We are often asked questions about vitamins, most recently in our Instagram poll asking you what health topics you would like us to write about.
Here is a why we need vitamins, where we can get them (food and supplements) and factors that impact absorption.
Food as medicine
Whilst understanding vitamins and their roles in the body can be complex, it is reassuring to know that in most cases, adequate nutrients (including vitamins) is best assured by consuming a good variety of whole foods. We very much subscribe to the ‘food as medicine’ philosophy as much as possible. Eating whole foods provides an extensive range of other essential nutrients, such as enzymes, anti-oxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds and phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are still being discovered, some showing great promise in disease prevention and sometimes even reversal.
Nutrients are essential for all biochemical processes
Every biochemical process in the body is reliant on nutrients, with vitamins being critical co-factors in these cascades. For example, the process involved in the production of important neurotransmitter (associated with mood), serotonin, requires the amino acid, tryptophan, as well as a number of B group vitamins and Vitamin D.
There are variants in nutrient content and chemical composition of foods, due to a number of environmental considerations. This includes the quality of the soil and the way the foods are produced (organic or using herbicides and pesticides). There are nutrient losses over time, therefore the freshness of food is also a significant factor. There will also be some nutrient loss during heat. For example much of vitamin C content may be lost during cooking processes, whilst some phytochemicals, such as lycopene, may be enhanced with heat application.
With regard to vitamins in supplement form, again there are questions of variances in quality, therapeutic dose of nutrients and use of excipients in the supplements (such as binders and bulking agents). There can also be increased demand for nutrients in certain health conditions, or in cases where there is excess alcohol consumption and during times of stress, for example. Because of these variances, supplementation is best determined by a qualified health practitioner.
Individual biochemistry is an often overlooked factor. For example nutrients need to be converted to their active form in the body and there are genetic variances between individuals in the ability to perform these processes. There are also variances in detoxification processes, as well as individual allergies/sensitivities to certain foods which inhibit absorption of nutrients. Coeliac disease (allergy to gluten resulting in destruction of villi within intestines and malabsorption of many nutrients) is an example of this.
It is important to remember that vitamins, along with other nutrients, such as macro-nutrients, minerals, trace elements, phytochemicals and enzymes work synergistically, meaning balance is key.