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The A to Z of vitamins

Caroline Zerrini
Vitamins are the latest buzzword in today's health care and well-being. Everyone is popping a vitamin or multi-supplement to keep their energy levels up. But do you really know what you're taking?

You need vitamins for normal body processes, mental alertness and resistance to infection. Vitamins aren't fattening. Unlike carbohydrates, proteins and fats, vitamins and minerals don't provide fuel (calories). They only make you healthier by helping your body use calories from food. In total, there are 14 vitamins, which fall into two categories, either fat or water-soluable. The 4 fat-soluble vitamins are vitamins A, D, E and K. They're stored in the body's fat. Because they're stored, excess fat-soluble vitamins can accumulate in the body to toxic levels. The body is especially sensitive to excess vitamins A and D.

The 10 water-soluble vitamins are vitamin C, choline, biotin and the seven B vitamins: thiamin (B-1), riboflavin (B-2), niacin (B-3), pantothenic acid (B-5), pyridoxine (B-6), folic acid (B-9) and cobalamin (B-12). They're stored to a lesser extent than fat-soluble vitamins.

In the right amount, all vitamins are needed for various body processes. While recommended guidelines exist on how much people need, one's requirements are always best assessed with one's doctor, in consideration of personal age and lifestyle factors. Here's the rundown on some of the most common vitamins grabbing women's attention these days.

Antioxidant vitamins prevent free radicals from damaging cells in the body and the skin. Free radicals are a by-product of normal body processes, but can also be created by exposure to various environmental factors, like smoking or UV radiation.

If left unchecked, free radicals can attack cells, speeding up the ageing process and the development of illnesses.

In recent years, there's been an uproar over the purported benefits of antioxidants especially vitamins C and E. These vitamins, as well as other antioxidant nutrients like beta-carotene, have been associated with protection from some chronic conditions, including heart disease and cancer.

The final verdict? As yet, there's no scientific proof that antioxidants definitely prevent these diseases. However, it has been proven that smoking negates all the benefits of antioxidants by preventing the body from effectively using them.

If you're already taking a high-potency multivitamin, you probably don't need an actual antioxidant supplement. If you aren't taking any supplements at all, an antioxidant formula is a good start. You could also up your intake with a host of bright fruits and vegetables. Whatever you choose, remember that puffing stands in your way of reaping the rewards.

Vitamin C
Vitamin C helps the body to absorb iron and heal wounds. It also helps fight infections and as such, may slightly lessen the intensity of a cold. It's needed for healthy gums, teeth, bones and muscles. It's also been touted as a powerful antioxidant. High concentrations of vitamin C are found in several vegetables and citrus fruits.

While studies have shown that it helps fight cancer, heart disease, and possibly arthritis, the latest benefit has been that long-term use can help prevent cataracts. Researchers from Boston's Tufts University found that for women younger than 60, a vitamin C intake greater than 362 mg/day reduced risk of cataracts by 57 per cent compared with those whose intake was less than 140 mg/day. Women who took vitamin C supplements for over 10 years had 60 per cent lower odds of cataracts than those who took no supplements.

The recommended daily intake of vitamin C is 60 mg, although research is ongoing to determine whether higher doses protect against disease. If you're not getting enough vitamin C from your diet, there's generally no harm in taking a supplement of up to 500 mg a day. However, check with your doctor if you have gout, kidney stones or iron-related diseases.

Vitamin E
Vitamin E protects red blood cells and aids reproduction. It's considered the most vital antioxidant because it attaches directly to low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (the ‘bad' cholesterol) in the blood and helps prevent free-radical damage. It might also prevent or slow the progression of arteriosclerosis for people with heart disease or diabetes.

Although these heart-healthy findings appear promising, it's important to remember two things: First, regarding heart disease prevention, benefits from vitamin E supplements are much less than from exercising, eating healthy and managing other risk factors. Second, there isn't enough evidence yet to recommend vitamin E supplements for everybody. Seeing your doctor will help determine whether a vitamin E supplement is right for you.

Beyond the heart, other studies suggest that vitamin E could slow the progression of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, prostate cancer in male smokers and enhance immunity in older adults. Vitamin E could also help the skin. Applying it to skin directly can reduce damage from sun exposure and minimise cancer-causing cells.

Daily supplements of 400 milligrams has been noted to reduce photo-damage, wrinkles and improve skin texture. Natural sources of vitamin E include vegetable oils like sunflower oil, grains, oats, nuts and dairy products. Tell your doctor if you take vitamin E and if you're taking blood-thinning medications. It may create complications.

Vitamin B
Vitamin B is actually a very broad category of several B vitamins. These vitamins help maintain healthy eyes, hair, skin, mouth, organs and nerves. They also help supply energy, relieve stress and may help relieve depression, anxiety and improve mental dexterity in older people.

As we get older, absorbing the B vitamins isn't as easy, so it becomes increasingly important for a B-complex supplement, combining all the important B vitamins. The vitamin B family includes niacin, thiamine, folate, B6, riboflavin and B12. For women, folate is especially pivotal.

Folate (Vitamin B-9)
Folate is important in red blood cell formation, protein metabolism, growth and cell division. It also works together with vitamin B-6 and vitamin B-12 to reduce blood levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that builds and maintains tissues. Elevated homocysteine levels can increase risk of heart attack, stroke or loss of circulation in hands and feet. Other studies are underway exploring the role of folic acid and cancer.

Folate is crucial for developing foetuses. Adequate intake can reduce neural tube birth defects by up to 50 per cent and decrease chances of miscarriage - if taken before and during pregnancy. There's also a possible link between children with Down's syndrome and low levels of folic acid in their mothers during pregnancy. Health experts recommend all women considering pregnancy to take a daily supplement, in addition to consuming foods rich in folate, like citrus juices and fruits, dark green, leafy vegetables and legumes.

The term ‘folate' describes the natural sources while ‘folic acid' often refers to the synthetic, supplemental form. Interestingly, synthetic ‘folic acid' is more easily utilised than forms of natural folate. The body can absorb almost 100 percent of synthetic folic acid.

See your doctor before taking the supplement if you have any form of anaemia. Furthermore, take heed that folic acid carries a small risk of masking a vitamin B-12 deficiency.

It's not certain that folate reduces risk of heart disease, colon and rectal cancers, the growth of pre-cancerous cells of the cervix and psychiatric and mental disorders.

Vitamin D
Vitamin D is crucial for bone health because it helps the body absorb calcium. Furthermore, research has uncovered vitamin D's involvement in other places in the body, like the pancreas, muscles, skin, immune cells and some cancer cells, all of which suggests that it may be useful in treating disorders like cancer.

Few foods contain significant amounts of vitamin D and the ones that do, like liver, butter, cream, and egg yolks, aren't generally eaten in health/cholesterol-conscious individuals. A good source is milk, since it's fortified with 100 IU of vitamin D per cup. Fortified breakfast cereals and fatty fish are also options.

If the body isn't getting enough vitamin D from dietary sources, it can also generate its own when sunlight converts a chemical in your skin into a usable form of the vitamin. However, some people don't get enough vitamin D due to lack of exposure to sunlight, less efficient conversion of the vitamin in their skin or reduced liver or kidney function.

If you don't drink milk, have dark skin, are at risk of osteoporosis, live in a cloudy environment or rarely go outside, consider supplementing to meet your daily requirement. Studies show that people who supplement their diets with a combination of vitamin D and calcium slow bone loss and reduce risk of fractures.

The body also needs 16 minerals that help regulate cell function and provide cell structure. Of these 16, calcium and iron are especially central to women, while selenium is gaining greater momentum.

Calcium maintains healthy bones and teeth and protects against osteoporosis. It's also important for muscle and nerve function.

Eat at least three servings a day of low-fat milk, yoghurt, cheese, and calcium-fortified orange juice. Otherwise take a supplement to make up for what you're missing.

Calcium supplements, if taken regularly, can help prevent osteoporosis by reducing bone loss. The question is how much calcium you need for this. Although 1,000 mg a day might do it, some experts believe certain people may need more. For instance, 1,500 mg a day is recommended for post-menopausal women not taking estrogen replacement therapy.

Calcium supplements might even have positive side benefits, like easing PMS and blood pressure and reducing chances of stroke and colon cancer.

Avoid calcium supplements made from bone meal, dolomite or oyster shell, often advertised as ‘natural'. These may contain toxic substances. If you take another supplement, don't take it at the same time as your calcium supplement. Calcium can interfere with the absorption of iron, zinc, phosphorus and magnesium.

Whether to take supplements with meals is based on the type of supplement you're taking. If it contains calcium carbonate, take it with meals. Calcium citrate, on the other hand, can be taken at any time. Also, take multiple, small doses for maximum effectiveness (never more than 500 mg in one dose); and take it with vitamin D for maximum absorption. Don't take supplements if you already have a high blood-calcium level.

Iron is an essential constituent of blood and muscle and is important for transporting oxygen. When there isn't enough iron in your diet, too few red blood cells are made to adequately carry oxygen and you frequently become fatigued.

This condition is called iron deficiency anemia and can affect women of childbearing age and people with conditions that cause internal bleeding, such as ulcers or intestinal diseases. But for post-menopausal women, iron deficiency is rare.

Natural food sources include meat, seafood, poultry, fortified cereals, dried beans or peas and leafy green vegetables. Since iron from plant sources is poorly absorbed as compared to meat, vegetarians need to eat about twice as much iron to meet their needs.

If you are taking supplemental iron during pregnancy or for iron-deficiency anemia, or are taking it while breastfeeding, use with caution. Some studies suggest that excess iron can increase risk of heart disease and certain cancers.

Selenium helps protect the body from cancers, including skin cancer caused by sun exposure. It also preserves tissue elasticity and slows down the aging and hardening of tissues associated with oxidation, and may even slow down the incidence of prostate cancer in men. Dietary sources include whole grains, seafood, garlic, eggs, milk, broccoli, cabbage and poultry.

Selenium is associated with fat metabolism. It also has antioxidant properties, helping you to look younger and decreasing risks of cancer. Animal studies have found that when selenium is taken orally or through the skin, it protects against both everyday and excessive UV damage. A study also showed selenium delayed the development of skin cancer in the animals. But while these findings appear positive in animals, more research is needed to determine whether it has the same effect on humans.

Multivitamin/Mineral Supplements: should you take them?
Major medical organizations agree that the best way to get the vitamins and minerals you need is through a nutritionally balanced diet. Even if you don't have a vitamin or mineral deficiency, a vitamin or mineral supplement may be appropriate for you if:

You're 65 or older. With age, health problems can make it difficult to absorb vitamins and minerals. There's also evidence that multivitamins may improve immunity and decrease risk of age-related infections.

You're post-menopausal. It can be difficult to obtain recommended amounts of calcium and vitamin D without supplementation, key to ward off osteoporosis.

You don't eat well. If you don't eat enough fruits and vegetables daily.

You're on a very low-calorie diet. If you eat fewer than 1,000 calories a day.

You smoke. Tobacco decreases absorption of many vitamins and minerals, including Folic Acid, all the other B vitamins and vitamin C.

You drink alcohol excessively. Alcoholics have impaired digestion and absorption of thiamin, folate and vitamins A, D and B-12. Altered metabolism also affects mineral absorption. Excessive drinking is defined as more than one drink a day if you're a non-pregnant woman.

You're pregnant or breast-feeding. During these times, you need more of certain nutrients, especially folic acid and iron.

You're considering pregnancy. Begin taking prenatal vitamins at least one month before you start trying. You especially want to have folic acid in your system ahead of time. Conversely, if you're already a supplement fiend, discuss your current regimen with your ob-gyn or a nutritionist before getting pregnant, to see if you need to curtail your daily intake. (For instance, excess vitamin A is associated with cardiac defects in the foetus.)

You eat a special diet. If your diet has limited variety. Vegetarians who eliminate all animal products from their diet, may need additional vitamin B-12 and zinc. In addition, if you don't eat dairy products and don't get 15 minutes of sun each day on your hands and face, you may need to supplement with calcium and vitamin D.

Time Your Supplements

  • Most vitamins and minerals should be taken with food to enhance their absorption. This is particularly true of oil-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A and E. In addition, protein in the diet helps mineral absorption. This doesn't mean you need a full meal with your vitamins. A few bites or a piece of fruit are just as good.
  • The water-soluble vitamins are generally well-absorbed without food, but taking them with food is always better.
  • If you take large amounts of any particular vitamin, divide the dose so you take it two to four times a day. This improves absorption and minimizes the amount excreted.
  • When adding supplements, other than a multivitamin, add only one at a time. Buy enough for only a month, and decide at the end of that time whether you feel better, worse, or no different. If you feel better, great. If you feel worse, maybe that specific supplement isn't for you. And if you don't feel any different, stop taking the supplement. If you think you felt better while taking the supplement, try it again.

Remember, whole foods are best
While both pills and foods can offer your entire daily requirements, whole foods have three main benefits you can't find in a pill. They contain several nutrients your body needs - not just one; they provide dietary fibre; and contain other substances that may be important for good health.

Only long-term, well-designed studies can tell which nutrients in food are beneficial - and whether their pill form provides the same benefit.

In fact, some nutrients actually might be harmful to your health when taken as a supplement. Unlike pills, food contains hundreds of additional compounds, including phytochemicals. Phytochemicals occur naturally in plants and may protect from various diseases and conditions.

Choosing and Using Supplements
If you decide to take a vitamin or mineral supplement, consider the following;
Avoid supplements that provide mega-doses. In general, choose a multivitamin-mineral supplement that provides about 100 percent daily value (DV) of all the vitamins and minerals instead of one that supplies, for example, 500 percent DV of one vitamin and only 20 percent DV of another. The exception to this is calcium. You may notice that calcium-containing supplements don't provide 100 percent DV. If they did, the tablets would be too large to swallow. Doses above 100 percent DV don't give extra protection in most cases, but they do increase risk of encountering toxic side effects.

Consider buying generic or store brands. They're less expensive and equally effective as name brands. Compare the list of ingredients with the percent DV to make sure brands are comparable.

Look for ‘USP' on the label. This ensures that the supplement meets standards of strength, purity, disintegration and dissolution established by the testing organization, US Pharmacopeia (USP).

Beware of gimmicks. Synthetic vitamins are the same as so-called natural vitamins. Added herbs, enzymes or amino acids add nothing but cost.

Look for expiration dates. Supplements can lose potency over time, especially in hot and humid climates. If there's no expiration date, don't buy it.

With so many supplements to choose from, consider your objectives. Think about what you want to achieve. Second, you need to assess whether specific supplements help you feel better. For example, if you're in your 20s, eat well, and are in good health, your objective might be extra assurance. In that case, you may not need more than a multivitamin and extra vitamin C. On the other hand, if you're in your 30s and face lots of stress, stress management might be an objective. In this case, consider a high-potency B-complex supplement.

If you're shopping for an antioxidant formula for the first time, think ACES, for vitamin A (or beta-carotene), vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium.

Play it safe. Before taking anything other than a standard multivitamin-mineral supplement of 100 percent DV or less, check with your doctor or a registered dietitian. This is especially important if you have a health problem or are taking medication. High doses of niacin, for example, can aggravate a stomach ulcer. In addition, supplements may interfere with medications.

Recognize that supplements aren't without their side effects. For instance, calcium may cause constipation and headaches; iron may cause chest and abdominal pain.

Be careful with nutritional supplement drinks. With prolonged use, these formulas are known to weaken and disintegrate the intestinal lining, leading to potentially dangerous diarrhea or frequent loose stools. These are tell-tale signs of intestinal trouble.

Planet Nutrition
Yasmin Alobaidi says: I am a 25-year-old married woman. I moved with my husband from Saudi Arabia last year to settle in the United Arab Emirates. The weather, the water and my whole lifestyle changed. I wasn't eating the right food. A while back, I started seeing more hair in my hairbrush, on my pillow, in the shower and almost everywhere in my house. Something had to be done.

My husband also realised. He told me about Planet Nutrition. They have a wide range of vitamins, minerals and herbal products for many specific types of conditions. Their staff are also very well trained. They suggested some natural multivitamins to strengthen my body in general along with Hair Force, a product they said would make my hair stronger.

After three months I started seeing some results.
My hair stopped falling gradually. My friends tell me it looks even shinier and thicker than before! My nails grew stronger. Even my skin started looking healthier. I feel that my general health has improved.

It turned out to be that my body was missing out on so many vital vitamins and minerals because of improper diet and change in lifestyle. But now, I feel as active and healthy as a woman should be!

Courtesy: Arabian Woman

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