A question I get asked often is whether vitamin supplements are nothing other than expensive Vitamin Pee? It’s a good question but, unfortunately does not have a simple yes or no answer. It was also a question I struggled with for many years. 

There was a documentary/movie a few years back that looked at the role, use and sources of vitamins and supplements. It had a profound effect on me and further validated that what we eat is key to our health. At the time I was also questioning the use of supplements and how we seem to use them to bypass a less than ideal diet and lifestyle (the ‘health in a bottle’ principle). 

Supplements can be misunderstood or misused and lull us into a false sense of security if we are not being responsible about their use. So what are some of the things we should know about vitamins? (The documentary/movie was Vitamania in case you are interested).  

Supplements as a necessity 

Persons with diagnosed medical deficiencies, illnesses or conditions that prohibit nutrient absorption and persons taking certain medication that cause nutrient malabsorption may require very specific and deliberate supplementation. Their lives may very well depend on it and working with a qualified medical professional/s is essential. However, this is a very specific group of people. 

Supplements as a booster 

The bulk of the supplement market is aimed at the average person with the intent of ‘boosting’ your health status or dealing with ‘possible minor’ deficiencies. These words are in quotes on purpose as there is often no medical diagnosis or confirmation for their need or deficiencies. It is also mostly self-regulated. As for boosting, our immune system is something that is running 24-7-365 days a year. It fluctuates according to many factors such as state of mind, diet, lifestyle choices, geographical and environmental influences. Boosting implies that you are elevating your immune system to a newer, better level when in fact your efforts are at best temporary and massively dependent on the combined efforts you make both on and off your plate. 

The fire metaphor 

The fire metaphor is usually reserved for metabolism, think of your immune system as the fireplace in your home running constantly and keeping the house warm. Maybe it’s burning a bit low and you add an extra piece of wood. The fire flares up for a moment and then settles down again.

However, if the windows are all open, there is a blizzard outside and all you are doing is throwing more wood on the fire – the result will be temporary and require more and more fuel. This isn’t an ideal situation. We all have different life challenges but for some the blizzard could be a stressful job or financial issues or (insert major stressor in life).

The windows are your ability to regulate the effect the storm has on you and could include quiet time, a weekend away or a walk on the beach to help you down regulate that stress response. The wood could be your diet and in this case supplement regime. Exercise is exercise – carrying wood is a physical job no metaphor required. 

Phew – that is a long metaphor, but I think you get the point. 

Vitamins from nature 

Most of us with access to a decent food supply should be able to meet our daily vitamin intake with diet and only require supplements as the name intends – as a supplement. 

Eating a healthy balanced diet of whole natural foods is key to getting sufficient vitamins and nutrients. Some diets require a little more effort to obtain the right amounts and may need supplementation. If you have doubts or are unsure there are several professionals you could get to help you, depending on how in-depth you want to go.  

Natural sources are and should always be your first point of call. Our bodies respond well to good quality food and barring any medical conditions know how to optimize its use. 

Here are some basic pointers to get you started. 

How many vitamins are there? 

There are 13.  

Yup, that was a bit of a shocker for me when I first found that out. Somehow, I always associated vitamins with the periodic table. Not sure where that association comes from, but I’m guessing it’s probably from seeing rows and rows of bottles on the vitamin shelves.  

How many classes of vitamins are there? 

There are 2. 

Vitamins are either water soluble or fat soluble.  

Fat soluble vitamins hang around in your fat cells and liver and are much slower to be eliminated from your body (up to 6 months for some). They can also build up and potentially cause toxicity when you are taking mega doses of supplements.  

Water soluble vitamins are flushed out of systems a lot quicker and need to be replenished often. You will sometimes hear the expression – just making expensive urine (vitamin P). Basically, you can take a whole lot of a water-soluble vitamin, your body will just use what it needs and the rest… expensive urine. 

How many vitamins are essential? 

There 11. 

Whenever a nutrient is referred to as essential it means we need to get it from an external source or ingest it. Non-essential nutrients are made by the body. Vitamin K and Vitamin B7 (aka Biotin) are made by the bacteria in the gut. The rest we need from diet. 

What are they and where do we find them? 

Now let’s move on to what they are and where we can get these life-giving vitamins in nature. (This is just a basic breakdown to help you see how a whole food natural diet can be such a – dare I say – boost to your immune system). The importance of vitamins to our overall health is vast and complex. The list below does not even begin to scratch the surface. 

Vitamin A 

Type: Fat Soluble 
Essential: Yes
Also known as:  Retinol from animal source, beta-carotene from plant source and converted in the body to vitamin A. identifiable as red or orange pigment in food
Source: liver, fish, butter, carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes
Functions: antioxidant, immune health, skin health, sight 

Vitamin C 

Type: Water Soluble
Essential: Yes
Also known as: Powerful antioxidant
Source: berries, peppers, citrus, cabbage, cauliflower
Functions: used to make collagen, wound healing, skin health, keeping white blood cells active, helps body absorb folic acid and iron effectively  

Vitamin D 

Type: Fat Soluble
Essential: Yes
Also known as: sunshine vitamin
Source: mushrooms, cod liver oil, pilchards, sardines, the sun
Functions: bone health (controls calcium absorption), dental health, cardiovascular health
CAUTION: not to be given to children unless under strict medical supervision 

Vitamin E 

Type: Fat Soluble
Essential: Yes
Also known as: Tocopherol
Source: sunflower seeds, almonds, sweet potatoes, spinach, avocado
Functions: protection against free radicals, skin health, fertility, anticoagulant, helps control body temperature (mitigates hot flushes)  

Vitamin K 

Type: Fat Soluble
Essential: No
Also known as:  Phylloquinone or phytomenadione from plant source, menaquinone from bacteria in gut, menadione from synthetic source
Source: fermented foods, leafy green vegetables, egg yolks, green tea, oats
Functions: assist with blood clotting, bone health  

 The vitamin B complex make up the remaining vitamin range: 

Vitamin B1 

Type: Water Soluble
Essential: Yes
Also known as: Thiamin
Source: Brewer’s yeast, brown rice, organ meats, egg yolk 
Functions: essential for energy production, carbohydrate metabolism and nerve cell function  

Vitamin B2  

Type: Water Soluble
Essential: Yes
Also known as: Riboflavin
Source: Brewer’s yeast, liver, almonds, mushrooms, millet
Functions: converts food to energy, immune health, skin health 

Vitamin B3  

Type: Water Soluble
Essential: Yes (disputed by some as the body is able to make its own)
Also known as: Niacin
Sources: Lean meats, poultry & fish, eggs, peanuts, sesame seeds
Functions: extracts energy from glucose, mental health, cardiovascular health  

Vitamin B5  

Type: Water Soluble
Essential: Yes
Also known as: Pantothenic Acid
Sources: Liver, peanuts, mushrooms, pecans
Functions: extracts energy from fats and carbohydrates, aids in manufacturing adrenal hormones and red blood cells  

Vitamin B6  

Type: Water Soluble
Essential: Yes
Also known as: Pyridoxine
Sources: Sunflower seeds, walnuts, lentils, salmon, pistachio nuts
Functions: nervous system, maintaining hormonal balance  

Vitamin B7  

Type: Water Soluble
Essential: No
Also known as: Biotin, Vitamin H, Co-enzyme R
Sources: peanuts, almonds, egg yolks, liver, unpolished rice, brewer’s yeast, sardines, legumes
Functions: skin health, metabolism  

Vitamin B9 

Type: Water Soluble
Essential: Yes
Also known as: Folic Acid
Sources: brewer’s yeast, black-eyed peas, liver, spinach, broccoli
Functions: cell division, critical to nervous system development of fetus,  

Vitamin B12  

Type: Fat Soluble
Essential: Yes
Also known as: Cobalamin
Sources: organ meats, oysters, sardines, eggs. Small amounts can be found in nori seaweed and tempeh
Functions: nervous system, prevents anemia, promotes growth 

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