Within the intricate landscape of human health, a group of essential nutrients quietly wields an enormous impact on your well-being. These potent compounds are none other than vitamins and minerals, the often-overlooked cornerstones of your dietary requirements. While the spotlight often shines on macronutrients like carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, it's the micro-nutrients – vitamins and minerals – that provide the vital support necessary for your body to thrive.
The term "vitamin" was first coined by the chemist Casimir Funk in 1912. It derives its name from the Latin word 'VITA,' denoting "life," and 'AMINE,' representing the chemical group NH2. This nomenclature aptly reflects the life-sustaining properties of these substances, which are naturally present in the foods you consume.
What’s the Difference Between Vitamins & Minerals?
Vitamins are organic compounds made up of various elements forming large molecules.
Minerals are single elements that cannot be broken up into smaller components. The body uses minerals as building blocks in the production of other compounds.
Classification of Vitamins
Vitamins are classified as essential nutrients that your body needs in specific amounts to maintain good health. Vitamins can be broken down into two groups: Fat-Soluble Vitamins
and Water-Soluble Vitamins.
Fat-soluble vitamins are found in fatty foods such as vegetable oils, and the fatty components of meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products, grains, nuts, seeds and some fruits and vegetables. Fat-soluble vitamins that are not used immediately are stored in the fatty tissue of your body.
Vitamin A (retinol): Helps the immune system. Acts as an antioxidant and aids in an adequate cellular development. Helps preserve vision (the retina has a large concentration). Keeps skin looking healthy. Excessive amounts may cause hepatotoxicity.
Carotenoids (beta-carotene): Vitamin A precursor. Additional antioxidant activity aside from Vitamin A activity. Related compounds include Lycopene, Lutein, Zeaxanthin, all having different antioxidant activities of their own.
Vitamin E (tocopherol group): Protects against free radicals. Best fat-soluble antioxidant. May aid in keeping lipid levels within adequate levels.
Vitamin D (calciferols): Plays a crucial role in calcium absorption. Vitamin D promotes healthy bones.
Vitamin F (essential fatty acids): Help regulate immune responses (inflammations, body temperature, etc.) Protect tissues. Responsible for lipid metabolic processes. Key to nervous system and eye development. May help maintain triglyceride levels within the normal range.
Vitamin K: Needed for adequate blood coagulation and the healing process. Plays key roles in cardiovascular health and bone metabolism.
Water-Soluble Vitamins These are found in abundance in watery foods such as fruits and vegetables and in the watery components of grains, nuts, seeds and animal products. Water-soluble vitamins are used immediately by your body or they are excreted in your urine. Unlike fat-soluble vitamins, they cannot be stored in your body.
Vitamin B1 (thiamin): Promotes increases in energy and circulation. Keeps a healthy heart and nervous system. May help protect the liver.
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin): Plays a major role in the metabolism of macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates and proteins).
Vitamin B3 (niacin, niacinamide): Helps maintain healthy nervous and circulatory systems. Joint health benefits reported. Helps in maintenance of normal cholesterol levels. May produce “niacin flush” – a non-toxic, temporary skin flushing, resulting from the dilation of blood vessels near the skin.
Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid): Name is derived from the Greek Panthos- “everywhere.” It is found in virtually all cells. Helps regulate mood, adrenal glands, immunological and digestive systems.
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine): Involved in more physiological processes than any other vitamin. Activates an array of enzymes. Aids in the absorption of Vitamin B12. May help prevent nausea associated with early pregnancy.
Vitamin B12 (cobalamin group): Supports the production of energy in the mitochondria. Promotes a healthy nervous system. Good stomach function is necessary for its proper absorption. Gastric bypass patients are at special risk for deficiency.
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid): Best aqueous-phase antioxidant. Protects against an array of free-radicals and environmental contaminants. Helps keep a healthy immune system. Plays a mayor role in the absorption and metabolism of collagen.
Vitamin H (biotin): Helps in the formation of fatty acids. Facilitates the metabolism of amino acids and carbohydrates. Promotes the growth of healthy hair and nails. May help treat certain hair conditions.
Folic Acid: Most important micronutrient for the female reproductive system. Prevents neural tube birth defects. A key component of the DNA repair mechanism. Helps keep homocysteine levels low and prevent anemia.
Like vitamins, minerals are another class of micro-nutrients found in the human diet. As micronutrients, minerals are found in relatively small amounts in foods, much like vitamins. There is a solid link between vitamins and minerals; in fact, some vitamins cannot do their job in the absence of certain minerals.
Calcium: Helps maintain healthy bones. Regulates muscular contractions, including the heartbeat. Deficiency leads to osteoporosis, muscular atrophies, cardiac arrhythmias and weakness.
Chromium: Most important component of the GTF (a cofactor that “activates” insulin), chromium helps in the metabolism of glucose and the regulation of insulin in the blood.
Copper: Helps in the formation of red blood cells. Excessive amounts may accumulate in the body and cause toxicity.
Iron: Prevents and treats iron-related anemia. Iron is the most important component of hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen in the blood and delivers it throughout the body.
Iodine: 95 – 99% of all iodine concentration in the body is found in the thyroid gland. It promotes a normal endocrine function, which in turn helps regulate cellular metabolism.
Magnesium: Like calcium, it is an important building block of bones. It helps normal neurological function and aids in maintaining a normal heart rhythm. Magnesium may help prevent some symptoms associated with menstruation, including PMS.
Phosphorous: Another major building block of bone tissue, it strengthens teeth and bones. Phosphorous is responsible for the storage and delivery of cellular energy (ATP). Helps in carbohydrate, fat and protein metabolism.
Potassium: A key electrolyte, it regulates cardiac rhythm and muscular contractions (heartbeat). A sodium/ potassium balance is important for proper muscle tissue activity.
Selenium: Complements Vitamin E as an antioxidant, particularly in the male reproductive system. Promotes normal growth and development.
Sodium: Along with potassium, sodium is the most important electrolyte. It regulates water content in the body, thereby affecting an array of physiological aspects such as blood pressure. Sodium must be taken in balance with potassium, and is usually ingested in excess due to the modern diet.
Vanadium: Not recognized as an essential mineral until recently. Like chromium, it helps regulate the metabolism of glucose, and has insulin-mimeting activity.
Zinc: A key antioxidant, Zinc has free-radical scavenging activity. Zinc boosts the immune system and may help in wound healing. It is key for child growth and immune development.
In the grand narrative of nutrition, vitamins and minerals may not always steal the limelight, but their importance in the story of your well-being cannot be overstated. From supporting your immune system to fortifying your bones and boosting your energy levels, these micro-nutrients quietly work behind the scenes to keep you thriving.