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essential vitamins your body needs

Essential Vitamins Your Body Needs (And How to Get Them)

March 16, 2017

We all we need vitamins but what vitamin does what, and where can we get them? Vitamins are essential nutrients that are found in the food we eat, both plant and animal sources. They aren't needed to provide energy or calories but rather to regulate and assist important functions in the body such as growth, repair and immune function. The most important vitamins can be broken down into two main groups: Fat Soluble and Water Soluble. Today we're taking a look at the essential vitamins your body needs, plus how you can go about getting them!

Essential Vitamins Your Body Needs: Fat Soluble vitamins

Vitamins A, D, E and K are known as fat-soluble vitamins. They can dissolve into fat and so are often sourced from fat in animals or plants. They can also be stored in human fat – this allows the body to keep a supply of the vitamin for future use, it also means that that excessive levels of the vitamin can occur in the body if too much is consumed.

Vitamin A / beta-carotene

Vitamin A can be converted from beta carotene in plant sources although it is best absorbed from animal sources. It is essential for vision, tissue healing, reproduction and immune system function. It may have a role in lowering the risk of some cancers. Excessive stored vitamin A can lead to birth defects and liver abnormalities and bone thinning – it should not be taken as a supplement during pregnancy. 

Where to get it:

  • carrots
  • sweet potatoes
  • cantaloupe
  • spinach
  • egg yolk
  • liver
  • fortified milk

Vitamin D  

Vitamin D is known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’ as it is made in the skin from exposure to sunlight. Vitamin D plays an essential role in healthy bone formation as it balances the correct absorption of calcium in the blood and bones. It is also thought to play a role in the prevention of cardiovascular disease and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. Much research is ongoing.

A lack of vitamin D can lead to rickets or osteoporosis.Use of sunscreens and northern hemisphere climates may lead to a lack of sunshine vitamin D. Because of this certain at risk groups are advised to use supplements - we've got all you need to know about the best vitamin D supplements

Where to get it:

  • salmon
  • cod liver oil
  • fortified milk
  • fortified cereals
  • sunshine

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is an antioxidant and so is involved in repair and health of cells such as red blood cells, immune cells and possibly DNA. Due to its anti-oxidant properties there is much investigation into its potential health benefits in. It may have a role in slowing macular degeneration (a form of vision loss).

Vitamin E is felt to have the best health benefits when taken in dietary form and there has been some evidence to recommend against supplementation at high doses. Along with other vitamin/minerals vitamin E supplements may be prescribed in the treatment of macular degeneration. 

Where to get it:

  • nuts (especially almonds)
  • avocados
  • wholegrains
  • vegetable oils

Vitamin K

Vitamin K has a vital role in healthy blood clotting. It is mostly given as a supplement in injection form to new-born infants and in people with certain medical conditions (e.g. liver / bowel disease) where there may be a deficiency. It is made naturally by bacteria in the gut and can be found in certain foods too.

Where to get it:

  • green leafy vegetables
  • brassicas
  • liver
  • eggs

Essential Vitamins Your Body Needs: Water Soluble Vitamins

Vitamins B complex and C are water soluble. This means they dissolve in water and are not stored easily in the body. If excessive amounts are consumed they are removed from the body in the urine. Vitamin B complex contains 8 B vitamins in the group, some of which folic acid, niacin, vitamin B 12 more recognisable role.

Vitamin B9 Folic Acid (Folate)

This vitamin tends to be most closely associated with pregnancy. It is vital in the first trimester of pregnancy for healthy formation of the fetal spine – preventing spina bifida. Vitamin B9 is also important for healthy red blood cells and prevention of anaemia for the pregnant mother. It is advised that all women considering a pregnancy should commence of folic acid supplementation of 600mcg day. 

Where to get it:

  • leafy vegetables
  • citrus fruits
  • beans
  • nuts
  • seeds
  • fortified cereals
  • fortified breads
  • fortified milk

Vitamin B3 (Niacin)

Vitamin B3 plays an important role in blood circulation and cholesterol levels. It can be used in high doses as a prescribed medication in conjunction with other cholesterol lowering medication by doctors, particularly to improve triglyceride levels. 

Where to get it:

  • peanuts
  • lean meats
  • poultry
  • offal

Vitamin B12

This vitamin has key role in healthy red cell and nerve development. Deficiency of vitamin B12 occurs more commonly in the elderly and in vegetarians and those who have undergone small bowel surgery. It can cause anaemia, nerve damage and memory loss. Supplementation is provided, in injection form, to treat this condition by doctors when levels are confirmed as low. 

Where to get it:

  • fish
  • poultry
  • shellfish
  • eggs
  • dairy products
  • fortified cereals

Vitamin C

Like vitamin E, vitamin C is also an anti-oxidant and so has an important repair function for the body’s cells and assists in the absorption of iron. It is felt to have a role in the immune system and wound healing.  Like vitamin E, research to date has found its greatest benefit is found when taken in dietary forms.

There is evidence that high doses will not prevent winter colds but may shorten the duration or severity of symptoms once started. Along with other vitamin/minerals, vitamin C supplements may be prescribed in the treatment of macular degeneration.

Where to get it:

  • citrus fruits
  • peppers
  • berries
  • potatoes (especially skins)
  • spinach
  • broccoli

Should vitamins be taken in supplements or in food? Which is better?

In order to get a balance of all these essential vitamins, a varied diet is key. That means getting your fill of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains nuts and seeds. Animal sources are important especially for the fat soluble vitamins (A,D,E,K) so this is something vegetarians/vegans should be aware of. The likes of milk and cereals are often fortified which can help reach that required daily intake. 

For people in some age groups, or those with underlying health conditions or with dietary constraints, supplementation may be beneficial. Vitamins in food however are not there alone. For example, in a carrot more than one vitamin may be present and in various forms: vitamin A, beta carotene, vitamin K, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin B1,2,3,6 and 9. It will also contain dietary fibre and other nutrients such as trace minerals and phytochemicals. It's this interactions of elements plus additional nutrition that are likely to give the overall health benefits.

Please note, this blog is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice.

It’s always best to consult your doctor before taking any new supplements, treatments or remedies if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or on medication.

Last updated: 28 July March 2021

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