Chapter Seven Vitamins

In 1911 Casimir Funk, a Polish chemist, undertook a study of why widespread diseases such as scurvy, beriberi, pellagra and rickets occurred. He became convinced that these diseases were caused by the lack of something in the daily diets of those people who contracted the ailments. After more research he proposed the theory of vitamins, arguing that if certain vitamins were left out of diets, the diseases would occur. Funk named the vitamins after the ailments each cured. For instance, vitamin B was so-named because it was the antiberiberi vitamin.

During the 1930's and 1940's chemists discovered many more vitamins needed daily to keep us healthy. As these vitamins were discovered, they were dubbed with letter names derived from some aspect of their properties: for example, the letter K was given to a coagulation-promoting chemical, since K is the first letter in the Scandinavian word ¡coagulation. The vitamins were named out of order. In addition, some received chemical names as well, resulting in a general confusion about the names of vitamins: most people call the vitamins by their chemical names, such as thiamine or riboflavin. By now the alphabet has all been used, and there are approximately 41 kinds of vitamins. (The importance of some of these vitamins to human nutrition has yet to be established.)

Vitamins are among six nutrients essential for the human body to function properly: carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals and water. All these nutrients are in the foods we eat, and all contain chemical substances that help our bodies in one or more of three ways: they give our bodies heat and energy, provide material for the repair of tissue and for growth and aid in the regulation of the bodily processes. Although each nutrient has its own specific function in the body, no single one is able to act independently of the others: all the nutrients must be present in the food we consume for our bodies to maintain good health. ,

Many vitamins are used as part of the body's enzymes. An enzyme, a large protein molecule, is a complicated chemical considered a special tool inside the cell structure: it may have just one job to do in a cell, such as joining two molecules, thus helping to build a chemical composition that can aid the body in some way. When an enzyme is joined by two smaller molecules, it is called a coenzyme. Many vitamins are coenzymes. And when a vitamin is absent, cellular health begins to decline until a disease caused by vitamin deficiency crops up. Since the body is a marvelously adaptive piece of equipment, a synthetic vitamin substituted for a natural one can still be broken down and utilized to some extent.

Two standards of measurement are used for vitamins and minerals: activity-based and quantity-based. Activity-based measurements—the International Unit (I.U.) and the United States Pharmacopeia unit (U.S.P.)—are used for vitamins A, D and E because there may be variations in the types of materials and sources used in these vitamins that can alter how much of the vitamin the body absorbs or how active it becomes in the system. Quantity-based measurements, such as microgram (meg.), milligram (mg.) and grain (gr.) are used for the other vitamins, all of which have standard strengths. One microgram equals 1/1,000,000 gram, one milligram equals 1/1,000 gram, and one grain equals about 65 milligrams. Liquids or capsules, such as wheat germ oil or lecithin in an oil base, may be measured in minims (M), equaling about one drop of water: 60 minims equals one teaspoonful of liquid.

The amount of each vitamin a person needs daily is a subject of some controversy. The Minimum Daily Requirement (MDR), the smallest amount of a particular vitamin that the average person must consume daily to prevent a vitamin-deficiency disease, is based on a table compiled by the Federal Drug Administration in 1941. The table has since grown obsolete and has been replaced with a more up-to-date table known as the Recommended Dietary Allowance (U.S.RDA OR RDA), which is broken down into four segments of age: infants (0-12 months), children (under 4 years), adults and children (4 or more years) and pregnant and/or lactating women.

The trouble with both of these tables is that they are designed for the needs of a mythical, average person. Although each person needs the same nutrients, factors such as age, environment, sex, body size and activity level influence how much of each nutrient a person needs. Therefore, these tables, especially the one for the MDR, are of little value to most people because most of us are not average. For instance, an individual may be the right height and weight to receive the MDR of vitamin C (45 milligrams); however, if he or she lives in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City or any other high pollutant area, many doctors believe that doses should be higher to combat the effects of carbon monoxide. Dr. Linus Pauling even asserts that a person should take between 250 and 10,000 milligrams of vitamin C for optimum health.

Dr. Roger Williams, Ph.D., of the University of Texas, for the last 25 years has repeatedly stressed the connection between susceptibility to disease and an individual's unique nutritional pattern. Dr. Williams calculates that there are only a few people who have "average" needs for each of the 40-odd known vitamins. And Dr. Williams' experiments have shown that we inherit a far-from-average need for at least one or two of each of the nutrients. If these needs are not satisfied, body cells will fail to act properly and diseases may eventually take over.

Unfortunately, it is presently expensive to test a person's unique nutritional needs. And the medical establishment has never entertained the possibility of computerized feedouts containing information about individual needs.

In fact, for the past 200 years the medical establishment has not really been interested in the relationships between vitamin and mineral deficiencies and disease. Instead, doctors have tended to blame all of humankind's diseases on microorganisms, such as microbes and viruses, and have felt that cures depended on the administration of drugs to kill invading agents. Hence, more and more drugs have been developed to cover over the symptoms of diseases and to poison our bodies, producing side effects that injure our organs and other bodily functions. Let us hope that we are soon to see what Dr. Williams terms a "renaissance of nutritional science," when more and more doctors will realize that nutrients—not drugs—are the best antidotes to disease.

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