Understanding Vitamins & Their Health Benefits (+ How They Work)

We hear a lot about vitamins and how important they are to things like immunity. Vitamins A, B, C, D, E and K are essential nutrients that need to be consumed every day to maintain body function through healthy cells, nerves, skin and tissues. This guide explains why you need each of these vitamins, what foods to get them from, and what to eat with them in order for your body to absorb and utilize them.


 

 

What Are Vitamins

Vitamins are both organic compounds and essential nutrients. Organisms require vitamins daily to function, but in limited amounts. They are essential for normal metabolism and deficiencies of certain vitamins can cause medical conditions. There are currently 13 recognized vitamins. Let’s take a look at the function of each of them and what food sources to get them from…

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is important to maintain healthy skin, protect against infections, improve night vision and boost the immune system. It also helps protect against some cancers. Vitamin A is a fat soluble vitamin and its chemical names include retinol, retinal and certain carotenoids, including beta carotene. There are a number of health issues that may suggest a vitamin A deficiency. They include mouth ulcers, poor night vision, acne, dry skin, dandruff, diarrhea and a poor immune system, or, frequent colds or infections.

Vitamins

Best Food Sources

Foods high in vitamin A include carrots, sweet potato, cabbage, pumpkin and squash, beef liver, melons, mangoes, tomatoes, broccoli and apricots.

B Vitamins

There are a number of important B vitamins. Let’s look at each of them.

B vitamins

B1 (Thiamine)

B1 is not a Banana in Pyjamas character, and neither is B2 for that matter. Not in this context, anyway! (That’s an Australian reference, for those who are feeling confused right now). Thiamine helps the body use protein in an effective way, and is essential for brain function, digestion and energy. If your muscles feel particularly tender, or if you have pain in your eyes or stomach, constipation, irritability or poor concentration, you may have a B1 deficiency.

Best Food Sources

Foods high in vitamin B1 include watercress, kale, squash, zucchini, yeast, sunflower seeds, oranges, lamb, asparagus, mushrooms, peas, capsicum, cauliflower, cabbage, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, beans and lettuce.

B2 (Riboflavin)

This water soluble vitamin helps the body use fats, sugars and proteins for energy, and is needed to repair and maintain healthy skin, nails and eyes. Gritty eyes, sensitivity to bright lights and cataracts may be signs of a deficiency. Other signs may include a sore tongue, dull or oily hair, eczema, split nails and dry, cracked lips.

Best Food Sources

Get your daily dose of vitamin B2 from mushrooms, tomatoes, watercress, cabbage, broccoli, pumpkin, cabbage, asparagus, bananas, chard, yogurt, eggs or fish.

Riboflavin

B3 (Niacin)

Niacin is essential for energy production and brain function. It is a water soluble vitamin and is also vital to maintaining healthy skin. It helps balance blood sugar, lower cholesterol levels, and it plays a role in digestion and controlling inflammation. A vitamin B3 deficiency may cause diarrhea, insomnia, headaches, poor memory, anxiety, depression, bleeding gums and dermatitis.

Best Food Sources

Foods rich in niacin include mushrooms, tuna, salmon, chicken, turkey, lamb, cabbage, tomatoes, zucchini, squashp, cauliflower, avocado, nuts and legumes.

B3

B5 (Pantothenic Acid)

B5 is another water soluble vitamin that is involved in energy production and in controlling fat metabolism. Your brain and nerves need this vitamin to function and it helps make natural steroids in the body, as well as maintaining healthy hair and skin. If you suffer from muscle tremors or cramps, poor concentration, tender heels, nausea, exhaustion from light exercise, lack of energy or anxiety, or ‘pins and needles’ in your extremities, you may have a pantothenic acid deficiency.

Best Food Sources

Good food sources include broccoli, avocado, mushrooms, alfalfa, peas, lentils, cabbage, celery, tomatoes, strawberries, eggs, squash and whole wheat.

Strawberry

B6 (Pyridoxine)

This water soluble vitamin is essential for the body to digest and utilize protein. It is also important for brain function and hormone production. It is often associated with easing PMS and menopause symptoms because of its anti-depressant properties and its role in helping to balance sex hormones. Water retention, tingling hands, anxiety, depression, muscle tremors and cramps, anemia and low energy levels could be signs of a pyridoxine deficiency.

Best Food Sources

Get your vitamin B6 supply from nuts, bananas, watercress, cauliflower, cabbage, red kidney beans, eggsbe, squash, broccoli, turkey, lentils, tuna, onions and asparagus.

Red kidney beans

B7 (Biotin)

Another water soluble vitamin, B7 helps the body metabolize proteins and process fatty acids and glucose. Like all essential nutrients, biotin cannot be synthesized by the human body, and therefore has to be consumed. This B vitamin is made by bacteria, yeast, algae, mold and certain plants. Biotin deficiency is rare, but symptoms may include dermatitis, hair loss, lack of appetite, depression, fatigue, insomnia and intestinal inflammation.

Best Food Sources

Foods with biotin include liver, yeast, cheddar cheese, salmon, sardines, peanuts, avocado, raspberries, banana, cauliflower, eggs and mushrooms.

Biotin

B9 (Folic Acid Or Folate)

Folate is a water soluble B vitamin and a vital nutrient. It is particularly beneficial to women trying to get pregnant. It is critical for the development of the brain and nerves of a fetus during pregnancy. A folate deficiency can potentially cause serious problems, including birth defects and blood diseases. Folate is also essential for brain and nerve function, and is needed for protein utilization and the formation of red blood cells. Anemia, eczema, cracked lips, anxiety, low energy levels, stomach pains and severe headaches may be signs of a folic acid deficiency.

Best Food Sources

Beans, broccoli, spinach, asparagus, baker’s years, liver, legumes, leafy vegetables, nuts, sprouts and avocado are some of the best folate foods. In some cases, a doctor might also recommend people take a folate supplement, especially women trying to get pregnant.

Folic acid

B12 (Cyanocobalamin)

The body needs B12 in order to make use of protein. It is also essential for energy because it helps the blood carry oxygen around the body. The brain and nerves need it to maintain proper functionality, and the body needs it for DNA synthesis. There are a number of deficiency symptoms, including dull hair, eczema, sensitivity in the mouth, irritability, anxiety, low energy levels, pale skin, constipation and anemia.

Best Food Sources

Fish, shellfish, chicken, turkey, eggs, milk, yogurt, lamb, cottage cheese and cheese are some of the best cyanocobalamin food sources.

B12

Vitamin C

This is perhaps the most regularly recognized vitamin, associated with curing colds and flus and being the ultimate medicine for the immune system. While that’s a very simplified analysis and not totally accurate, it does have merit. Vitamin C on its own cannot work miracles – there are layers involved in how it works. In brief, each vitamin needs other nutrients in order for the body to absorb and use it to its full potential, and we’ll delve more into that later in this post. What vitamin C is particularly useful for, other than strengthening the immune system and fighting infections, is helping the body produce collagen, providing structure to blood vessels, bones and ligaments, and detoxifying pollutants. Deficiency symptoms can include tender or bleeding gums, frequent colds and infections, lethargy, nosebleeds and megaloblastic anemia.

Vitamin C

Best Food Sources

Everyone knows citrus fruits, including oranges, lemons, grapefruits and limes are rich in vitamin C. In fact, most fruit and vegetables have vitamin C. Fruits with the highest levels of vitamin C are actually some lesser-known ones – the Kakadu plum and camu cam. Other food sources include cabbage, capsicum, kiwi fruit, peas, melons, tomatoes, strawberries, watercress and broccoli.

Vitamin D (Ergocalciferol)

Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin, important for maintaining calcium stability in the body. It therefore helps maintain strong, healthy bones. It is also involved in keeping the immune system functioning and healthy. Deficiency symptoms may include joint stiffness, tooth decay, muscle cramps and loss of hair.

Vitamin D

Best Food Sources

As most people know, vitamin D can be absorbed from the sun. However, there are, of course, risks associated with this method, including melanoma and premature ageing of the skin. The essential nutrient can also be found in some food sources, including fatty fish, like tuna, mackerel and salmon, as well as oranges, beef liver, soy milk, cheese, eggs, mushrooms and cottage cheese.

Vitamin E (Tocopherols)

Another fat soluble vitamin, tocopherols is important for preventing blood clots and thrombosis, and protecting cells from damage. Vitamin E is good for the skin and may also improve fertility, speed up wound healing and improve the body’s use of oxygen. A vitamin E deficiency is uncommon, but symptoms my include exhaustion following light exercise, easy bruising, slow wound healing and varicose veins.

Vitamin E

Best Food Sources

Try sunflower seeds, peanuts, sesame seeds, wheat germ, tuna, sardines, salmon, sweet potato, beans, almonds, avocado, almonds, eggs and kiwi fruit for your vitamin E boost!

Vitamin K

Lastly, vitamin K helps control blood clotting, and is important for bone health. It also assists in preventing heart disease and reducing neural damage. Deficiency symptoms may include hemorrhages, anemia, easy bruising and nosebleeds.

Vitamin K

Best Food Sources

Foods rich in vitamin K include cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, beans, watercress, milk, asparagus, potatoes, tomatoes and peas.

How Vitamins Work Together

Certain nutrients need other nutrients in order for the human body to absorb them and use them. Vitamins and minerals often work together to perform different functions. Vitamin D, for example, regulates calcium balance, and you need both the vitamin and the mineral (calcium) for healthy bone mass. So, you could eat a meal that contains egg, which has lots of vitamin D, with kale, which has a good dose of calcium, as an example. By consuming those two foods together, you will increase the benefits of the vitamin and mineral.

Vitamin C and iron is another good pairing example. Vitamin C assists with iron absorption in the body. That is essential for preventing anemia. So, you can simply eat some raw vegetables and fruit along with an iron-rich food, like meat, in order to reap that benefit.

Vitamin C

Vitamin B12 and folate is an example of two vitamins working together to benefit the body. Folate needs B12 to be absorbed, stored and used in the body. Together, they support some of the most important cell productivity in the body, which is essential for normal function and growth. To get these two minerals working together is quite simple – you can just pair B12-rich food, like meat or eggs, with folate-rich fare, such as leafy green vegetables or beans. That makes for a pretty straightforward and common meal! Vegans, however, may struggle to consume adequate amounts of B12. If vegans have symptoms of a B12 deficiency, such as anemia, it may be necessary to take a natural supplement or try to consume B12-fortified vegan foods. Although, be aware that anemia could be a sign of an iron deficiency as well, so it may be necessary to increase intake of that mineral at the same time.

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