Ever wonder exactly how and why we need vitamins in our diet? Here’s a little primer on how vitamins function in our bodies.
Put plainly, a vitamin is an organic compound essential for life. It is essential because it cannot be created in the body, and must be obtained through food for the body to stay alive. Vitamins are called “micronutrients” because the body only requires a small quantity of them. Macronutrients, on the other hand—such as protein, fat, carbohydrates and water—are necessary in larger quantities because the body uses them to create bodily structures and provide energy. Vitamins also work intricately with enzymes, creating action in the body like assisting in the breakdown of food and allowing assimilation.
There a few major classes of vitamins. First, vitamins are either water soluble or fat soluble. Water-soluble vitamins must be consumed daily because the body has no real way of storing them (these include the B vitamins and vitamin C). Fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin A, D, K and E, on the other hand, can be stored longer in fatty tissues and the liver.
Another distinguishing category of vitamins is whether they are synthetic or natural. Synthetic vitamins are made in laboratories, and though they appear to be identical to the vitamins found in food, they lack the complexity of natural vitamins. That’s because when vitamins occur in nature they’re never isolated—they’re always interlaced in very complex multidimensional structures of macronutrients. And studies show that when nutrients are bonded to proteins in this way, they’re better assimilated and more readily used by the body.
Most importantly, vitamins work together in a synergistic way to create the delicate balance of energy that the body needs to maintain life and to thrive. If there is an imbalance of even one nutrient—whether it’s a deficiency or an excess—it can produce disease in the body and create a host of confusing symptoms. “Scientific research has proved that an excess of isolated vitamins or minerals can produce the same symptom as the deficiency… For example high doses of B-vitamins have been shown to cause the depletion of the other B-vitamins” (From Prescription for Nutritional Healing, by Phyllis Balch, CNC, and James F. Balch, MD).
Getting to know vitamin basics is an important step in taking care of our own health. Using a vitamin at the proper time can increase healing time and prevent illness. Dr. Balch gives us one important example: “The absorption of vitamin C is greatly reduced by antibiotic drugs, so a person taking antibiotics requires a higher than normal intake of this vitamin.” Knowing about and having a better understanding of the intricate dance of vitamins within the body is a profound way to observe the intelligence of the body, and to increase one’s quality of life.
Next we’ll be exploring the different roles that vitamins play in the body. Our first exploration will be meeting the water-soluble vitamins and seeing the fascinating role they play in our health.
Elizabeth Willis is a Certified Clinical Nutritionist and Herbalist. She has a private practice in Boulder, Colo., and also works at Pharmaca’s downtown Boulder location. Elizabeth specializes in a holistic approach by connecting her clients with the more dynamic roles of food and nutrition. She believes that by eliminating food intolerances, building optimal nutrition and working directly with the emotional body, it is possible to greatly revive one’s health by reconnecting body with spirit.