Are you hungry? Because in today’s blog, we’re going to serve up some alphabet soup. Not literally, of course. But as a means to sharing information about some of the essential vitamins—specifically the letter vitamins. There are 13 essential vitamins and we’re going to focus on five, including three in the B vitamin category.
These are the essential vitamins: A, B, C, D, E and K.
You may be wondering why there are only six letter vitamins named in that list when we just told you there were 13 essential vitamins. That’s because there are actually eight B vitamins in the category. (More on that later.)
The word essential has different definitions, but they virtually all come down to the same thing: something so important as to be indispensable. The term “essential vitamin” has an added layer to its meaning. Here “essential” refers to the fact that the vitamins must be obtained from your diet (which could include supplements) because your body cannot make enough vitamins to meet your body’s needs for growth, function and healthy maintenance.
While some people interchange “vitamin” with “nutrient” and vice versa, the term “nutrient” also includes other nutrition categories that are needed for your body to properly function, including minerals, proteins, fats (such omega-3 fatty acids), carbohydrates and water.
While there are nutrients you probably need more of—e.g., omega-3s for example—and minerals where you could likely up your intake game—possibly iodine or iron, maybe magnesium—today, we’re just going to stick with the letter vitamins.
Vitamins have different functions that are required for your body to work. Vitamins are synergistic and impact every cell. If your body has vitamin deficiencies and/or insufficiencies, it will not work properly.
So, while you definitely need all 13, we’ve selected five of them today to highlight.
5 Vitamins to Focus On
1. Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
What it does: To start, this vitamin helps your body produce red blood cells, which carry oxygen from your lungs throughout your body, and then moves carbon dioxide back to your lungs where it is exhaled. This vitamin also helps regulate your metabolism and sleep, and plays a role in immune function, mood, and cognitive abilities.
Where to find it: Here are some foods that are considered rich in Vitamin B6.
- Fish (e.g., salmon and tuna)
- Beef liver (and other organ meets)
- Leafy vegetables (e.g., spinach)
- Non-citrus fruits (e.g., bananas)
Little known fact: In the U.S., many fortified cereals are enhanced with B6, making them a key source for Americans to obtain this vitamin. Deficiency is rare, but many in the elderly population, especially, aren’t reaching the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA). Learn more here.
2. Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)
What it does: Many people think of Vitamin B12 as the energy vitamin and that’s because one of its benefits is to help prevent anemia, a blood condition that results in making people tired and weak. In addition to keeping your blood cells healthy, it also has a positive impact on your nerve cells and helps produce DNA.
Where to find it: Here are some food sources for Vitamin B12.
- Fish (e.g., salmon, tuna, trout)
- Beef liver
- Poultry (e.g., chicken)
- Dairy products (e.g., milk, nonfat plain Greek Yogurt, cheese)
- Fortified food products (check the label for Vitamin B12.)
Little known fact: Vitamin B12 is particularly on-trend now, as celebrities, including Madonna, Justin Timberlake and Lea Michele are among the reported fans of Vitamin B12 injections. Further, it’s been rumored that back in the day, President Kennedy (and even Jackie) regularly received “vitamin injections” that included B12 (but also amphetamines). Our take: if you’re thinking of getting your B12 vitamins from injection or IV drip, be sure to check with your doctor before taking the plunge. Generally, a healthy diet (and supplements as needed) should suffice. Check out more on Vitamin B12 with this fact sheet.
3. Vitamin B9 (folate/folic acid)
What it does: Folic acid is best known for its ability to reduce neural tube birth defects (NTDs) such as spina bifida and anencephaly. Research shows that folic acid can reduce some brain and spinal cord NTDs by more than 70 percent. That is why it is recommended by medical experts and the U.S. government that all women of child-bearing age take 400 mcg of folic acid daily, in addition to eating food with folate from a varied diet. Folate is also important for healthy cell growth and to help your body produce DNA and other genetic material.
Where to find it: Here are foods and fortified foods that contain Vitamin B9.
- Beef liver
- Vegetables (e.g., asparagus, Brussels sprouts and dark leafy greens such as spinach and mustard greens)
- Citrus fruits (e.g., oranges, strawberries, melons)
- Nuts (e.g., peanuts), beans (e.g., kidney beans) and peas (e.g., black-eyed peas)
- Enriched bread, flour, cornmeal, pasta and rice as well as fortified corn masa flour, and fortified breakfast cereals (check the label for folic acid)
Little known fact: While both folate and folic acid have benefits, there is a key difference. Folate is the natural form of Vitamin B9 while folic acid is the synthesized form most readily accessible in dietary supplements and (some) fortified foods. In 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration mandated that enriched grain products (such as bread, pasta, rice and cereal) be fortified with folic acid to further help prevent specific birth defects, such as spina bifida, in unborn babies. For more information on Vitamin B9, visit here.
The remaining B-vitamins are B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid) and B7 (biotin). And here’s something a little extra, for the obsessive among us, who are wondering why there is no B4, B8, B10 and B11 mentioned. They do exist. But as this blog post explains it, they are no longer considered vitamins, in the technical sense, because they don’t fit the definition of “essential” that we talked about earlier. Mystery solved?
4. Vitamin D
What it does: Some might say the better question is “what doesn’t it do?” Well, for sure it’s not going to clean your house. It’s best known for working in concert with calcium to help build strong bones and healthy teeth. Some research has indicated it may be beneficial for improving mood and supporting immune health, while still other research has found associations between Vitamin D deficiency levels with some cancers, heart disease, poor sleep quality and hair loss.
Where to find it: This one is tricky. Because while some fortified foods (like cereal, milk and orange juice), have added Vitamin D, it’s almost impossible to get the Vitamin D you need from whole foods alone. That’s why taking Vitamin D supplements may be the best way to access the benefits of this vitamin. Nevertheless, here are some foods (in addition to fortified foods) that can provide some amount of Vitamin D.
- Egg Yolk
Well known fact: Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin because when your skin is exposed to sunlight, the ultraviolet rays cause your body to produce Vitamin D. But there’s a downside to too much sun, especially without proper sun protection (which when used will limit how much Vitamin D your body will produce)—and that downside is the increased risk of skin cancer. Here’s an interesting article (not recent, but still relevant) on Vitamin D and other vitamins you need. If you’re just looking for Vitamin D specific info, try this.
5. Vitamin K
What it does: Just in case Vitamin K hasn’t been on your radar, we’re putting it there now. This vitamin is best known for its role in blood clotting and preventing blood loss; however, it is also believed to have potential impact on healthy bones and heart health, the latter perhaps as Vitamin K is thought to help regulate blood calcium levels. Vitamin K1 (phylloquinone) is the best-known form and it is plant-based. However, more recently, there is greater interest in Vitamin K2 (menaquinone), which some research has shown activates a protein that helps bind calcium to our bones, increasing that mineral’s ability to do its bone-work. This article from WebMD offers a fuller perspective on Vitamin K2.
Where to find it: Keep in mind Vitamin K1 is plant-based, while Vitamin K2 is found in animal products, dairy and fermented food. Here are some options.
- Collard or mustard greens
- Plant Oils (e.g., soybean, rapeseed, olive oils)
- Beef, pork, chicken
- Hard cheeses
- Egg yolks
- Fermented food (e.g., natto, sauerkraut)
Little known fact: If you are on a blood-thinning medication, do not increase (or start taking) Vitamin K without first checking with your doctor. And if you’re thirsty for more, check out this info on Vitamin K.
Can You Get All the Vitamins You Need from Your Diet?
The short answer is it’s unlikely. While many medical and scientific experts, including even those who work in the vitamin industry, recommend approaching the nutritional path to good health with a “food first” perspective, that shouldn’t be interpreted as supplements have no role. In other words, vitamin supplements should be taken to fill in the gap between what you need and what you’re actually taking in from food. Not as a replacement for healthy eating.
Unfortunately, the fact is so many of us are simply not eating a nutrient-rich, healthy or balanced diet and therefore are lacking the vitamins we need. In that case, vitamin supplements are an excellent option.
Here are five things to keep in mind about vitamin—or for that matter, all dietary, supplements:
- Do not exceed the dosage levels on the label, bottle or package—no matter how good that gummy vitamin tastes—unless your doctor or other healthcare practitioner specifically advises you need to do so.
- For most vitamins, there is a safe harbor between the RDA (which stands for Recommended Daily Allowance) and what is known as the upper limit (or Tolerable Upper Intake Level), defined simply as the level at which there is no known toxicity.
- The RDAs and Tolerable Upper Intake Levels are based on your vitamin intake from all sources, not just from dietary supplements. So that includes your multivitamin.
- Dietary supplements should not replace healthy eating and other healthy habits. They are intended as supplements to, and not substitutes for, a well-balanced, nutrient-dense diet.
- When in doubt, bring your healthcare practitioner into the discussion. (And even if you’re not in doubt, be sure your doctor, pharmacist, registered dietitian, or anyone you’re seeing for medical advice, is aware of your diet and the dietary supplements you’re taking.)
Does Anyone Take Multivitamins Anymore?
Absolutely. While single supplements are gaining in popularity, according to the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), a trade association representing the dietary supplement industry, its annual survey consistently shows that the multivitamin is the most popular dietary supplement. Additionally, here is an interesting perspective from a Harvard University researcher on whether you need to take a multivitamin.
How Can You Find Out Which Vitamins You Are Lacking?
While there are common signs that may point to vitamin deficiencies (e.g., you’re facing fatigue, your nails are brittle, you have muscle or bone pain), in order to know whether you are falling short of one or more vitamins—and to know which particular vitamin or vitamins you’re lacking—there is really only one way to know for sure. Get tested.
Start with your doctor who can order a multitude of tests. There are also companies, and OmegaQuant is one of them, from whom you can order simple, at-home tests for some vitamins (such as Vitamin D) or nutrients (such as Omega-3 EPA and DHA) and then share those results with your doctor.
But information is key. Without knowing what you’re facing, it’s all just guess-work. Once you know where you stand, vitamin-wise, you can figure out the necessary steps to improve your health.