Commercials on television push the same message -- "take your vitamins" -- but doctors are less urgent. A balanced diet of fresh, nutritious foods is still the ideal way to get the vitamins and minerals that your body needs. A catchphrase form medical school holds that if you take extra vitamins and minerals, what you get is expensive urine. That's because the kidneys filter excess water-soluble micronutrients from the bloodstream, treating them as waste, and elsewhere your cells take the vitamins and minerals that they need, no more and no less.
Still, millions of Americans automatically pop supplements every day, and some go even further. Massive doses, popularly called mega-vitamins, are touted as cures for aging, cancer, and other hazards. The fad for mega-vitamins has not been supported by scientific research, however. With mainstream medicine turning a deaf ear to claims about vitamins and the public being bombarded by dubious claims, we need to dig deeper for clarity.
Before we do that, the basic approach to vitamins and minerals can be restated, since few changes have occurred since the health classes taught in grade school.
Vitamins and Minerals: The Basics
The bullet-points for vitamins and minerals are a bit lengthy since so many basic processes are involved. Just keep in the mind the reassurance that for most people, there is little need to manage risks in this department.
- A normal balanced diet supplies the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamins and minerals.
- The water-soluble vitamins (vitamin C and the entire vitamin B group) need to be replenished far more frequently, often daily, than fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K), which leave the body very slowly. Minerals, with the exception of water-soluble ones like salt and potassium, leave at an even slower rate. For growing children, the chief source of vitamin D is sunshine. Children who stay indoors most of the time can readily get vitamin D from milk with vitamin D added. The iodine added to salt is generally not useful, since modern diets are not low in iodine.
- Most Americans consume vast quantities of sugar and refined flour. This can push aside vitamin-rich natural foods, although deficiencies are regularly encountered.
- Optimal absorption can be disrupted by lifestyle choices, medications, and a number of health conditions. A few examples: Smoking interferes with the absorption of vitamin C, and alcohol abuse interferes with the absorption and metabolism of folate. Antacids, as well as medications for Type 2 diabetes, can interfere with B-12 absorption. Dehydration is the most common cause of mineral imbalances, known medically as electrolyte imbalance. Taking a "water pill" for high blood pressure leads to the leaching of sodium, potassium, and the water-soluble vitamins. This needs to be addressed on a daily basis, or the result may be electrolyte imbalance.
- For normally healthy adults, the chief caution is directed at seniors, whose bodies become less efficient with age at processing vitamins and minerals. For this group, it is the absorption of minerals, in fact, that is generally a problem rather than vitamins. Taking a mineral supplement is often a good preventive measure but not to excess. More isn't better, nor is more frequent.
- Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are slow to appear, since the body is good at conserving micronutrients. Menstruating women should eat foods high in iron or consider taking a supplement, however, in order to prevent anemia.
- Natural sources of vitamins tend to be preferable over synthetic sources. The body uses them more easily. For women taking iron or calcium supplements (the latter is for preventing or slowing down osteoporosis), any source needs to be absorbable.
- Scientific evidence is scant for the benefits of high levels of vitamins and minerals. (At the same time, scientific worry for people who ingest mega-vitamins tends to be greatly exaggerated.) The most likely benefit comes from taking extra vitamin E, since the natural sources for it (e.g., nuts, whole grains, the fats found in raw vegetables) are decreasing in modern diets. Processed vegetable oils are low in vitamin E, which also oxidizes once the oil is exposed to air and begins to turn even mildly rancid. The RDA for vitamin E is unclear, but studies have shown that taking ten times the usual RDA can be of benefit and causes no harm.
Our aim in this book is to find a level of higher health through consciousness. With that in mind, relying on drugs for miracle cures isn't helpful, and the sad truth is that many people look upon vitamins and minerals as drugs. If you eat a healthy, balanced diet, put your attention on things other than pill-popping. In other words, don't waste time obsessing over vitamins. No study has ever shown that people who take supplements at high doses enjoy better health or longer life. If you are following the general indicators listed above, you are okay. That said, it can be worthwhile to know more about your body and its need for micronutrients.
Let's start with the most primal, which is neither a vitamin nor a mineral but linked to both. We humans are self-contained, walking oceans, a fact that has been true for land creatures for hundreds of millions of years. It's remarkable to think that the water in your cells, which constitutes around two-thirds of your total weight, hasn't drastically changed from seawater. The proportion of salt is essentially the same, and even the trace elements of minerals like manganese, zinc, copper, and iron are a direct inheritance from ocean water. The body replenishes itself by creating new cells, a process that requires the chemicals that began as components of sea water. As long as chemical balance is maintained, which is a top priority for every cell and its strongest instinct, the waling ocean is naturally healthy.
Reasons for Confusion
One reason for the gray area surrounding vitamins and minerals is the difference between the positive effects and the negative effects of micronutrients. Vitamins came to light not through the good they did, but the bad that occurs when there is a deficiency. The most famous example is scurvy, a disorder caused by lack of vitamin C. Vitamin C needs to be replenished daily since it belongs to the class known as water-soluble vitamins, which quickly wash out of the blood through urine. (Vitamin C reminds us of this fact by being a strong diuretic when taken in tablet form as ascorbic acid. For some people, even a natural source like orange or grapefruit juice leads to immediate urination.) British sailors acquired the nickname of limeys after the cause of scurvy became known after 1614, and the British navy stocked ships with citrus fruits. Oranges, lemons, and grapefruit are just as effective for preventing scurvy; it is interesting that the link with vitamin C was discovered and lost, only to be rediscovered, from ancient times, long before ascorbic acid was isolated.
Into the 20th century, as other vitamin-deficiency diseases such as rickets and pellagra were identified, two things remained consistent. The first was that it took a poor, often impoverished diet to create such disorders. Second, the actual benefits of vitamins and minerals were difficult and often impossible to name. Iron is necessary for the production of hemoglobin, the complex chemical that makes red blood cells red; this link was relatively easy to connect. But most links are so obscure that even when the chemical basis has been traced all the way down to the cellular level, the actual benefit is far from clear.
For example, to a biochemist vitamin C has multiple uses at the cellular level, which can be isolated and named. For example, ascorbic acid is needed to make collagen, the protein that connects skin tissue, among other things. It enters into hydroxylation and amidation reactions; the components of collagen production that are critical for needing it are prolyl hydroxylase and lysyl hydroxylase. The last time most physicians heard such terms was in pre-med biochemistry, and they are generally unknown to the public. This leaves plenty of room for outsized, unsupported claims for the benefits of vitamin C. It also makes it difficult, when there is no deficiency, to see how adding more than the body's "natural" requirement might be beneficial.
But we have to put "natural" in quotes as long as the picture is vague. Around the world, human beings have adapted to so many different diets that the consumption of vitamins is by no means the same. An extra degree of confusion enters with processed foods, an invention of the 20th century, in which micronutrients are stripped from their natural sources and then put back again, if at all, through artificial and synthetic means. Ironically, such foods are touted as "enriched" with vitamins, which is like saying that taking someone's wallet and then handing it back adds to his riches.
In the next post we will go into a more detailed scientific look at vitamins and minerals
(To be continued)
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Flickr photo by Jerry Bunkers