Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

Six of the Best - Vitamins

I always ask my patients to bring any vitamins they are taking when they come to see me. Lots of them turn up with plastic bagsfull! This really upsets me, as they are certainly spending too much money, most of which ends up in very expensive urine, and some vitamins can be dangerous if taken in high doses.

Most doctors believe no-one in this country needs extra vitamins as we get more than enough from our food. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even on a balanced healthy diet most of you will miss out on some essential vitamins because of the way our food is produced. Everyone knows about vitamin C, B12 and folic acid but here are six of the other most important vitamins.

Vitamin A is essential for growth, skin, night and colour vision, and protection from infections. A lack of this vitamin can also cause gingivitis (gum disease) and result in thickening of the skin around hair follicles. You need a minimum of 800 micrograms a day and you can get it from 5 g of liver, 40 g of old carrots, 70 g of spinach or butter, or 120 g of broccoli with 60 g of cheddar cheese sauce.

Some cholesterol-lowering drugs and excessive use of antacids can interfere with the way your body absorbs vitamin A and a lack of zinc in your diet (from shellfish, pumpkin seeds, wheatgerm, beef and lamb) can also lower your levels of vitamin A.

Vitamin A is helpful in the treatment and prevention of some cancers and it's good for children with chronic chest problems especially asthma.

More than 10 times the basic requirement can cause liver and bone damage. Over 3300 micrograms must not be taken during pregnancy as there is a risk of birth defects. Taking a multivitamin together with a separate A pill, can easily supply this amount, and that's before you get any from your food.

Vitamin D is essential for bone formation as it is part of the calcium absorption system. Lack of this vitamin causes rickets in children and bone disorders in adults. As well as getting it from food, the action of ultraviolet light on the skin produces vitamin D. Those at special risk are the elderly, vegetarians, vegans, breastfeeding and pregnant women, and anyone who spends little time outdoors during the summer. The Asian community is often at risk due to traditional clothing, diet and lifestyle.

The 10 micrograms that is essential will be obtained from 1 teaspoon of cod liver oil, 45 g of herring or kipper, 55 g mackerel, 80 g canned salmon or tuna, 135 g canned sardines. Eggs and margarine are fair sources too.

This is an essential supplement during breastfeeding and for anyone who has a family history of osteoporosis or has been diagnosed with the condition.

Vitamin D at ten times the daily need can be very toxic to children, 25 times is dangerous for adults. Don't give more than a teaspoon of cod liver oil to the kids each day, or exceed this amount during pregnancy.

Vitamin E is essential for protecting the body from the damage done by free radicals. It's especially important for cell walls, skin, muscles, nerves, blood vessels and the heart. This vitamin is also believed to be important for fertility. Vitamin E should not be taken by anyone with high blood pressure or heart disease without advice from their GP.

Taking the pill, environmental pollution and the action of the unhealthy trans fats in many margarines can all interfere with vitamin E levels. Cholesterol-lowering drugs and excessive intake of iron also lower circulating amounts of E.

Vitamin E is protective against heart disease, some forms of cancer, especially of the lung, and together with vitamin C may be useful in the treatment of cataracts.

Get the 10 mg per day you need from 20 mg sunflower seed oil, 50 grams hazelnuts, 30 grams sunflower seeds, 300 grams avocado.

Vitamin B1 (Thiamin) the main function is during the conversion of carbohydrates into energy. If you live on a high starch diet - some vegetarians do - or where there is an excessive consumption of alcohol, the need for B1 increases. You only need 1.4 mg a day of this vitamin which is also essential for memory and a healthy nervous system. Part of its function is making it possible for messages to travel between the brain and the spinal cord and it's really important that your diet provides regular daily doses of this nutrient.

Very high doses, around 3 grams a day, can be toxic and interfere with some of the other B vitamins.

B1 is in all yeast extracts, citrus fruits, potatoes, wholemeal bread, eggs, wheat, peas and beans and you'll get your daily needs from 60 g cod roe, 70 g wheatgerm, 100 g brazil or peanuts. Oatmeal, bacon, pork, offal and bread are all good sources too.

B5 (Pantothenic Acid). Few of you will know much about this vitamin except that it's commonly used in hair care products. But it is a vital part of the energy conversion process and is also essential for growth, immunity and the way we cope with stress.

B5 can help in the treatment of chronic fatigue, rheumatoid arthritis, allergies, cramp and headaches, and it's widely distributed in foods like liver, nuts, seeds, dried fruits and avocados. You only need 6 mg a day and you can get this from 70 g calves liver, 200 g peanuts, 250 g sesame seeds.

Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine) is essential for growth. Many women have found it helpful in the treatment of the symptoms of PMS, and it may overcome some of the side-effects of the 'Pill'. B6 can also help with carpal tunnel syndrome, chronic fatigue and depression.

Fish, meat, liver and cheese are good sources. You only need 2 mg a day and a large banana and half an avocado will provide the daily dose. Wheatgerm, liver, cod, poultry, beef, green leafy vegetables are all good sources and 250 g of cod, salmon or grilled herring will give you all you need.

Doses of B6 in excess of 2 g per day can cause nerve damage, and in some sensitive people, symptoms have happened at intakes as low as 50 mg. It can cause neuritis, hot flushes and irritability but the symptoms go when you stop taking the supplement.


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