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Vitamins and Minerals, Megadoses and Supplements

Vitamins and minerals are often mentioned in the same sentence, though there are substantial differences between the two. Vitamins are complex organic compounds which help steer the body’s chemical mechanisms. In brief, vitamins support our energy and protein metabolisms and help maintain healthy nerves, bones and blood. Minerals are naturally occurring inorganic substances in contrast to vitamins which are all organic substances. Minerals activate and govern the production of hormones and enzymes, control their activities and provide building blocks for our teeth and bones. Our bodies can only make vitamins D and K. All other vitamins and minerals must be obtained from our diet. Vitamins and minerals act directly on the body but they also empower each other. For example, vitamin D helps the body to absorb phosphorus and calcium, while vitamin C does the same for iron.

What Some Vitamins Do

There are thirteen recognized vitamins at the moment, classified by their chemical and biological activity. This is a brief overview of some of their actions:

  • Vitamin A regulates appetite and taste and contributes to reproduction and growth, vision, functioning of the nervous system and development and maintenance of body tissues, including bone and skin.
  • The B vitamins help build red blood cells, maintain the protective covering of the nervous system, guide body’s metabolism, prevent skin conditions and nerve problems and boost the body’s use of proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
  • Vitamin C is one of the best known nutritional antioxidants. It plays a major role in iron absorption. Vitamin C aids in healing the wounds; reduces blood cholesterol levels; promotes the formation of cells, tissues, bones and teeth; and supports our immune system.
  • Vitamin D is needed in the body to enable the absorption of calcium and phosphorus and it is thus essential for ensuring bone health and normal growth. Vitamin D also seems to lower the risk of other health conditions including depression, heart disease, weight gain and certain types of cancer.
  • Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant and helps protect the outer membranes of the body’s cells from damage. By protecting white blood cells, vitamin E also strengthens our immune system.
  • Vitamin K promotes blood clotting in wounds, thus preventing excessive bleeding.

Water and Fat Soluble Vitamins

Vitamins can be divided into two categories, depending on the substance, water or fat, which transports them in the body.

Water-soluble vitamins are, as their name suggests, dissolved, stored and carried by the water that permeates every part of our body. Because water is constantly being lost through urination and sweating, most of these vitamins must be replaced daily. The water-soluble vitamins include vitamin C and many of the B-complex vitamins, including thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7), folic acid (B9) and cyanocobalamin (B12).

Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the liver and adipose (fat) tissue and transported by the fats in the bloodstream. A temporary interruption in the supply of these vitamins is less harmful than a lack of water-soluble vitamins. But on the other hand, excessive intake of these vitamins can easily build up toxic levels in your system. Fat soluble vitamins are vitamin A (retinol), D (calciferol), E (d-alpha-tocopherol) and vitamin K (menaquinone).

What Some Minerals Do

About twenty minerals play vital roles in our body. Even those that are only needed in trace amounts, called “microminerals”, are tremendously important for our good health. In alphabetical order, they include chromium, copper, fluorine, iodine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, silicon, tin, vanadium and zinc. The “macrominerals,” needed in larger amounts, include calcium, chlorine, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and sulfur.

  • Calcium is needed for healthy bones and teeth, functioning of muscles and nerves, immune system, blood clotting and blood pressure regulation.
  • Chromium helps metabolize sugars and fats and thus prevent diabetes and coronary heart disease.
  • Copper is a component of many enzymes needed for metabolism, specifically for iron metabolism.
  • Iodine keeps the thyroid gland working, thus helping to regulate development, growth and metabolism.
  • Iron transports oxygen to cells throughout the body. It is also needed for maintaining strong immune system.
  • Magnesium plays a major role in energy metabolism, cell repair, helps build strong bones and teeth and it is also needed for muscle and nerve function and healthy immune system.
  • Manganese helps in the activity of enzymes that create proteins for healthy bones and skin, aid in the metabolism of amino acids, carbohydrates and fats, regulate blood glucose levels, produce important hormones and protect the body from free radicals.
  • Molybdenum aids in the metabolism of protein and removal of toxic substances and drugs.
  • Phosphorus contributes to building bones and teeth. It can be found in every cell.
  • Potassium is needed for maintaining the fluid balance inside cells. It also assists in the transmission of messages by the nerves, helps the muscles to contract and keeps the heart and kidneys working properly.
  • Selenium is essential to fertility and reproduction, cardiovascular health, thyroid metabolism, immune system function and protects the body from infectious diseases and cancer.
  • Silicon is required for healthy bones, cartilage, tendons, joints, blood vessels, skin, nails and hair.
  • Sodium is, just like potassium, needed for maintaining correct fluid balance and ensuring proper nerve transmission and muscles contraction.
  • Sulfur is necessary to build proteins (especially those that ensure strength and elasticity of tissues), metabolize carbohydrates, and produce glutathione, hormones and insulin.
  • Vanadium is needed for the growth of strong bones and teeth, promotes fertility and the production of certain hormones.
  • Zinc helps metabolize proteins and keeps enzymes working. It is also necessary for immune system health and for ensuring normal growth and sexual maturation.

Megadoses of Vitamins and Minerals

Taking many times the recommended dietary allowance of any vitamin or mineral can give it the potency of a drug. Doctors rarely, if ever, recommend extremely high doses. Although a moderate increase in certain vitamins can sometimes be beneficial for certain people, large overdoses can definitely be dangerous. By the same token, the idea of swallowing vitamin and mineral pills to replace a decent diet, makes most doctors frown. If you do take vitamin and mineral pills, you should regard them as supplements and not substitutes for healthy diet and not exceed the recommended dietary allowances.

Vitamin C. In spite of possible risks associated with overdosing, there are still some people who continue to swear by the healthful effects of vitamin C megadoses. But, vitamin C overdose can cause negative side effects, including nausea, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and even kidney stones. The recommended dietary allowance for vitamin C is 75mg per day for women and 90mg per day for men. Smokers need an additional 35mg per day. Daily doses above 2,000mg (2 grams) are not recommended.

Vitamin B3 (niacin). Heart patients are sometimes advised to take high doses of vitamin B3 (niacin) to lower their cholesterol levels and thus help reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. Recent studies are showing, however, that these high doses can cause more harm than good. Vitamin B3 when taken in large amounts can cause uncomfortable side effects, such as profuse perspiration and a burning sensation in the skin, or dangerous ones, such as irregular heartbeats or liver damage. Therefore, a doctor must closely monitor any such treatment. The recommended dietary allowance for vitamin B3 is 14mg per day for women and 16mg per day for men, while daily doses above 35mg per day are not recommended.

Vitamin E. Some doctors advocate intake of relatively high doses of vitamin E to support the treatment of some conditions such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, age-related macular degeneration, atopic eczema, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, clogged arteries, heart disease and certain types of cancer. However, high doses of vitamin E can cause excessive bleeding, so adults should not consume more than 1,000mg of alpha-tocopherol per day (or 1,500 IU of “d-alpha-tocopherol”). The recommended dietary allowance for vitamin E is 15mg per day for all adults.

Overdosing with Vitamins and Minerals

Keep in mind that for the few vitamins and minerals that may be helpful for some people in extra doses, there are many more that cause undesirable side effects such as:

Vitamin A. Hypervitaminosis A is mostly caused by high supplement intake, such as cod liver oil, prescription medications and sometimes also by diet. It cannot be caused by high intake of beta-carotene. Hypervitaminosis A can end up with liver or bone damage, skin problems and hair loss.

Vitamin B6. Overdosing on vitamin B6 can cause nerve damage, especially in the arms, hands, feet and legs.

Vitamin D. Hypervitaminosis D is typically caused by megadoses of vitamin D supplements and not by sun exposure or diet. Vitamin D is of the more toxic vitamins, as it can cause calcium to build up in the blood, leading to a condition called hypercalcemia. This condition can damage the kidneys and cause soft tissues to harden, mainly in the lungs, blood vessels, stomach and joints.

Iron. Large doses of iron are toxic and they can even be fatal. Iron poisoning can damage internal organs, especially the brain and the liver. In addition, high doses of vitamin C can increase your absorption of iron.

Supplements versus Healthy Diet

Should we really be taking vitamin or mineral supplements? Many nutritionists and major health organizations insist that we can get all the necessary nutrients from our diet alone. Others argue that while this may be true in theory, many people have less than ideal diets, lacking in vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables. Therefore, for those people, taking dietary supplements of vitamins and minerals seems a better course of action than doing nothing at all. However, we should not allow pills to take the place of a high-quality diet. The ideal course is to consume plenty of the fruits and vegetables that supply not only vitamins and minerals, but all the other valuable nutrients our body needs, such as phytochemicals.