Vitamins and minerals and what they do for you

Although they are sometimes called ‘micro-nutrients’ because we need them in such very small quantities, vitamins and minerals are essential for healthy living. Vitamins and minerals:

Help keep your body tissues healthy

Help keep your skin in good condition

Produce enzymes to help your body function

Help turn food into energy

Help keep your nerves in good condition

Assist in the production of hormones

Help keep your teeth and bones strong

Assist in the production of blood cells

Without a good supply of vitamins and minerals you would die!

When vitamins were first discovered they were given letters as they were discovered—A, B, C, D. But scientists then

Discovered that the substance they had called Vitamin B actually consisted of several different substances, so they began to rename the vitamins in the B group, calling them Bl, B2, B3 and so on. (To make extra confusion some of the vitamins—particularly those in the B group—are also known by names. Vitamin Bl, for example, is known as thiamine and also as aneurin, while vitamin B2 is sometimes called riboflavin.)

If you eat a balanced diet, it isn’t very easy to become vitamin deficient and the modern fashion of taking vitamin supplements is unnecessary and, indeed, potentially harmful. With some vitamins—such as vitamin E—it is almost impossible to devise a diet that would lead to a deficiency! After the second world war doctors were surprised to find that many wartime concentration camp victims, deprived of decent food for long periods, seemed to have had a reasonable intake of some vitamins.

Vitamin A is found in milk, eggs, butter, cheese, liver and fish oils and in vegetables (most notably carrots) which contain a substance called carotene.

Vitamin B is found in a wide range of animal and vegetable foods. A shortage of vitamin Bl can result in an extremely unpleasant disorder known as beri-beri but if your diet includes cereals you are unlikely to suffer from this. Even flour which has been refined contains added vitamins to make up for what has been lost in the polishing or refining. Vitamin B12 comes mainly from meat, fish and dairy food and without a plentiful supply of this vitamin you are likely to develop a disorder known as pernicious anaemia. Vegetarians who eat some dairy produce or eggs are unlikely to run short of vitamin B12 and vegans (who eat no animal products at all) can avoid vitamin B12 deficiency if they ensure that their diet contains tempeh, soya milk, edible seaweeds or a choice from the wide variety of fortified products available—which include textured vegetable protein, yeast extracts, cereals and margarines.

Vitamin C is available in plentiful quantities in fresh fruit and vegetables and meat eaters (who tend to eat too little of

Either of these) are much more likely to suffer from scurvy— the classic disease associated with vitamin C deficiency—than are vegetarians or vegans.

Your body can make its own vitamin D with the aid of a little sunshine and there are relatively few countries in the world where the supply of sunshine is inadequate for the manufacture of vitamin D. However, dark skinned individuals are usually less capable of making their own vitamin D than are Caucasians. Since vitamin D is present in quite a number of different foods—dairy products for example—this is unlikely to be a real problem.

You are unlikely to develop a vitamin or mineral deficiency as long as you eat a balanced diet. The people who are most at risk are those who eat too much heavily refined, processed food and too little fresh, natural food. Going onto a crash diet or eating out of packets and tins is the quickest way to develop a potentially harmful nutritional deficiency.

Incidentally, there is no need to worry about making sure that your daily intake of vitamins and minerals meets the frequently quoted requirements. Your body is very good at storing small quantities of the essential supplies it needs. For example, your liver can store enough vitamin B12 to last you two or three years! It is, however, important that you balance your diet on a long term basis.

VITAMIN AND MINERAL SUPPLEMENTS ARE A WASTE OF TIME AND MAY DO MORE HARM THAN

GOOD

The international vitamin business is one of the greatest cons of the twentieth century. Every week millions of apparently intelligent and seemingly well informed individuals spend a considerable part of their weekly budget on buying vitamin and mineral supplements. Most of them clearly believe that these supplements are helping to keep them healthier than they would be if they relied on their diet. The market for vitamin and mineral supplements has grown dramatically in recent years and the

Shelves of most pharmacies and specialist food shops are laden with different examples of this fashion. Many customers develop what I can only describe as a psychological addiction to their tablets—they firmly believe that their vitamin or mineral tablets are going to make them feel better and they believe this so sincerely that if they stop their pills then they probably will fall ill!

The sale of vitamin supplements isn’t a new fed. And what’s more independent doctors and scientists have agreed for decades that taking these supplements is a waste of time.

Back in 1923 the British Medical Journal published an article about vitamins entitled: The vitamin content of certain propriety preparations’. It was written by an eminent team of experts who concluded that: ‘our experiments confirm what other workers on vitamins have emphasised—namely that under normal conditions of life an adequate supply of vitamins can easily be ensured by including in the diet a suitable amount of protective foods such as milk, butter, green vegetables and fruit and that no advantage is to be gained by trying to obtain the substances in the form of drugs.’

However, the promoters of vitamins have continued to sell their wares with an impressive and sometimes apparently convincing range of pseudo-scientific arguments. One of the longest lasting and most successful marketing strategies has been the claim that vitamin C supplements would help ward off colds. This suggestion was thoroughly discredited twenty years ago by a series of comprehensive studies which showed that there was no scientific basis to the claim. In one article, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, details were given of a trial in which a number of marine recruits were each given 2 grams of vitamin C in an attempt to stop them getting colds (2 grams is a massive dose but the army was interested in the idea because they realised that if they could keep their soldiers fighting fit by giving them tablets then the expense would be well worthwhile). Sadly for the vitamin C manufacturers the experiment showed that the drug had no protective effect at all.

What scientists have shown is that vitamin C supplements will only help provide you with some protection if your body is already short of this vitamin and if your diet is also deficient in the vitamin. Incidentally, they have also shown that since vitamin C is water soluble and cannot be stored in the human body in any sizeable quantities, the excess taken by people whose diets include massive doses of the drug simply result in vitamin C being excreted in vast quantities in the urine.

Despite all this evidence there are still people who seem to believe that taking a daily dose of vitamin C will help stop them getting a cold. If they don’t get a cold then they say, with some pride, that it is their pills which have protected them. If they do get a cold then they say that they would have got a worse cold if it hadn’t been for the pills. (Or they say that they simply didn’t take enough pills!) ‘* Because of the huge profits to be made from selling vitamins a number of manufacturers have now moved into the mineral supplement market. Thousands of enthusiasts are now regularly taking zinc supplements in the hope that these drugs will help boost their sexual staying power—or their brain power.

Zinc has been described as ‘penicillin for the mind’ and has been said to be linked to virtually every aspect of human growth, development and wellbeing. At least forty different conditions—including anorexia, depression, delayed sexual maturation, low birth weight and the common cold—have been blamed on zinc deficiency. I have investigated these claims and am not convinced by them. It is relevant to mention that the profits to be made from selling substances like zinc are very high. Zinc is cheap to buy and for the over-the-counter price of a month’s supply for one customer a manufacturer can buy enough zinc to supply a small town.

Germanium is another popular mineral these days. Those selling germanium supplements have claimed that it can be used in the treatment of over thirty separate conditions including angina, arthritis, asthma, breast cancer, burns, cancer of the colon, cancer of the prostate, cataracts, cervical cancer, corns,

Depression, detached retina, diabetes, eczema, epilepsy, gastritis, glaucoma, heart attack, herpes, high blood pressure, influenza, leukaemia, lung cancer, malaria, osteoporosis, ovarian cancer, Parkinson’s disease, rheumatism, schizophrenia, stomach and duodenal ulcers, stroke and warts! In fact germanium is a trace element which used to play a part in the manufacture of transistors for radios.

I have been unable to find any convincing evidence that germanium unwanted for the manufacture of transistors can now be used to treat this enormous variety of disorders. In my view an ordinary, well balanced diet will provide plenty of germanium. Furthermore, I believe that extra supplements are more likely to do harm than good. I have already read a report suggesting that one man may have died of kidney failure after taking germanium supplements.

If you eat sensibly then you will automatically get enough vitamins and minerals to keep your body healthy. If you don’t eat sensibly then it won’t just be minerals and vitamins that you need. And if you are suffering from a deficiency of any vitamins or minerals then you should visit a doctor so that your shortage can be rectified accurately while your doctor examines your diet in an attempt to find out why you have a deficiency. Eating extra vitamins or minerals in an attempt to get healthier or stay fitter is about as logical as trying to pump an extra thousand gallons of petrol into your car in the hope that it will go fester or attempting to pump another million volts into your TV set to get a better picture.

Finally, I think it is worth pointing out that I do not know of a single doctor who takes vitamin or mineral supplements. If taking vitamin and mineral supplements was good for your health then doctors—who are among the world’s most enthusiastic supporters of the pharmaceutical industry and the keenest takers of drugs—would have caught on and would be enthusiastically swallowing vitamin and mineral pills.

Vitamin and mineral manufacturers usually fail to warn their customers, but the supplements they sell can be dangerous and

Taking extra supplies of a vitamin or mineral may put your health at risk. If you take too many vitamin supplements you can damage your body—and your mind—in a number of ways. When taken in excessive quantities vitamins can even kill. Many medical observers, myself included, now believe that diseases caused by taking too many vitamins are now more common than diseases caused by vitamin deficiency.

Here are just a few of the ways in which too many vitamins can damage your health:

Vitamin A taken in excess can produce anorexia, drowsiness, irritability, hair loss, headaches and skin problems. It can also cause liver damage and make bones tender.

The vitamins in the vitamin B group can cause a wide range of problems when taken in excess (despite the fact that vitamin B, like vitamin C, is water soluble and therefore excesses of the vitamin are eventually discarded in the urine). Too much vitamin B3 can cause stomach ulceration, liver damage and hair loss. Too much vitamin B6 can cause depression and nerve damage that can lead to clumsiness, numbness and a loss of balance.

Too much vitamin C can cause kidney problems, specifically kidney stones, and can affect growing bones. In addition people who have been taking high doses of vitamin C for long periods and then suddenly cut down their intake can develop rebound scurvy.

Vitamin D in high doses can cause irreversible damage to the eyes and kidneys by encouraging deposits of calcium. It can also cause fits, comas, muscular weakness, headaches and high blood pressure.

Too much vitamin E can produce a tendency to bleeding when taken with warfarin (a drug commonly prescribed in the treatment of various circulatory disorders). It can also affect immunity levels, reduce sexual function and produce headaches, eye problems and stomach disorders.

An excess of vitamin K can produce a type of anaemia.

Minerals can be dangerous too. For example, the World Health Organization has warned that too high a zinc content can make drinking water dangerous; food poisoning has been produced by storing food in galvanized containers, and children who have chewed metal toys containing zinc have developed a type of anaemia which does not respond to iron treatment. There is even some evidence linking high doses of zinc to the development of high blood pressure.

Tragically—and ironically—many of the problems caused by taking too many vitamins or minerals are treated as vitamin or mineral deficiencies by the patients concerned. The result will, of course, be a gradual worsening of their symptoms.

Your quick guide to vitamins:

What they do and where you can find them

VITAMIN A

WHAT IT DOES

Although vitamin A is probably best known as the vitamin that helps us to see in the dark this reputation is rather exaggerated. The rumour is believed to have started during the second world war when it was said that pilots were being fed on carrots (which are rich in carotene and vitamin A) so that they would be better able to see during night flying sorties. The fact is, however, that an excess of vitamin A won’t help you see better—any more than an excess of vitamin C will reduce your susceptibility to colds and other infections. Vitamin A does help us to see in dim light and a deficiency can cause night blindness but that’s about as far as it goes.

The other function of vitamin A is to help us fight infection: by keeping cell walls strong it helps to keep viruses and bacteria at bay.

Some experts believe that a shortage of vitamin A may lead to the development of certain types of cancer. (This does not,

However, mean that an excess of vitamin A provides any protection against cancer).

WHERE CAN YOU FIND IT?

Some animal foods—for example, liver, eggs and butter—are particularly rich in vitamin A and are a suitable source of the vitamin. It is, however, important to be aware that some animal products are so rich in vitamin A that they can be dangerous. For example, polar bear liver (which is not, I admit, too popular a delicacy in most countries) contains a dangerously high quantity of vitamin A. Margarine, milk, cheese and fish liver oils also contain useful amounts of vitamin A.

You can, however, obtain all the vitamin A that you need from plant foods—carrots and dark green vegetables are both excellent sources of vitamin A.

VITAMIN Bl (THIAMINE OR ANEURIN)

WHAT IT DOES

Vitamin Bl helps your body to turn the carbohydrate in the food you eat into energy. The amount you need is, therefore, closely related to your intake of carbohydrates and your need for energy. If your body is short of vitamin Bl then you are likely to develop fairly typical symptoms which consist of numbness and pins and needles in your hands and feet. A severe deficiency of vitamin Bl can lead to a condition called beri-beri which is particularly common in rice eating countries where the husk (the part of the rice which contains vitamin Bl) is removed and the rice is polished. Your body cannot store supplies of vitamin Bl for long periods and so you need to consume foods containing the vitamin at fairly regular intervals. Vitamin Bl deficiency is also common among alcoholics and elderly people, particularly those who live alone and may not feed themselves properly. In alcoholics vitamin Bl deficiency can lead to permanent brain damage. In the elderly vitamin Bl deficiency commonly leads to mental confusion and heart disease.

WHERE CAN YOU FIND IT?

Vitamin Bl is present in many different plants foods but most of us get all the vitamin Bl we need from the cereals we eat. As with rice much of the vitamin Bl is removed from the husk during the milling process. Theoretically, therefore, white flour should be deficient in vitamin Bl. However, most countries have laws which ensure that white flour has the missing vitamin Bl put back into it! Other foods which contain vitamin Bl include eggs, peas, beans and nuts. Some types of meat (including pork, ham, bacon, liver and kidneys) contain vitamin Bl.

VITAMIN B2 (RIBOFLAVIN)

WHAT IT DOES

Vitamin B2 helps your body turn carbohydrate foodstuffs into energy. (And shares this duty with vitamin Bl—also known as thiamine—and vitamin B3—also known as nicotinic acid). It isn’t particularly easy to become deficient in vitamin B2 but if you do then your first symptoms are likely to include sore, cracked lips and a sore, discoloured tongue. When vitamin B2 deficiency does occur it is usually accompanied by a deficiency of other vitamins.

WHERE CAN YOU FIND IT?

Vitamin B2 is found in fairly large quantities in eggs and in dairy products such as milk and cheese. However since vitamin B2 is sensitive to light the vitamin B2 content of milk can be destroyed if the milk is left in full sunshine on the doorstep. Vitamin B2 is also found in some green vegetables and in certain types of meat—particularly liver.

VITAMIN B3 (NICOTINIC ACID OR NIACIN)

WHAT IT DOES

Vitamin B3 has a number of functions but if your diet contains

Too little of it you are likely to develop a disorder called pellagra:

I

This will affect your brain, skin and gastrointestinal tract.

WHERE CAN YOU FIND IT?

Vitamin B3 can be found in a wide variety of plant and animal foods. Wholemeal cereals are the richest source of vitamin B3. As with vitamin Bl the vitamin is removed from white flour during the milling process but then added again before the white flour is put on the shelves in the shops.

Fish and some types of meat also contain relatively small amounts of vitamin B3.

VITAMIN B6 (PYRIDOXINE)

WHAT IT DOES

Vitamin B6 plays a vital role in the way enzymes metabolise proteins and amino acids. However although some drugs (notably the oral contraceptives) increase the human body’s requirement for vitamin B6 diseases due to vitamin B6 deficiency are not usually reported in adult human beings.

WHERE CAN YOU FIND IT?

No particular foods contain large amounts of vitamin B6 but many foods contain a little and your body’s requirements for the vitamin are small. Fruit, vegetables and cereals and some meats (particularly liver) contain vitamin B6. It is fairly common for women to take large doses of vitamin B6 to try to alleviate hormonal problems but there is little scientific evidence to support this practice. There is, however, a considerable amount of evidence to support the notion that too much vitamin B6 can cause depression and nerve damage.

VITAMIN B12 (CYANOCOBALAMIN)

WHAT IT DOES

Like another micro nutrient called folic acid, vitamin B12 is essential for the formation of red blood cells. If your body is short of vitamin B12 you are likely to develop a condition called pernicious anaemia—the size of your individual red

Blood cells will be increased but their number will be reduced. Vitamin B12 plays a vital part in the working of your central nervous system. A long term shortage of the vitamin can led to permanent damage being done to the brain and spinal cord.

Vitamin B12 is an unusual vitamin in that before it can be absorbed into the body it needs to be linked to a substance called ‘intrinsic factor’ which is formed in your stomach. Patients who have had stomach surgery may be unable to produce this ‘intrinsic factor’. This problem is less common these days now that ulcer healing drugs have made many stomach operations obsolete.

WHERE CAN YOU FIND IT?

Liver is the one of the richest sources of vitamin B12 but eggs, milk and other dairy products also contain it. People who don’t eat meat or dairy produce or eggs can obtain their vitamin B12 from tempeh, soya milk, edible seaweeds and the wide range of fortified products now available (including cereals, margarines, textured vegetable proteins and yeast extracts). Folic acid is contained in plentiful supplies in green vegetables.

VITAMIN C (ASCORBIC ACID)

WHAT IT DOES

Vitamin C helps the body to form connective tissue—the packing material which supports and protects the rest of the body. Your skin contains a considerable amount of connective tissue and if you are short of vitamin C the first symptoms you notice are likely to be bruising and bleeding. This condition is called scurvy and the gums are usually the first part of the body to show it. In addition small cuts and grazes take an extraordinarily long time to heal. Scurvy is still fairly common—usually among people who do not eat enough fresh fruit and vegetables. Vitamin C will also help your body to fight off infections (although it is important to remember that mega doses will not protect you any more) and it will help your body to absorb iron. Indeed vitamin C increases the ease with which iron is

Absorbed by a factor of five. It is for this reason that meat eaters are, ironically, often more likely to develop iron deficiency anaemia than are vegetarians. Women need slightly more vitamin C than men, smokers need considerably more than non smokers and the sick and convalescent need good supplies of vitamin C in order to get well again. We need regular supplies of vitamin C since, like all the vitamins in the B group, it is water soluble and is, therefore, not stored.

WHERE CAN YOU FIND IT?

Fresh fruit of most kinds (but particularly citrus fruits) and fresh vegetables contain good quantities of vitamin C. One of the most important sources of vitamin C, however, is the potato (simply because it is such an important constituent in our diets). New potatoes contain more vitamin C than old ones and overcooking potatoes destroys the vitamin. Chips are quite a good source of vitamin C since the fat ‘seals’ the vitamin in. Since vitamin C is water soluble leaving vegetables to soak in water for a long time will cause the vitamin C to disappear.

VITAMIN D (CHOLECALCIFEROL)

WHAT IT DOES

Vitamin D helps your body absorb and use calcium and phosphorus effectively for making strong bones and teeth. If your body is deficient in vitamin D then you will develop a condition called osteomalacia—in which your bones become weak and prone to fracture. In children a shortage of vitamin D leads to a condition called rickets. The main signs of rickets are bowed legs, swollen knees and swollen wrists. All these problems are caused by a malfunction in the way that new bone is formed at the ends of the growing bones.

WHERE CAN YOU FIND IT?

Vitamin D is, like vitamins A and E, found in fairly large quantities in animal foods because it is fat soluble and can be stored in an animal’s body. (It is, inevitably, the fat soluble vitamins

Which are most likely to cause problems if taken in excess. The water soluble vitamins such as vitamins B and C can be excreted from the body.) Relatively few foods contain large quantities of vitamin D but many different types offish (especially herrings, mackerel, canned sardines and pilchards) are rich in it. Cod liver oil also contains vitamin D. There is often added vitamin D in margarine.

However, most of us can make all the vitamin D we need from the action of the sunshine on our skin. Even in fairly overcast, dull countries where the sun is rarely seen in its full glory the majority of citizens see enough sunshine to produce all the vitamin D their bodies need.

VITAMIN E (TOCOPHEROLS)

WHAT IT DOES

Vitamin E deficiency disorders are virtually unknown. Some manufacturers (and some aficionados) claim that vitamin E supplements can be used to boost mental, athletic or even sexual skills but I have not been able to find any scientific evidence to support these claims. Vitamin E has, over the years, acquired something of a reputation as a ‘sex vitamin’ but this reputation was based on experiments done on rats many decades ago. The experiments showed that a vitamin E deficiency in rats can lead to sterility. However, since a deficiency of vitamin E in human beings is virtually unknown (you would almost certainly be dead of something else long before you acquired a vitamin E deficiency if you were eating a substandard diet) and since experiments on animals are of absolutely no value to human beings this evidence is clearly of no significance.

WHERE CAN YOU FIND IT?

Vitamin E is found in vegetable oils and in green, leafy vegetables and so a vegetarian diet is particularly rich in vitamin E. Eggs also contain some vitamin E. If you eating a reasonably balanced diet then you are almost certainly getting all the vitamin E that your body needs.

VITAMIN K (NAPTHOQUINONES)

WHAT IT DOES

Vitamin K plays an essential role in the blood clotting mechanism. It is rare for an adult to be short of this vitamin, though shortages do sometimes occur in babies and small children.

WHERE CAN YOU FIND IT?

Fresh, green, leafy vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, lettuce

And spinach all contain vitamin K. Liver also contains vitamin K.

Minerals

Minerals play a vital part in the functioning of your body. Iron is essential for the formation of red blood cells. If your body is deficient in iron then your body will form too few red blood cells—the cells which normally carry oxygen around your body —and your tissues will not receive enough oxygen. Calcium helps form the structure of your bones and the teeth. Zinc is essential for the proper functioning of some of your body’s enzymes.

But if you eat a good, balanced diet then your body will almost certainly be getting all the minerals it needs. If your body is short of minerals and you need extra supplements then you should see your doctor so that he can make sure that you get exactly what your body needs (and so that he can help you adjust your diet so that you receive all the minerals your body needs in the future).

Vegetarians can get the minerals they need from their diet. There is plenty of iron in dark green vegetables such as cabbage, kale and spinach, in beans and peas and in fruit.

The plentiful supplies of vitamin C in a vegetarian diet means that the iron is readily absorbed. Calcium is available in dark green vegetables, in beans and in dairy products such as milk and cheese.

Salt

We need some salt to stay healthy but most of us eat around twenty times as much salt as we need. There is salt in bread, milk, cream, cheese, butter, margarine and meat and meat products—as well as many tinned products—so avoiding salt isn’t always easy.

Hundreds of scientific papers have been published by experts trying to decide just how dangerous salt can be. And the experts are divided. A few—rather vociferous—experts believe that salt is a killer. But the majority seem unconvinced as yet and admit that they don’t know how bad salt is or how much salt causes real problems. (Though all experts seem generally agreed on the feet that people with high blood pressure or with a femily history of high blood pressure should keep their salt intake down to a minimum).

Although there is uncertainty about the size of the problem there is little doubt that too much salt can cause problems.

For example, salt is a serious cause of fluid retention. Avoiding or cutting down salt consumption can, therefore, help people (such as women with the premenstrual syndrome) who suffer from symptoms created by fluid retention.

If you want to cut down your salt intake you can do so by avoiding: processed foods in general, canned foods, junk foods, crisps, salted peanuts, salted biscuits, salted butter, salted cheese, sausages and bacon. Alternative flavourings include lemon juice, parsley, garlic, horseradish and tarragon.

SEVEN WAYS TO REDUCE YOUR INTAKE OF SALT

Eat fewer salted snacks—such as peanuts and crisps—which tend to be heavily salted.

Avoid meat products—which often contain salt.

Avoid smoked fish and bacon—which are often salted.

Cook with herbs and spices rather than salt.

Buy spreads, sauces and pickles which are low in salt content.

Whenever possible use fresh vegetables rather than tinned vegetables to which extra salt has already been added.

Keep salt off the table.

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