Vitamins are said to cure diseases (from bad eyesight to arthritis), to prevent diseases (from cancer to the common cold), and to turn you into a better, fitter person (on the athletic track and in the bedroom).

Many of the claims made for vitamins are untrue. The plain truth is that if you eat sensibly you will get enough vitamins in your food. And if you don’t eat sensibly then it won’t be just extra vitamins that you’ll need. You’ll run into other problems long before your supply of vitamins gets low.

Vitamins are promoted for use by old people, sportsmen and smokers. There are special products advertised for children (’specially combined vitamins formulated to supplement children’s diets during their growing years when they can become fussy and faddy about food’), for women taking the contraceptive pill (’a balanced combination of vitamins and minerals such as zinc, specially formulated for women taking the pill’), and for slimmers (who are said to need vitamin supplements to stay healthy).

Vitamins – a short explanation

When vitamins were first discovered half a century ago they were given letters as they were identified.

So scientists produced vitamins A, B, C and D.

Then they discovered that the substance called vitamin B actually consisted of several different substances. So they began to rename the different vitamins in the B group, calling them Bl, B2, B3, B4, B5, B6 and eventually getting to B12.

To everyone’s embarrassment scientists later found that the vitamins they’d called B3, B5, and B7 onwards were not separate substances after all! And that is why we now have Vitamins Bl, B2, B6 and B12. (There is actually a B4 as well but the rest are now simply gaps.) Just to add to the confusion vitamins in the B group are also given names. So Bl is also known as aneurine or thiamine, B2 is riboflavin, B6 is pyridoxine and B12 is cyanocobalamin.

Although there are so many different vitamins now isolated the most important ones are A, B, C and D. Some manufacturers make a great fuss of vitamins F and P. The medicinal qualities of these vitamins puts them into the same category as elbow grease!

Why you need vitamins

Vitamins are as essential to your body as oil is to your car. Vitamin A is needed to keep your skin and eyes healthy. Vitamin B is essential if your body is to make proper use of foodstuffs. Vitamin C is needed for the development and maintenance of body tissues. Vitamin D is vital to help your body turn calcium into bone. Vitamin E is probably essential. However, we don’t know why.

Getting the vitamins you need

It is not easy to become vitamin deficient.

Your body needs only minute quantities of these essential substances and many of them are available in so many different foodstuffs that experimental scientists have had great difficulty in designing diets which create a vitamin shortage in the people who follow them.

Even concentration camp inmates, desperately short of food, and underweight, have turned out to have had a satisfactory intake of vitamins.

There is vitamin A in milk, eggs, butter, cheese, liver and fish oils but if you’re a vegetarian (or even a vegan – that is a vegetarian who does not even eat animal products like milk and cheese) you can get supplies of this vitamin from vegetables which contain carotene, a substance which can be converted in your body into vitamin A.

Vitamin B (which covers the several different substances known as vitamin Bl, B2, B6 and B12) is found in a wide range of foods, which include both animal and vegetable products. A shortage of Bl can result in a disease known as beri-beri. You’ll be safe enough if your diet includes cereals. Even refined flour has vitamins added to make up for what has been lost in the polishing.

Although beri-beri is found commonly in some parts of the world where food supplies are permanently poor it is usually only found in Britain in people who cannot absorb the vitamin because of some fault in their intestinal tract. Taking extra vitamin tablets won’t help this problem at all.

Vitamin C is found in a wide variety of fruit and vegetables. Unless you never eat fresh fruit and always overcook your green vegetables you won’t develop scurvy – the disease associated with vitamin C deficiency.

Vitamin D is present in cheese, butter, margarine, fish and animal livers, and oils. There is also enough sunshine even in the darkest North of England to provide most people with a good proportion of the vitamin D that they need.

A good diet

If your diet includes regular: meat, fish or eggs; fruit or vegetables; milk or cheese; margarine or butter; and cereal-based foods, then you won’t run short of vitamins.

If a little makes you fit surely more will make you fitter!

This argument, that if a shortage of a vitamin makes you ill and a sufficiency makes you well then a surfeit should make you superfit, is totally illogical.

It’s like suggesting that if you put 500,000 volts into the TV set you will get a better picture or that if you could pump 1000 gallons of petrol into a Mini it would go faster.

If you take more vitamins than you need you will at best be wasting your money and at worst endangering your health.

The dangers of taking extra vitamins

Vitamins B and C are soluble in water and they are therefore quickly excreted if taken in excess. Consequently overdosage isn’t too dangerous. Vitamins A, D and E are, however, stored in the body and if too many supplements containing these vitamins are taken real problems can arise. Take too much vitamin A and you’re likely to show the same signs as you would have exhibited had you been vitamin A deficient. Headaches, blurred vision, dry skin and hair loss can occur. Too much vitamin D can be fatal. Even a relatively low additional dosage for a fortnight can prove fatal. Children are particularly susceptible to overdosage. Multivitamin capsules and tablets may contain vitamins A and D with the result that the well-intentioned parent can easily poison an otherwise healthy child. Vitamin E in excess can cause abdominal pain, diarrhoea and lethargy.

The point cannot be made too often: anyone who is vitamin deficient needs to see a doctor to have the correct amount of vitamins prescribed and any subsequent improvement monitored precisely. If you think that you may be vitamin deficient see a doctor. Babies and infants who need vitamin supplements should be given products provided by official clinics or by a doctor.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is available as A Compleat, Arocin, Simhealtb, Super A, Sustain A, Vitamin A Tablets and Yestamin Vit A. As always, there are undoubtedly other products in this category.

Vitamin B

Vitamin Bl (aneurine or thiamine) is available as Super B1’, Sustain BJ and Vitamin B1 Tablets. Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) is available as Super B2, Sustain B2 and Vitamin B2 Tablets. Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) is sold under the names Benadon (in both 20 mg and 50 mg tablets), Super B6, Sustain B6 and Vitamin B6 Tablets. Vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin) is sold as Cemac, Super B12, Sustain B12 and Vitamin B12 Tablets.

If you want to buy tablets which contain combinations of various B vitamins your choice is much wider. You can select from B Compleat, B Natural, Boots Vitamin Yeast Tablets, Carter’s Vitamin B-Complex Capsulettes, Lanes B-Complex, Quiet Life Tablets, Simhealth Vitamin B-Complex, and a variety of Yestamin tablets, which contain, in addition to yeast, additional individual B vitamins. Two products, B-Complex with Vitamin C Naturtabs and Stress B Vite, also contain vitamin C.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is one of the most popularly marketed and swallowed vitamins. A great deal of testimony but very little evidence has been publicized in the campaign to promote the use of vitamin C to ward off colds and flu. This has been wisely described as the ‘gulling of the innocent by the ignorant’. A not inaccurate statement since there is absolutely no convincing evidence to prove that taking extra vitamin C will provide any protection against infection unless you happen to be short of vitamin C before you start. Even then it is important to realize that there is widespread agreement among reputable scientists that 10-20 mg of vitamin C a day is sufficient to keep stocks up while 50-100 mg a day will saturate the tissues completely. Larger doses (and some ‘experts’ suggest several grams a day!) will simply result in vitamin-enriched urine being passed and may also cause diarrhoea. As a practising family doctor I may say that if I honestly thought that there was the remotest chance that daily vitamin C would prevent the development of colds and flu I would happily prescribe the stuff for all my patients.

Vitamin C is available in several different forms, and scores of alternative products. Here are the names of some of the available brands in which vitamin C is available as a main or sole medicinal constituent: Balanced Vitamin C Naturtabs, Blakoe-Tabs Vitamin C, Boots Effervescent Vitamin C Tablets, Boots Vitamin C Tablets, Boots

Vitamin C Tablets for Children, C Compleat, C-Plus, C Sharp, Cegrovite, Delrosa Blackcurrant and Rose Hip Syrup, Delrosa Real Orange Juice and Rose Hip Syrup, Delrosa Rose Hip Syrup, Effer-C, Frooty Tablets, Health-crafts 1 Gram Vitamin C, Healthrite Vitamin C, Hip-C, Jackson’s of Devon Centurion Vitamin C Pastilles, Linus Brand Vitamin C Powder, Natural

Vitamin C Honey Chews, Optrose Rose Hip Syrup, Poten-C, Sanatogen

Vitamin C Tablets, Sanatogen High C, Sertin, Simhealth C Complex Tablets, Simhealth Vitamin C Tablets, Super Rose Hip Tablets, Sustain C, Videxou,

Vita Glucose Tablets, Vitamin C Powders, Vitamin C Tablets, Wigglesworth

Vitamin C Tablets, Yestamin Big Vit C, Yestamin Vit C.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is widely available in foodstuffs, and overdoses can be fatal. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that there are few, if any, over-the-counter preparations of vitamin D.

Vitamin E

This is probably the most fashionable vitamin of the moment. It is claimed that it can be used in the promotion of physical strength, the prevention of miscarriages, the slowing of the ageing process, the production of strong children, the improvement of sexual or athletic performance, the protection against pollution, and in the treatment of muscle disorders, cancer, ulcers, burns, skin ailments, sterility, lung troubles, high blood pressure, gangrene, kidney disease, rheumatic fever, heart disease, varicose veins and strokes.

There is no evidence that I know of that vitamin E does any of these things. In fact, doctors who have studied the vitamin carefully claim that anyone not receiving sufficient vitamin E in their daily diet would undoubtedly die of some other vitamin deficiency before the vitamin E deficiency became manifest. Incidentally, doctors have pointed out that it is almost impossible to design a diet which is deficient in vitamin E. It’s not surprising that vitamin E is described as the vitamin in search of a disease.

Vitamin E is a main constituent of the following products: Blakoe-Caps Wheat Germ Oil, B/akoe Vitamin E High Potency Tablets, B/akoe Vitamin E Higher Potency Tablets, Blakoe Vitamin E Highest Potency Tablets, Carter’s Vitamin E Capsuleties, E Com pi eat, E Major, Tort E Vite, Healthrite Vitamin E, Natex Vitamin E, Natrodale Emulsified Vitamin E Capsules, Poten-E, Pure Vitamin E Oil Rollette, Simhealth Vitamin E Tablets, Super E, Super Vitamin E, Super X 200 Vitamin E Capsules, Sustain E, Vita-E Gels, Vita-E Gelucaps, Vita-E Ointment, Vita-E Succinate Tablets, Vitamin E Bath Milk, Vitamin E Chew able Tablets, Vitamin E Cream, Vitamin E Hand and Body Lotion, Vitamin E High Potency Oil,- Vitamin E Oil, Vitamin E Powder, Vitamin E Skin Cream, Vitamin E Skin Soap, Vitamin E Sttntan Oil, Water Solubili-^ed Vitamin E, Wheatgerm Oil with Natural Vitamin E Complex and Yestamin Big Vit E.

Vitamin F

Some authorities do not list any such thing as vitamin F but the name has been given to a mixture of unsaturated fatty acids.

Capsules of vitamin F and skin cream containing the vitamin are said, quite sincerely I’m sure, to be able to reverse the ageing process and remove wrinkles. It is also possible that warts will disappear when painted with blancmange when the moon is full. I don’t believe either theory.

Vitamin F is available as F-500 Capsules, FF Cream and FF-100 Naturtabs.

Vitamin combinations

Vitamins A and D are available in combination as Cupal Halibut Liver Oil Capsules, Healthrite Vitamins A and D, Scott’s Cod Liver Oil Capsules, Scott’s Emulsion, Simhealth Bone Meal Tablets, Super Cod Liver Oil and Super Halibut Liver Oil.

Vitamins A, D and C are available as Halaurant, Haliborange Tablets, Healtherafts ADC Vits, Maws Orange Halibut Vitamins ADC, Orange and Halibut Vitamins, Sanatogen Junior Vitamins, Sunnimax, Vitamal Pellets, Vitocee Tablets and Wigglesworth Compound Vitamin ACD Tablets.

Other substances in which vitamins are mixed include the following products (some of which also contain minerals): Anduvite Multiplex Capsules, Biovital Liquid and Tablets, Blakoe Multivitamin and Mineral Diet Supplement Tablets, Blakogerm, Cantamac, Cantavite, Dermitabs, Full B with C, Gev-e-tabs, Head High Capsules, Healthrite Stress, Healthrite Ladies Formula, Maxivits, Melody Multivitamins, Minivits, Multivitamins, Natrodale Extravite Tablets, Sanatogen Multivitamins, Sanatogen Selected Multivitamins, Seven Seas Capsules, Seven Seas Orange Syrup, Super Plena-mins, Vitamins C and E Combination, Virules, Vitamin, Vitatrop, Vita-mines, Vykmin, Vykmin E, Vykmin Fortified, VM Formula and Vikelp.


Vitamin supplements are often advertised as containing extra minerals. Zinc seems to be a particularly popular mineral supplement today.

It is worth noting that zinc supplements have been highly successful in the treatment of hypogonadal dwarfs with anaemia in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern areas. I can find no other indication for including zinc supplements in your daily diet.


An article in the British Medical Journal dated 6 January 1923 concluded: ‘Under normal conditions of life an adequate supply of vitamins can be easily ensured by including in the diet a suitable amount of “protective foods” such as milk, butter, green vegetables and fruit and no advantage is to be gained by trying to obtain these substances in the form of drugs.’

That is still quite true. As I’ve said before, vitamin supplements are no more good for you than the supplements given away with the Sunday newspapers. Anyone who needs extra vitamins (either because of a shortage, a deficient diet or some physical abnormality) needs a doctor.