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List of vitamins, what are they good for, where you can find them.

If you eat a healthy diet, do you need to take vitamins? Not long ago, the answer from most experts would have been a resounding "no". Today, though, there's good evidence that taking a daily multivitamin makes sense for most adults.

What's changed? Not only have scientists determined why we need pyridoxine (vitamin B6), but they are also accumulating evidence that this vitamin and others do much more than ward off the so-called diseases of deficiency, things like scurvy and rickets. Intake of several vitamins above the minimum daily requirement may prevent heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and other chromic diseases.

This summary will focus on vitamins with newly recognized or suspected roles in health and disease. It will present some of the evidence about vitamins' possible new roles, point out how to get more of these in your diet, and assess the value of taking a daily multivitamin.

Vitamin A: Vitamin A does much more than help you see in the dark. It stimulates the production and activity of white blood cells, takes part in remodeling bone, helps maintain the health of endothelial cells (those lining the body's interior surfaces), and regulates cell growth and division.

The 3 Bs: Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12, and Folic Acid: One of the advances that changed the way we look at vitamins was the discovery that too little folic acid, one of the eight B vitamins, is linked to birth defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly. Fifty years ago, no one knew what caused these birth defects, which occur when the early development of tissues that eventually become the spinal cord, the tissues that surround it, or the brain goes awry. Twenty five years ago, British researchers found that mothers of children with spina bifida had low vitamin levels. Folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 play key roles in recycling homocysteine into methionine, one of the 20 or so building blocks from which the body builds new proteins. Without enough folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12, this recycling process becomes inefficient and homocysteine levels increase. Several observational studies show that high levels of homocysteine are associated with increased risks of heart disease and stroke. Increasing intake of folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 decreases homocysteine levels. And some observational studies show lower risks of cardiovascular disease among people with higher intakes of folic acid, those who use multivitamin supplements, or those with higher levels of serum folate (the form of folic acid found in the body).

Vitamin C: Vitamin C has been in the public eye for a long time. Even before its discovery in 1932, nutrition experts recognized that something in citrus fruits could prevent scurvy, a disease that killed as many as 2 million sailors between 1500 and 1800. More recently, Nobel laureate Linus Pauling promoted daily megadoses of vitamin C as a way to prevent colds and protect the body from other chronic diseases.  There's no question that vitamin C plays a role in controlling infections. It's also a powerful antioxidant that can neutralize harmful free radicals, and it helps make collagen, a tissue needed for healthy bones, teeth, gums, and blood vessels.

Vitamin D: If you live north of the line connecting San Francisco to Philadelphia, odds are you don't get enough vitamin D. The same holds true if you don't, or can't, get outside for at least a 15-minute daily walk in the sun. African-Americans and others with dark skin tend to have much lower levels of vitamin D, due to less formation of the vitamin from the action of sunlight on skin. A study of people admitted to a Boston hospital, for example, showed that 57% were deficient in vitamin D. Vitamin D helps ensure that the body absorbs and retains calcium and phosphorus, both critical for building bone. Laboratory studies also show that vitamin D keeps cancer cells from growing and dividing.

Vitamin E: For a time, vitamin E supplements looked like an easy way to prevent heart disease. Promising observational studies, including the Nurses' Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-up Study, suggested 20% to 40% reductions in coronary heart disease risk among individuals who took vitamin E supplements (usually containing 400 IU or more) for least two years.

Vitamin K: Vitamin K helps make six of the 13 proteins needed for blood clotting. Its role in maintaining the clotting cascade is so important that people who take anticoagulants such as warfarin (Coumadin) must be careful to keep their vitamin K intake stable.

Antioxidants: Our cells must constantly contend with nasty substances called free radicals. They can damage DNA, the inside or artery walls, proteins in the eye--just about any substance or tissue imaginable. Some free radicals are made inside the body, inevitable byproducts of turning food into energy. Others come from the air we breathe and the food we eat. We aren't defenseless against free radicals. We extract free-radical fighters, called antioxidants, from food. Fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods deliver dozens, if not hundreds, of antioxidants. The most common are vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene and related carotenoids. Food also supplies minerals such as selenium and manganese, which are needed by enzymes that destroy free radicals. Antioxidants are proven as agents that could prevent heart disease, cancer, cataracts, memory loss, and a host of other conditions.


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