life stages (such as pregnancy), and recovery from illness and injury. For those that feel that vitamin supplementation will greatly benefit their lives, the top priority should be high-quality, natural vitamins. This means avoiding the cheapest brand in favour of filler-free vitamins extracted from food. I will include synthetic names and other ingredients that should be avoided for each specific vitamin (if supplementing) in the next two parts of this guide.

The Bottom Line

Two key points to take away:
 
(1) A healthy, balanced diet that is full of wholesome, nutritious foods will provide a good amount of vitamins and other nutrients to the body.

(2) Certain situations may require additional supplementation. In these cases, opt for the high-quality vitamins from natural sources.

Stay tuned for the next two parts of this guide:
Part 2 – fat-soluble vitamins
Part 3 – water-soluble vitamins

In the mean time, share your thoughts and questions in the comments below! Thanks for reading!

References

[1] Carpenter, K.J. The History of Scurvy and Vitamin C. Cambridge: Press Syndicate, 1986. Print.

[2] Haas, E.M. Staying Healthy with Nutrition. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2006. Print.

[3] Machlin, L.J. Handbook of Vitamins: Nutritional, Biochemical, and Clinical Aspects. New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc., 1984. Print.

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