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Vitamins for all ages
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Vitamins are required in very small amounts to ensure normal metabolism, growth and physical well being. Only two vitamins are made by the body, so all the others have to be obtained from the food we eat.
“No single food contains all the vitamins we need, which is why a balanced daily diet is important for good health,” says dietitian Jeske Wellmann. “Unfortunately the food we eat is not the same quality it was a few years ago, so I advocate a good multivitamin be taken daily – and maybe add one or two other specific supplements for the individual person’s needs.”
Vitamin A – see clearly
About 3 500 years ago the Egyptians prescribed liver pressed to the eye and then eaten as a cure for night blindness, today a vitamin A supplement is easier. Vitamin A is essential for the immune system, skin and mucosal cells. It also helps develop white blood cells which defend the body from infection – and of course it’s important for good vision.
The richest sources of vitamin A are in liver, egg yolk, whole milk, butter, cheese, carrots, tomatoes, broccoli, spinach and apricots. However, vitamin A is fat soluble and is stored in the liver, so overdosing is possible if directions are not followed.
Infants, children and adults can take vitamin A supplements as can pregnant and lactating women. While deficiency is uncommon in the developed world, it is very common in toddlers in developing countries where vision and eye problems are often the first sign.
Vitamin B – don’t stress
Vitamin B1 assists in energy metabolism and conducts nerve impulses. It’s found in milk, eggs, pork, brown rice and barley. B1 supplementation should be considered if you have alcoholic disease, are pregnant or breastfeeding, do heavy physical exercise, suffer from fever or stress, or are a young growing adolescent. Inadequate nutrition and certain diseases such as contagious colon disease, diarrhoea, cancer, liver diseases, infections, malaria, AIDS and hyperthyroidism also require B1 supplementation. Oral contraceptives may cause depletion as can alcohol and caffeine consumption and smoking.
Vitamin B2 helps growth and reproduction, skin, hair and nails and is found in Brewer’s yeast, wheat germ, white mushrooms, eggs, spinach, milk and yogurt. Women on oral contraceptives, those who exercise and consume alcohol, vegetarians and the elderly may benefit from supplementation.
Vitamin B3 (Niacin) assists various chemical processes and is found in veal liver, chicken, beef, salmon and almonds. People who exercise regularly, take oral contraceptives, or have a lot of stress in their lives may need extra.
Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic acid) helps to metabolise carbohydrates, proteins and fats and assists in drug and alcohol detoxification. Found in veal liver, Brewer’s yeast, peanuts, white mushrooms and eggs it’s advised that elderly people and those who take oral contraceptives, as well as those who smoke, or consume alcohol or caffeine may need slightly higher levels.
Vitamin B6 assists the nervous and immune systems and red blood cell formation. B6 also plays an important role in the metabolism of essential fatty acids (Omega 3 and 6). Found in Brewer’s yeast, salmon, walnuts, wheat germ and pork liver, it is sometimes depleted in pregnant or breastfeeding women, women on oral contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy, and those who use antibiotics regularly. B6 supplementation is also suggested for those who consume alcohol, smoke, or consume protein above recommended levels.
Vitamin B8 (Biotin) helps with energy metabolism and maintains healthy hair and nails. It’s in Brewer’s yeast, beef liver, soya beans, wheat bran, peanuts and eggs. Pregnant women and those who use antibiotics on a long-term basis may need supplementation.
Vitamin B9 (Folic acid) helps with numerous metabolic reactions and is found in beef liver, peanuts, spinach and broccoli. Elderly people and pregnant women may need supplementation as well as people who consume alcohol or have a risk of heart disease.
Vitamin B12 is essential for growth and the formation of blood cells and nerve sheaths. It’s found in beef liver, crab, blue mussels and steak; vegetarians, pregnant and lactating women, consumers of alcohol and smokers may need increased levels.
Vitamin C – immune booster
Vitamin C is the most famous of all the vitamins and plays a prominent role as an immune stimulator. It’s a powerful antioxidant and can regenerate other antioxidants such as vitamin E. Vitamin C is also needed to synthesize collagen for muscles and bones, and helps heal wounds. It’s important for healthy bones and teeth, prevents bleeding and can delay age-related vision loss. Vitamin C also has anti-allergic properties and aids iron absorption.
This water-soluble vitamin is found in citrus fruit, black currants, strawberries, peppers, broccoli, kiwi and fennel.
Deficiency of this vitamin is seen through symptoms of fatigue, appetite loss, drowsiness, insomnia, irritability and low resistance to infection. In the old days, scurvy amongst sailors was the main indicator of extreme deficiency. Smokers, women on the oral contraceptive pill, those who consume alcohol regularly, diabetics, pregnant and lactating women and people exposed to high stress or strenuous exercise should take vitamin C supplements. High doses (as high as 3g per day) are also sometimes advocated to treat the common cold and to ease high blood pressure. Vitamin C also contributes to post-operative skin repair and is associated with decreased risk of cancer in the upper digestive tract, cervix, ovary, bladder and colon.
Vitamin D – think sunshine
Also fat soluble, vitamin D is responsible for maintaining the mineral balance in the body and moderates the immune system – and it’s synthesized by the sun. This vitamin is found in herring, salmon, sardines, mackerel, eggs, butter and whole milk.
Infants who are exclusively breastfed, the elderly, people with diseases affecting the liver, kidneys, thyroid gland and fat absorption, pregnant and lactating women are all at risk of deficiency as are vegetarians, alcoholics and epileptics on long-term therapy. People who get little sunshine may also need supplementation.
In turn, vitamin D helps treat psoriasis, certain autoimmune diseases and osteoporosis. A lack of the vitamin has been linked to an increased risk of colon, breast and prostate cancers.
Vitamin E – free-radical fighter
Often thought of as the ‘skin’ vitamin, E is a powerful antioxidant and fighter of toxic agents. It’s found in all the vegetable oils, nuts, wholegrains and wheat germ. Seeds and leafy vegetables like spinach are also rich sources.
While deficiencies can result in neurological symptoms and muscle weakness, vitamin E can also play a role in preventing heart disease and stroke, upper respiratory infection and it enhances the immunity of the elderly. Vitamin E taken with C also protects the body from oxidative stress caused by extreme sports. Of course, E is good for the skin too, applied topically or taken orally. Importantly, don’t take vitamin E with iron as the vitamin’s efficacy will be reduced.
Pregnant and lactating women, those who use oral contraceptives, and people with high-risk heart disease factors may need more vitamin E.
Vitamin K – for blood and bones
The fourth fat soluble vitamin, K is responsible for the synthesis of certain proteins, blood coagulation and bone metabolism. The best sources are in green leafy vegetables like spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and lettuce, also in some vegetable oils, tomatoes, potatoes, asparagus and butter.
Vitamin K deficiency is rare in healthy adults, but may be seen in people with gastrointestinal disorders, liver disease or after prolonged use of antibiotics. Impaired blood clotting is a sign of vitamin K deficiency.
“You can certainly overdose on vitamins, because the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K are stored in the body,” says Wellmann.
“It’s important to follow the dosage instructions for each vitamin because ‘more is definitely not always better’. Vitamins are not a quick fix like a tonic, but they help the body to function optimally.”
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