An Easy Guide to Vitamins and Minerals, and Their Specific Health Roles
Vitamins and minerals are not just essential to health but to life. You need them to stay alive and to be healthy. And though the media seems adept and hell-bent at confounding us with all sorts of conflicting and contradictory “news” and updates about vitamins and minerals and their roles, there is plenty that is known.
We’ shall now briefly look at vitamins, minerals and their roles. Information on this subject can easily fill a book (and books have been written) so, again, this is but a brief look.
There are two main groups of vitamins:
1. Fat-soluble vitamins: These are stored in the fatty tissues of your body and in your liver. They are vitamins A, E, D, and K. Because you can store these vitamins, you don’t need to get them everyday. Conversely, getting too much fat-soluble vitamins could cause them to build up to toxic amounts.
2. Water-soluble vitamins: These get dissolved in water and can’t be stored in the body for very long and any extra is passed out of your body. These need to be replenished regularly. Water-soluble vitamins are also more easily lost in cooking and processing. Vitamin C and all the B vitamins fall in this group.
So, what are the roles of vitamins and minerals?
Fat-soluble Vitamins and Their Roles
Vitamin A (Beta-carotene, Retinol)
Vitamin A can be a little confusing because it comes in two forms, retinol (or retinal) and carotenes (or carotenoids). Retinol is found in animal foods while carotenes are from plant foods. Both forms are fat-soluble.
Main role(s): Vitamin A is especially essential for healthy eyes, bones, teeth, skin, hair, health of epithelial cells, growth, healing and repair, protection against infection, and a healthy reproductive system.
Deficiency: A deficiency of Vitamin A can cause night blindness and eventual total blindness, lack of tear secretion, rough dry skin, slow growth, (unhealthy) weight loss, and poor bone growth.
Food sources: Good food sources for retinol include liver, milk, eggs, butter, cheese, fish and meat. Foods rich in carotenes include spinach, kale, broccoli, apricots, fressh asparagus, leaf lettuce, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, tomatoes and watermelons.
Vitamin D (Calciferol)
Vitamin D, which is added in milk in the US, has one oddity compared to other vitamins. To get the other vitamins, you have to eat them. You can get vitamin D by simply going outside in the sun. This is why it is also called the sunshine vitamin.
Main role(s): Perhaps you already know that calcium makes your bones and teeth strong. Well, calcium needs vitamin D to work, as does phosphorous, also essential for bone bones and teeth. It is therefore essential for strong bones. Vitamin D is also essential for normal growth and development, and regulation of some hormones.
Food sources: Fortified milk, fish-liver oils, eggs, herring, mackerel, sardines, tuna, sunflower seeds, and salmon.
Vitamin E (Tocopherol)
Vitamin E is an important antioxidant: it protects you against free radicals that damage cells and tissues. Animal foods such as meat and milk have virtually no vitamin E.
Lingo explained: Without going into complicated details, free radicals are unstable molecules created by your body’s natural processes that can attack and damage body cells. They are also called “oxidants” (hence the term antioxidant).
Main role(s): Vitamin E acts as an antioxidant to protect cells and tissues against damage, which could lead to degenerative diseases such as heart disease and cancer. It also helps boost immunity in older adults.
Deficiency: Though rare, deficiency in vitamin E can cause irritability, fluid retention, anemia, lethargy and loss of balance.
Food sources: Foods high in vitamin E include nuts and seeds, safflower oil, sunflower oil, olive oil, corn oil, canola oil, soybean oil, mango, wheat-germ and wheat-germ oil, avocado, asparugus, apples, fortified cereals, and corn among others.
Vitamin K (Phytonadione)
Essential for making your blood clot when you are injured, vitamin K comes in three forms, K1 (Phylloquinone), often found in plant foods. There’s also K2 (menaquinone) a friendly bacteria found in the intestines, and K3 (menadione) which is an artificial form.
Main role(s): Vitamin K is essential to normal blood clotting. It is also important in promoting bone health.
Deficiency: Deficiency in adults is rare and usually limited to those with liver or food absorption disorders. In adults, deficiency can lead to prolonged clotting time, easy bleeding, nosebleeds, blood in urine and easy bruising. In infants, it can lead to hemorrhagic disease of the newborn and failure to develop normally.
Food sources: Good food sources of vitamin K include beef liver, spinach, kale, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cheddar cheese, turnip greens, alfalfa, and cauliflower among others.
Water-soluble Vitamins and Their Roles
The B Vitamin Family (B Complex)
Vitamin B is a complex (hence the “B Complex”) of eight water-soluble vitamins. A little number below or next to the letter differentiates them. You need each and every one of them. Two B2s do not equal B4. Okay, let’s now (briefly) look at each one of them.
Vitamin B1 (Thiamin)
The first vitamin to be discovered, vitamin B1 also known as thiamin is important for nervous system function. Thiamin is also important for mental function, especially memory as well as learning capacity in children.
Main role(s): Maintains normal functions of the nervous system, muscles and heart; helps convert food into energy, regulate and is important for mental functions as well as growth and development.
Deficiency: Thiamin (vitamin B1) deficiency can cause fatigue, nausea, low appetite, depression and reduced mental functioning, among other symptoms.
Food sources: Ham, dried kidney beans, oranges, orange juice, brown rice, oysters, peas, peanuts, brewers yeast, wheat germ/bran.
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
This is vitamin is responsible for giving urine its yellow-gold color. Vitamin takers are sometimes said to produce “expensive” urine for this very reason. However, that is not its role.
Main role(s): Helps release energy from food, normal growth, hormone function, normal red blood cells; health skin, eyes, nails and hair.
Deficiency: Fatigue, cracks and sores in mouth and tongue, eyes overly sensitive to light, and depression among other symptoms. Deficiency can also lead to formation of cataract.
Food sources: Nuts and seeds, bananas, beef liver, fortified cereals, pork, tuna, eggs, dairy products.
Vitamin B3 (Niacin)
Vitamin B3, also known as niacin, is often as a natural, low-cost remedy to lower cholesterol levels. It is often added to foods. It is important for more than 50 body processes.
Main role(s): Helps lower cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood, reduces allergic reactions, and releases energy from food.
Deficiency: Fatigue, lethargy, sore mouth, irritability, weakness, anxiety, depression, dementia, diarrhea, among other symptoms.
Food sources: Beef liver, nuts and seeds, tuna, salmon, swordfish, chicken, turkey.
Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic acid)
Pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) is necessary for the production of hormones and red blood cells. It also helps metabolize fat cells and carbohydrates to release energy.
Main role(s): Release of energy from food, production of hormones, production of red blood cells; essential for a healthy nervous system.
Deficiency: Deficiency is extremely rare except in cases of malnutrition. Symptoms include, fatigue, lethargy, delirium, headaches, dizziness, sleep disturbance, and personality changes among others.
Food sources: Beef liver, beef kidney, wheat germ and bran, peanuts, bananas, blue cheese, lobster, eggs, collard greens, oranges, chicken, peas, beans, sunflower seeds, and whole-grain products among other foods.
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine)
Though all vitamins especially B vitamins are important, vitamin B6 (also known as pyridoxine) is considered the most important vitamin due to its multiple life-supporting functions.
Main role(s): Helps in energy and mood, healthy nervous system, healthy skin and hair, healthy blood cells; needed to make proteins, hormones, and enzymes.
Deficiency: Weakness, mental confusion, insomnia, skin lesions, sore mouth; eventual anemia and depression.
Food sources: Beef liver, beef kidney, avocado, wheat germ and bran, lentils, soybeans, hazelnuts, salmon, shrimp, tuna, mackerel, bananas, peas, potatoes, raisins.
Vitamin B7 or Vitamin H (Biotin)
Vitamin B7, also known as vitamin H or biotin, is needed for a variety of body processes including breaking down of fats, proteins and carbohydrates and turning them into energy.
Main role(s): Release of energy from food, healthy skin and hair, promotes a healthy immune system; aids in metabolism of fatty acids, proteins and carbohydrates.
Deficiency: Hair loss, fatigue, anemia, loss of appetite, lethargy, depression, lowered immunity.
Food sources: Beef liver, peanuts, nuts and seeds, lima beans, halibut, oysters, chocolate, eggs.
Vitamin B9 (Folic acid, Folate)
Also known as folic acid or folate, vitamin B9 is one vitamin of the most commonly deficient vitamin the US population. It is especially deficient in processed foods, such that some manufacturers are now adding it.
Main role(s): Promotes healthy pregnancy and natural growth, prevents birth defects, aids in metabolism and synthesis of proteins.
Deficiency: Deficiency in folic acid has been linked to birth defects: Also weakness, irritability, and gastrointestinal disorders.
Food sources: Chicken liver, avocado, asparugus, beans, lentils, bananas, beets, brussels sprouts, wheat germ and bran, peas, spinach, broccolli, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, beef liver.
Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin)
Vitamin B12, also know as cobalamin, your body uses this vitamin to process carbohydrates, proteins and fats into energy. It also creates protective nerve coverings.
Main role(s): Promotes normal growth and development, releases energy from food, promotes healthy nerves and cells, healthy red blood cells.
Deficiency: Fatigue, weakness, loss of appetite, loss of balance, memory loss; can lead to irreversible nerve damage.
Food sources: Beef, beef liver, beef kidney, trout, tuna, salmon, cottage cheese, oysters, eggs, flounder, sardines, herring, eggs, chicken, liverwurst, blue cheese, Swiss cheese.
Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid)
This is perhaps the most prescribed and/or supplemented vitamin in the US. And for good reason. This is a nutrient of many fresh fruits and vegetables that many Americans don’t eat enough of. It also easily breaks down in food cooking (heating), processing and storage; Americans do a lot of all three.
Vitamin c is one vitamin that almost does it all:
Main role(s): Supports collagen and cartilage growth as well as tissue strength; supports healthy bones, teeth and gums; aids iron absorption; supports a healthy immune system; aids in wounds and burns healing; aids in calcium absorption; essential for proper functioning of thyroid and adrenal gland; and is the body’s top antioxidant.
Deficiency: Can lead to scurvy; bleeding gums, lose of teeth, joint pain, depression, dry skin as well as easy bruising, weakness, fatigue, slowed healing, nose bleeds and easy bruising.
Food sources: Oranges, orange juice, papayas, blackcurrants, broccoli, collard greens, grapefruit, spinach, strawberries, raw red peppers, lemons, cantaloupe, Brussels sprouts, guavas, mangoes, among other fresh fruits and vegetables.
Essential Minerals (Macrominerals) and Their Roles
You need minerals in your body every bit as much as you need vitamins. Vitamins need minerals to do their job, and minerals need vitamins to do theirs. The most important or essential minerals are known as macrominerals. The two go hand-in-hand. Let’s now look at essential minerals and their roles:
Of the minerals in your body, calcium is one of the most important. This mineral is essential to the formation of healthy, strong bones and teeth.
Main role(s): Healthy, bones and teeth; healthy heart, healthy nervous system, promotes sound sleep, blood clotting, muscle contraction. Also reduces muscle cramps and menstrual cramps. Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption as well as to keep your blood level normal.
Deficiency: Nerve and bone disorders: eventual deficiency can lead to osteoporosis (fragile porous bones) in older populations.
Food sources: Milk, cheese, yogurt, tofu, cottage cheese, almonds, black beans, broccoli, canned sardines, canned salmon, leafy green vegetables.
After calcium, phosphorous is the most abundant mineral in the body. Phosphorus too plays a major role in promoting strong bones and teeth (works with calcium).
Main role(s): Builds strong bones and teeth; helps metabolize proteins, carbohydrates, fats and DNA.
Deficiency: Bone pain, weakness, loss of appetite, speech disorders, tremors, easily broken bones.
Food sources: Whole grains, nuts and seeds, poultry, cheese, eggs, fish, milk, tuna.
Perhaps the most commonly deficient mineral, magnesium is very essential to many functions.
Main role(s): Production and transfer of energy, aids in functions of muscles including the heart, strengthens tooth enamel.
Deficiency: Muscle contractions, skin problems, hardening of soft tissues, irritability, fatigue, hypertension.
Food sources: Nuts, beans, green leafy vegetables, molasses, avocado, cod, herring, mackerel, swordfish, flounder, dairy products.
There isn’t much to say about this mineral, which is abundant in the body and in many types of food, so here are the basics:
Main role(s): Aids in metabolism, production of bile acids and oxidation reduction.
Deficiency: Deficiency virtually unknown, and so are the symptoms.
Food sources: Mustard, eggs, fish, garlic, lean beef, poultry, wheat germ/bran.
Trace Minerals (Microminerals) and Their Roles
Trace minerals or microminerals occur in the body at much lower levels than macrominerals, but they are also extremely important.
Iron is an extremely important mineral and is the essential for transportation of oxygen to every cell in the body.
Main role(s): Oxygen transportation and storage, builds resistance to disease and stress, supplementation crucial during pregnancy.
Deficiency: Weakness, fatigue, pica, and eventual anemia.
Food sources: Lean meat, whole grains, egg yolk, fish, enriched bread, lentils, liver, mussels, oysters.
Zinc is classified is one of the most important, and commonly deficient in the diet. It is essential to the functioning of the immune system.
Main role(s): Maintains normal taste and smell, aids in healing and repair, aids immunity, energy production, hormone production, normal growth and development.
Deficiency: Loss of taste and smell, fetal abnormalities, immune deficiency, low sperm count, rashes, slow growth in children.
Food sources: Lean beef, oysters, fish, lamb, maple syrup, turkey, wheat germ and bran, soybeans, yeast, sesame seeds.
Silicon or Silica (Si)
Silicon is essential for bones, blood vessels, cartilage, tendons, skin and hair.
Main role(s): Essential for formation and strength of cartilage and other connective tissues, bones, arteries and skin.
Deficiency: Not known in humans, as silicon is available in many types of food.
Food sources: Silicon is abundant in many types of food. Good sources include apples, wheat, legumes, soybean, whole grains, rice, lettuce, strawberries, and cucumbers among other foods.
Linked to the formation of goiters (enlargement of the thyroid gland) and once a commonly deficient mineral, iodine is now a standard addition to table salt. This deficiency was due to lack of this mineral in soil some areas.
Main role(s): Aids in normal function of thyroid gland and normal functioning of cells.
Deficiency: Hyperthyroidism, goiter, cretinism and mental retardation, deafness in children.
Food sources: Vegetables grown in iodine-rich soil, iodized salt.
Manganese is an essential trace mineral, though not yet fully understood. It appears to do the same things as magnesium, such as aiding in formation of connective tissue.
Main role(s): Energy production, helps in protein and carbohydrate metabolism, aids in formation of connective tissue, antioxidation.
Deficiency: Manganese deficiency is extremely rare.
Food sources: Nuts, tea, oatmeal, whole grains, carrots, wheat germ and bran, beans, blueberries, blackberries, seaweed, peas.
Molybdenum is needed to make certain enzymes. So far very little is known about this mineral.
Main role(s): Carbohydrates metabolism, promotes normal growth and development, iron utilization.
Deficiency: Rare and only in cases of certain disorders.
Food sources: Beef liver, beef kidney, milk, beans, whole grains, lean meat, peas, lentils.
Selenium is essential to the formation of an enzyme called glutathione peroxidase, which protects against cell damage. It also complements vitamin E in antioxidation.
Main role(s): Healthy immune system, detoxification, protects against or helps prevent certain cancers.
Deficiency: Birth defects, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, cataracts.
Food sources: Beef liver, beef kidney, wheat germ and bran, broccoli, cabbage, garlic, milk, mushrooms, oatmeal, tuna, whole grains.
Copper is essential for multiple body processes. Your body needs it to make many enzymes as well as to maintain healthy blood cells.
Main role(s): Promotes healthy bones and joints; healthy cardiovascular system, normal blood cells, assists in production of several enzymes.
Deficiency: Anemia, connective tissue defects, loss of hair, lack of skin pigmentation.
Food sources: Beef liver, avocados, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, oats, oysters, soybeans, spinach, fish.
At one time, chromium supplementation was touted as a way for people to help lose weight, control diabetes, lower cholesterol and even build muscle for bodybuilders. Those claims have largely been refuted.
Main role(s): Aids in glucose metabolism and transportation as well as protein synthesis.
Deficiency: Poor glucose tolerance similar to diabetes, loss of weight; disturbance in glucose, protein, and fat metabolism.
Food sources: Beef liver, brewer’s and nutritional yeast, apples, cheese, mollases, whole grains, eggs.
Electrolyte Minerals and Their Roles
Potassium, sodium and chloride are electrolytes, that is, minerals that dissolve in water and carry electrical charges. Here’s a brief look at their roles:
Potassium is a very important mineral that maintains water balance in the body and works with sodium to control blood pressure.
Main role(s): Healthy heart and blood vessels, muscle contraction, water balance, acid-alkali balance, nerve impulse transmission.
Deficiency: Weakness, low blood pressure, paralysis, irregular heartbeat.
Food sources: Bananas, beef, lentils, cantaloupe, carrots, asparagus, peas, potatoes, raisins, molasses, spinach, citrus fruit, avocado, beans, milk.
If there is a mineral Americans (if not people of the whole world) could use less of it is sodium. Americans get a lot of it in the form of sodium chloride, commonly known as table salt.
Main role(s): Helps regulate water balance in the body, muscle contraction, nerve transmission, and acid balance.
Deficiency: Deficiency is very unlikely; toxic effects from high intakes are greater concern. Symptoms include muscle and stomach cramps, fatigue, nausea,
Food sources: Processed meats, butter, margarine, bacon, table salt, olives, bread, butter, canned foods.
Chlorine in the body exists in the form of chloride and is essential for the production of stomach acid (hydrochloric acid).
Main role(s): Regulates acid balance, production of stomach acid.
Deficiency: Deficiency of chloride is extremely rare. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, weakness, confusion.
Food sources: Salt substitutes, sea salt, table salt.
So, Should You Take Vitamin Supplements or Not?
One thing that can be agreed upon on the subject of vitamin and mineral supplementation is that experts have agreed to disagree.
On one side are experts are of the view that you don’t need supplements if you eat a healthy well balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables. On the other side are experts who recommend supplementation on grounds that food is no longer what it used to be vitamins-wise (over-farming, environmental degradation and pollution, storage, transportation etc.), plus general lack of time to prepare all those healthy meals.
Well, better to err on the safe side and take a good natural multivitamin and mineral supplement daily.
*Information on this page is should not be taken as medical or professional advice. For any health-related problems, questions, issues or concerns consult a licensed professional.