by Alexa Geist
Vitamins may be something you’re currently taking every morning, right when you wake up. But other than knowing they’re “healthy,” how much do you really know about what you’re putting in your body? Let’s go back to the basics of vitamins, what our body uses them for, and how they can be harmful when misused.
Vitamins are organic substances that our body requires to function properly. They are made mostly of carbon atoms, and in our body they act in one of two ways: water soluble, or fat soluble.
Includes vitamins B and C
Includes vitamins A, D, E, and K
Not stored in the body!
Stored in the body in fatty tissues and liver
Excreted via urine
Not easily excreted
Generally okay to be consumed in larger amounts
Today, there are 13 recognized vitamins. Each vitamin helps our bodies perform distinct functions, and without them deficiencies can lead to some problematic symptoms. In addition to these vitamins, we should also consider the essential minerals in our diet. Below is a list of important vitamins and minerals, and dietary sources in which they’re found.
Now that we’ve talked through the basic vitamins and minerals, we can start to consider how our body is affected by varying levels. In the next part of this post, we start to talk about deficiencies and toxicities due to vitamins. Remember to always discuss supplements with your doctor if you think they’re right for you!
Vitamins: Deficiencies and Toxicities
Now that we know about the purpose for vitamins and how our body uses them, we need to also consider the positive and negative effects vitamins can have on our body. Each vitamin and mineral has an upper and lower limit on the suggested daily intake value.
Below is a table of the common symptoms caused by a lack of essential vitamins.
Now that we know what occurs when our vitamins are in low levels, we can consider what happens when these levels become too high. In large doses, many of the vitamins we discussed above can do more harm than good. Think about those fat-soluble vitamins- remember that our body doesn’t excrete these very easily, so they sit in our body as storage and can lead to long term effects.
Let’s start with some of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and E.
Vitamin A is supposed to work in the body to assist in vision. Toxic levels of vitamin A can lead to neurological issues, such as headaches, blurred vision, vertigo, and increased intracranial pressure. Other studies have also shown that elevated levels of vitamin A can be associated with an increased risk of lung cancer, birth defects during pregnancy, and osteoporosis. Vitamin A toxicity is rather common as it’s largely consumed from animal food sources, so be sure to determine if a supplement is necessary for your diet.
Vitamin D toxicity is fairly rare, (deficiency is much more common due to lack of sun exposure) but may lead to hypercalcemia, or high levels of calcium in the body, as well as headaches, nausea, and excessive thirst. Vitamin D plays an important role with calcium in the body during bone formation, and so these two compounds are often linked. Additionally, extreme levels of Vitamin D may lead to an increased risk of heart problems and cancer.
Vitamin E has been correlated with increased overall mortality, but the exact effects are still uncertain. Some research has shown an increased risk of certain cancers, such as prostate cancer. Regardless, due to the fat-soluble nature of this vitamin, it may be beneficial to err on the side of caution- meaning don’t overdo it!
bIn addition to the fat-soluble vitamins, some forms of vitamin B have also shown adverse effects. Folic acid, Vitamin B9, plays a dual role in carcinogenesis, or the formation of cancer. Depending on the level of folic acid in the body during different stages of tumor formation, early on it can prevent the formation of a tumor whereas later high levels may promote tumor development. In some cases, it may also mask Vitamin B12 deficiency, potentially leading to neurological damage. Additionally, folate can interfere with medications and affect function. This is most common bwith anticonvulsants used to treat epilepsy. If you are considering taking folate supplements while taking an anticonvulsant or antifolate medication, make sure you discuss this with your prescriber to determine any possible interactions.
Even with all this information, remember that these vitamins and minerals are essential for the well-being of your body, but it is possible to have too little or too much. Just by maintaining a balanced, healthy diet many of your vitamins and minerals should be at healthy, happy levels. As always, discuss supplements with your physician first, and if you believe you are experiencing any symptoms of deficiency or toxicity, ensure you inform your doctor and continue routine lab work!
this blog post was guest-written by Alexa Geist, a Clemson University 2022 Graduate with a BS in Chemistry and a minor in Mathematical Sciences and the new Medical Office Assistant at Cardona Direct Primary Care