Newcastle — When I decided to write a short piece on vitamins I wasn’t aware that the New York Times scooped me in their April 6 Health Section. So be it. Maybe you didn’t read the article or couldn’t afford the paper. So I’ll summarize; certainly it is a subject we are all familiar with via the robust business of pill-pushing. But are we being duped?
Vitamins have been recognized and studied for only about a century. Of the thirteen organic molecules we require to be healthy only two, vitamins D and K can be manufactured by the body. Apparently it wasn’t always that way, but we evolved away from producing others, for example vitamin C because it is so readily ingested from fruits and vegetables. (Tell that to the old sailors dying of scurvy.) Nature tends to make changes where change is needed. When our ancestors left Africa to wander north their skins gradually lightened to allow a more efficient production of vitamin D at lower sun angles. At least that’s the rumor, not universally accepted.
Vitamin D is important in maintaining skeletal calcium and thereby reducing the risk of osteoporosis. This makes a vitamin D supplement attractive to the elderly. Such supplementation in moderation can do no harm, but 10 to 15 minutes of sunshine three times weekly is thought to be enough to produce the body's requirement. Most of us can manage that, especially the elderly. There is some evidence that low levels of this vitamin augment depression. Since I suffer from the last, I use a HappyLite during my meditation in the dark days of winter. It doesn’t seem to do much good, unfortunately.
Vitamin B is actually many vitamins, some of which have familiar pseudonyms like thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and folic acid. You’ll find these on many processed product’s “Nutrition Facts” lists as required by our caring and benevolent government. Often these important ingredients have been added back after being stripped from the raw material during processing.
It’s interesting that in the run up to B12 there are a number of gaps; no B4, B8, B10, B11. Apparently in the euphoria of discovery these substances were erroneously classified, as were thirteen others. B12 is probably the best known B and the one most often supplemented, as its deficiency is associated with memory loss and other cognitive deficits typical in elderly people unable to absorb it from the gut as once they could. Fortunately there are no evil side effects since, water-soluble, excess amounts are readily secreted. B12 is obtained chiefly from meat, poultry, eggs, milk and other dairy foods, so its availability could be a concern to vegans.
Vitamin K is the clotting vitamin. It is easily garnered from what my father termed “rabbit food;” Kale, Collard Greens, Swiss Chard, Romaine, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts (yuk). There is no cause to worry about deficiency, provided you’re willing to make like a bunny.
Vitamin A (and its group) is key for good vision, a healthy immune system, and cell growth. Sounds like a good guy, right? It is the chief reason we are urged by health gurus to eat more fruits and vegetables than your average chimpanzee. The American Heart Association recommends that it not be supplemented, as high doses can do more harm than good. (Does that also mean that I don’t have to eat Brussels Sprouts?) Topical and oral prescription treatments address acne and other skin conditions, including wrinkles, making these products commercially viable, even if ineffective.
Reading up on vitamins leaves me with the opinion that there is little reason to worry about them. Some claim that we have abused our soils to the point where they cannot support the generation of vitamins, and that we should all seek supplements. If this fear should lead to more organic and better farming, well and good, but I feel the argument is overstated. A little sunshine, healthy eating (in moderation), and exercise should suffice for most of us.