Advantages of Taking Vitamin Supplements

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Vitamins are organic compounds found in small quantities in most foods. All vitamins are either fat-soluble or water-soluble. The fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) are stored in the liver and fatty tissues until they are needed. The water-soluble vitamins (C and the B complex group) are not stored for any appreciable length of time and must be replenished daily.

Vitamins function as coenzymes that promote the many chemical reactions in the body around the clock. Because vitamin deficiencies result in a variety of diseases and adequate daily intake is necessary, the dietary reference intake (DRI) for most vitamins has been established. Although these amounts are needed to prevent vitamin-deficiency diseases, they do not represent optimal values.

Today, the interest in vitamins by the scientific community goes beyond that. For instance, substantial research efforts currently are attempting to clarify the role of selected antioxidant vitamins (C, E, and the carotenoids) in preventing cardiovascular disease and cancer. The early evidence is promising, and taking these vitamins in amounts larger than recommended seems to be safe.

The antioxidant vitamins protect the body from the harmful effects of free radicals (oxidants). Free radicals are byproducts of oxidation. Because the cells continuously use oxygen, free radicals are being produced constantly. Simultaneously, free radicals are generated by cigarette smoke, radiation from the sun and other sources, alcohol, heat, and environmental pollutants.

If free radicals are not neutralized immediately, they damage the cells and their DNA (the master blueprint for cellular function). Researchers estimate that each DNA of the approximately 60 trillion cells in the body takes a hit from free radicals every 10 seconds. Over the course of a lifetime, some of the cellular damage inflicted by free radicals goes unrepaired. The cumulative damage can result in the development of cancer, heart disease, cataracts, and rheumatoid arthritis. Free radicals also have been implicated as an agent that promotes aging.

The antioxidant vitamins protect the cells from the damaging effects of free radicals. Many authorities, but not all, recommend taking 500 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C and 400 international units (1U) of vitamin E daily to neutralize the free radicals. All authorities agree, however, that we should obtain antioxidants by increasing our consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Eating these antioxidant-rich foods provides another advantage: They contain phytochemicals, which are unique to plant foods. There are literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of phytochemicals. The research that has identified these elements along with their potential health benefits is in the earliest stages of development. Thus far, the phytochemicals likely are involved in preventing cancer, heart disease, and other chronic diseases. Continuing research will provide more answers in the next few years.

Unusually large doses (megadoses) of any vitamin are potentially hazardous. People who supplement heavily may incur vitamin toxicity, particularly from overindulgence in the fat-soluble group. When vitamins are taken in very large amounts, they cease to function as vitamins and begin to act like drugs. Also, large doses interfere with or disrupt the action of other nutrients. Are synthetic vitamin supplements inferior to natural vitamin supplements? Promoters of vitamin products that come from natural sources adamantly proclaim that this is so, but in reality the synthetic and natural supplements are chemically equivalent and the body cannot tell them apart. Vitamin E is an exception. Natural vitamin E in supplement form is absorbed more easily than its synthetic counterpart. If a person takes 400 IU of vitamin E, it really doesnt matter whether the vitamin is natural or synthetic because the body will absorb and use more than enough.

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