Staying healthy in the face of the pandemic is the need of the hour. But how can we achieve this? Numerous studies have found that even in developed countries, where there is no shortage of fresh fruit and vegetables, those who consume supplements have significantly better Vitamin profile, including those that have an important role in building our immunity. They are evidently less susceptible to disease.
We are indeed lucky that unlike our ancestors we typically don’t have to be as concerned about serious vitamin deficiency disorders as they. We are more informed about what is good for us. Simple changes to our daily diet can give us the full amount of vitamins we need. With improved distribution, we have more accessibility to healthy foods. We can figure out ways to add vitamins to foods if they aren’t naturally found there. And if we partake in a balanced diet, we generally get a healthier dose of the vitamins we need.
Let me begin with Vitamin C for no other reason than the fascinating story behind its discovery and the fact that our body does not produce this very important vitamin and has to rely on the outside sources.
Until a couple of centuries ago, everyone who embarked on a long sea voyage knew that he would be exposed to a fatal ailment that would rot the gums, cause open sores to appear on the skin and leave him prostrate, before imminent death.
“Scurvy was known since the Hippocratic era,” says Emmanouil Magiorkinis, a specialist in the history of medicine at the University of Athens (Greece), to OpenMind. This disease was a fearsome enemy of naval fleets worldwide. Some sources claim that it killed millions of sailors during the golden age of maritime exploration.
Today, a century and half later, given the gaps in nutrient intake in India due to suboptimal dietary habits or lifestyle, there is a dire need to ensure that people have access to the requisite vitamin and mineral supplements, especially the vulnerable cohort. Vitamins are classified based on their solubility. The ones which dissolve in water, known as water-soluble vitamins like Vitamin C, unlike the fat-soluble vitamins, are generally not stored in the body. Also, it is an essential nutrient which cannot be synthesized by humans due to loss of a key enzyme in the biosynthetic pathway. Hence, there is a need of getting them regularly from the diet or when that is not adequate, from supplements. In a recently published clinical study among elderly people in India, there was found a deficiency of Vitamin C among 74 percent and 46 percent of north and south Indians respectively.
Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that reduces the risk of chronic disease, helps in managing high blood pressure, lowers risk of heart disease, reduces blood uric acid levels, prevents iron deficiency, boosts immunity and reduces the risk of dementia. Vitamin C is a crucial micronutrient for humans as it helps in the development and maintenance of connective tissues, and plays an important role in wound healing, bone formation, and the maintenance of healthy gums.
It also helps in several metabolic functions including the activation of the B vitamin, folic acid, and the conversion of cholesterol to bile acids lowering blood cholesterol levels. Vitamin C is used as a therapeutic agent in scurvy and other vitamin C deficiency disorders. Most importantly, vitamin C boosts the immune system, reduces the severity of allergic reactions and helps to fight off infections. In acute infections such as common cold and respiratory infections, there is a depletion of Vitamin C and hence, there’s a need to replenish vitamin C through supplements to boost immunity. In chronic diseases such as Diabetes, atherosclerosis and heart disease, there’s a reduction in the vitamin C status of the body and hence, consuming vitamin C supplements would help in improving the vitamin C.
Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is needed to make a substance collagen that is required for the repair of various tissues in the body such as skin, cartilage, bone, ligaments and tendons, blood vessel walls, and teeth. It improves absorption of iron and calcium and other minerals in the gut.
Coming to other Vitamins and starting with Vitamin A, which is important for vision, healthy skin and immunity, is found in pre-formed vitamin A (retinol) and beta-carotene which is converted by our body into an active form of vitamin A. Green vegetables and orange or yellow vegetables and fruits like Carrots, Sweet potatoes, Winter squash, Spinach and Broccoli are good sources of beta-carotene. Other foods rich in pre-formed vitamin A are Eggs, Milk, Butter, Cheese and Liver.
Vitamin B6 is part of nearly 200 biochemical reactions in the human body, but it is best known for its role in regulating our sleep, appetite and mood. It plays a key role in cognitive abilities and immune functions and also helps us make red blood cells. Although deficiency is rare, many of us, especially the elderly, don’t get the sufficient daily dose for vitamin B6. A mix of meats, whole grains, vegetables and nuts can help. Other foods rich in B6 include Baked potatoes; Bananas; Chicken; Garbanzo beans and Other fortified foods.
Foliate is a general term that’s used to describe the many different forms of vitamin B9. Vitamin B9 is one of the eight B vitamins. It’s important in red blood cell formation and for healthy cell growth and function. And it is particularly important for women to ingest foliate during the first three weeks of pregnancy to prevent birth defects. Folic acid is a synthetic form of foliate that is used in supplements and in fortified foods. Fortification is the process by which vitamins and minerals are added to food. It can be difficult for some to get the daily recommended amount of foliate through foods alone. “Keep in mind that many of us are still not getting enough fruits, vegetables and legumes – our best sources for foliate,” Ilic says. “Increasing your daily consumption can be easier than you think, though.”
We can get more foliate naturally simply by increasing your intake of the foods like green leafy vegetables; Fruits, especially citrus fruits, melons and strawberries; Fruit juice natural and Legumes such as dried beans, lentils and peas. Because we needed extra help in getting the full amount of foliate and folic acid in our diets, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also requires that folic acid be added to enrich the following foods like Certain breads; Assorted cereals; Flour; Corn meal; Pastas; Rice and Other grain products.
Vitamin B12 helps keep our nerve and blood cells healthy, and it aids in our body’s energy production and DNA. We need to be able to absorb it properly to get these benefits. As we age, we have less acid in our stomach to break down protein and release vitamin B12 from food. Also, conditions like Crohn’s disease or medications such as proton pump inhibitors, H2 blockers and the diabetes drug metformin can interfere with the absorption process.
People over age 50 or others at risk for having insufficient amounts of vitamin B12 should ask a doctor about whether they should take a supplement; but usually we can get B12 through foods such as Fish such as tuna, salmon and trout; Clams; Meat; Poultry.; Eggs; Milk and Milk products like cheese or nonfat plain Greek yogurt and Fortified soy milk. “For vegetarians and vegans: you may be more at risk for having too little B12 in your diet,” Ilic says. “Fortified foods can be good sources. Just make sure to avoid the sugary stuff.”
Getting enough vitamin D is crucial for our body to absorb the calcium it needs for healthy bones and teeth. Vitamin D deficiency also has been linked to certain cancers and heart disease. But unlike other vitamins, our main source of vitamin D isn’t food – it is the sun. So risk factors for low levels of vitamin D include living at high latitudes, high levels of air pollution or city smog, dense cloud covering, clothing that always covers our skin and liberal sunscreen use and darker skin pigmentation. Many foods today are fortified with vitamin D, including orange juice, milk and breakfast cereals. Natural sources of vitamin D include fatty fishes such as Salmon, Herring, Tuna, Sardines, Mushrooms and Whole eggs. If we don’t eat fish or if these foods aren’t available we should talk to our doctor about a vitamin D supplement.
The author retired as Director General of Income Tax (Investigation), Chandigarh.