What Vitamins Are

vt-11.jpgThese days, just about everybody takes vitamins, but have you ever wondered what they are, why they’re called a ‘vitamins,’ and how they were discovered?

A nutrient is a substance that provides nourishment for the body. A vitamin is a type of nutrient that the body requires small amounts of to function optimally.

For centuries, people have been aware that certain foods were necessary to good health, but it wasn’t until the 1700s that the study of nutrients moved from folklore into science. James Lind, a surgeon with the British Royal Navy, realized scurvy was taking more casualties from naval ranks than battles. Although it wasn’t a widespread practice, Lind had heard of some trading ships that carried citrus fruits for health.

He took twelve sailors with scurvy and divided them into six groups. He fed them all the same basic diet, but added a different supplement for each group:

  • Cider
  • Oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid)
  • Barley water
  • Seawater
  • Vinegar
  • Oranges and lemons

By the time Lind ran out of fruit, the citrus-fed sailors were cured. The only other group that showed improvement (not as dramatic) was the cider drinkers. Although the full ‘fruits’ of his labor wouldn’t yield until more than a century later, his study opened the door to the eventual isolation of vitamin C and the development of supplements.

In the late 1800s, a Japanese doctor observed that in Asia, where rice was the basic food for most people, those who only ate polished white rice were more susceptible to beriberi than those who ate whole-grain brown rice. His study showed that change of diet could reverse the disease, and inspired more studies that eventually identified the vital ingredient in rice hulls as thiamine, a B vitamin.

Vitamin A was first isolated in the early 20th century by the extraction of a lipid from fish oil used to treat rickets — a common disease at the time. Ironically, it was eventually found that it was the vitamin D in the lipid — not the vitamin A — that was responsible for elimination of rickets.

In 1912, a Polish scientist dubbed the basic nutrients in foods ‘vitamines,’ from the Latin vita-, meaning life, and –amine, from the chemical compounds found in the nutrient isolated from rice husks. It was eventually discovered that not all vitamins were amines, so the name was shortened to ‘vitamin.’

At least fifteen different vitamins are vital to good health. Small amounts of each are required, but without them, health deteriorates rapidly. We have eliminated a multitude of deficiency-based diseases — when was the last time you heard of someone getting scurvy?

We share a freedom from deficiencies today with a simple daily multiple vitamin, so common — and so necessary.

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