Welcome to The Micro Series! Over the next couple of weeks, we will be highlight all the major micronutrients, meaning the vitamins and minerals. It will be broken up into four distinct parts: the fat-soluble vitamins, water-soluble vitamins, the “macro-minerals,” and finally the other minerals.
This first part, as the name suggests, will focus on the fat-soluble vitamins. But first, what is a vitamin?
What is a Vitamin?
Vitamins were first discovered in the early 1900s, and this spurred the interest in modern nutrition and diet modification. Vitamins are organic compounds (meaning they contain carbon elements) and can be broken down by heat, air, or acids. During this time, chemists found certain molecules in our food were necessary for life, but not yet identified. Sailors on long voyages learned to eat citrus, which contained high amount of vitamin C, to prevent scurvy. Researchers found that certain B vitamins and vitamin D were needed to prevent ward off diseases like beri beri, pellagra, and rickets. By the 1930s, almost all the major vitamins had been discovered and recorded to display their benefits to humans.
There is a vast array of vitamins that have been discovered, all with active forms vital for a healthy life. For example, there are seventeen water-soluble vitamins that carry the “B” moniker. It is thought vitamin D can contain as many as twelve separate active components.
The FDA has set daily requirements for all vitamins, but many nutrition experts feel they are extremely low in most cases. Opponents to RDAs do agree the values are high enough to prevent acute diseases, but they fall vastly short in maintaining optimum levels of health. This point is heightened when you consider the vitamin and mineral needs in individuals can vary greatly. This can also be affected by the foods we eat. Consuming refined sugar and flour, hydrogenated fats, alcohol, tobacco products, and other drugs depletes nutrient stores in the body, which means you would need to consume more than the RDA to replenish what is being used up.
The Fat-Soluble Vitamins
Below are the major fat-soluble vitamins and the roles they play in our overall health. Fat-soluble vitamins are found mostly in foods with higher fat content, and are much better absorbed if consumed with fat. Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the liver and fatty tissues, and are eliminated much more slowly. Because of this, the body is able to hold onto them more easily than their water-soluble counterparts. This also means that there is a risk for toxicity when mega-dosing.
Vitamin A: also known as Retinol, vitamin A is important for maintaining healthy vision, bone growth and development, as well as maintaining epithelial tissue. Its primary roles include cell proliferation and cell division, along with vision. Its benefits come from carotenoids found in food, and are converted into retinol in the liver. Additionally, it is a powerful antioxidant and possesses anti-tumor qualities. It helps maintain the shape of mucus membranes, allowing things that are only supposed to pass. Vitamin A is also crucial for the development of quality enamel on teeth. Vitamin A is important for steroid synthesis (along with cholesterol) and cell differentiation, which is needed for healthy growth and development of all tissue types. Carotene, or Provitamin A, is a major antioxidant, and is found in all warm-colored vegetables (red, orange, and yellow). Good sources of vitamin A are animal liver, carrots, sweet potatoes, butter, kale, spinach, and broccoli. Deficiencies can lead to vision problems, including blindness, as well as respiratory infections and decreased overall immune system function. Some antibiotics, cholesterol-lowering drugs, and laxatives interfere with the absorption of vitamin A.
Vitamin D: is found in three main forms, but Vitamin D3 is the usable form found in the body. D3 is absorbed by the small intestine and stored in bones, the brain, the liver, and even in skin. Vitamin D3 is also formed in the skin upon ultraviolet ray exposure. Its main function is to increase calcium absorption from the gut by stimulating the production of calcium-binding protein. Vitamin D may be helpful in fighting against cancer and multiple sclerosis. It has even been used in the treatment of psoriasis in some cases. Vitamin D is important in helping maintain a healthy gut microbiome. Calcium is a tightly regulated substance in the body, so once calcium levels begin to rise above threshold in the body, the bones begin to absorb the excess calcium, strengthening bones. Deficiency in vitamin D can lead to rickets. This nutrient can be found in butterfat, organ meats, egg yolks, milk, mushrooms, beef, lamb, pork and seafood. However, the best way to get vitamin D is directly from sunlight, so spend some time outside! Just make sure to use sunscreen if you are going to be outside for extended periods of time or have fair skin!
Vitamin E: This vitamin’s main function is the removal of harmful free radicals. Vitamin E is important in the protection cell membranes and plasma lipoproteins specifically. Vitamin E is not one particular substance, but rather a family of eight different compounds, depending on the positions of certain atoms within its structure. Vitamin E is needed for proper circulation to muscle and nerve tissues, as well as is involved in healing processes in the body. Additionally, vitamin E is known to have both powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-platelet aggregating (blood clotting) properties. This makes it useful for those who form blood clots too often. Research suggests vitamin E works with selenium and zinc to help prevent both cardiovascular disease and even some forms cancer. Vitamin E can be found in nuts, seeds, legumes, butter, seaweed, and green leafy vegetables.
Vitamin K: This is the last of the four major fat-soluble vitamins, vitamin K is a major cofactor needed for blood clot formation and within bone matrix proteins. Vitamin K’s primary biochemical role is to take part in a specific reaction known as gamma glutamyl carboxylation. The result of this carboxylation leads to the aforementioned bone remodeling and blood clotting effects. This makes vitamin K an obvious choice as a therapeutic for those with osteoporosis. Additionally, this vitamin is used in the formation of proteins responsible for mitigating the formation of stones in the kidneys. Vitamin K can be found in egg yolks, liver, green leafy vegetables, cabbage, and other vegetables in the cabbage family.
Fat-soluble vitamins are a crucial part of your overall health. Lacking in any one of these vitamins can have severe health consequences down the road. Perhaps even more disturbing, there is a large (and growing amount of evidence) showing vitamin D deficiency is incredibly common, affecting at least 50% of adults and up to 80% of all infants. This is a huge problem, considering vitamin D deficiency plays a major role in the development of many chronic diseases. Many of these foods can be easily incorporated into your meal planning, and it could go a long way to improving your health.
DisclaimerThough based in research, personal, and clinical experience, the opinions in this article should not be taken as medical advice. The information is designed for educational purposes only and is not designed to diagnose, treat, or cure disease. Botanical medicine and nutraceuticals should be treated with the same caution and care as pharmaceuticals, as both have the potential for strong, potentially adverse effects and allergic reactions. Please consult a trained, licensed health care practitioner before proceeding. Neither the publisher nor the author takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person reading or following the information in this book. All readers, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition or supplement program.