Vitamins

June 29, 2008

Vitamins are natural compounds that are not made by the body, but are necessary for important bodily functions. In a perfect world we would get all the vitamins needed by the body from the foods we eat. However, many vegetables and fruits, which are the foods highest in vitamins, may not deliver enough of specific vitamins and minerals to keep the body functioning optimally since these nutrient levels drop rapidly after produce is picked. Hence it always best to eat fresh locally grown produce.

While these compounds do not provide the body with a source of energy, they perform an important role in releasing stored energy from foods. Additionally, many bodily systems rely on vitamins for regulation. The immune system, the body’s ability to fight disease, is affected by vitamin intake, and hormonal balance and optimization is also dependent on vitamins. Understanding which vitamins are necessary for certain body processes, knowing where those vitamins are found naturally and if they need supplementation because of a lack in the diet is critical for the athlete wanting to optimize performance and maintain healthy bodily systems.

Vitamin A is found in 2 forms: beta carotene and retinol. It has been widely studied for its effects on maintaining healthy vision, particularly in low light and at night, and for its functions in the maintenance of strong skin cells and tissue. It also can help the body fight infection and has recently been shown to decrease chances of developing some cancers. It has mucus-controlling properties also and is especially beneficial to those who suffer from allergies, hay fever and sinus problems to lessen the mucus-response to different particles entering the body (from food and from the air, for example).

Vitamin A is found in carrots and dark green leafy vegetables. It is also present in fish oils and cheese. Products with added vitamin A, like margarine and milk, are available. Too much vitamin A supplements in the form of retinol can be toxic to the system, so read your supplements’ labels carefully. A recommended daily dose for a healthy male is 900 mcg.

Vitamin C is important for athletes for its role in the protection and maintenance of connective tissue, especially ligaments, tendons and cartilage. It also assists the body in the production of hormones, which are important in maintaining optimal strength and functioning, as well as boosting the immune system and aiding in the healing of wounds. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant also, assisting the body in fighting stress in the tissues by minimizing free radical damage, which is produced naturally by exertion.

The best source of vitamin C is fresh fruits, especially citrus fruits, and vegetables, especially fresh potatoes with skins. Vitamin C is water-soluble, which means the body expels any excess it does not use and it will not become harmful to the body. Diarrhea may occur when the body’s maximum requirement has been reached. The upper limit for dosage is 2 g per day for an active male.

Vitamin D is important primarily for the role it plays in allowing calcium to be absorbed and used by the body. It is vital, therefore, to the growth and maintenance of bones and teeth. Strong bones are essential to athletes not only to resist stress fractures and breaks, but also to maintain healthy points of attachment for muscle tissue.

Vitamin D is unusual in that it is produced in the body in response to sunlight absorbed through the skin. In sunny climates, everyday living provides sunlight for the body to manufacture enough vitamin D to maintain healthy levels. Those who rarely go into the sunlight should take care to eat enough oily fish and eggs. Fortified milk and breakfast cereals are also good sources of vitamin D. No more than 250 mcg of daily vitamin D should be taken because it is a fat-soluble vitamin, so any excess cannot be excreted and can therefore become toxic.

Vitamin E is one of the most important antioxidants, protecting cells from damage from free radical molecules. In addition to the protection of cell membranes, fats and their function in the body are also protected. It also works to help prevent vitamin A in the body from becoming depleted. Both the immune system and the nervous system rely on vitamin E for their optimal functioning. Studies show that vitamin E can also be helpful in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases, most notably cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.

Eggs are also a good source of vitamin E. Green vegetables, avocado, nuts, whole grains, wheat germ, olives and vegetable oils also provide the body with natural ways to extract the vitamin. Since it is also a fat-soluble vitamin, too much vitamin E can be harmful to the body and the maximum recommended daily dose for an adult male is 15 mg.

Vitamin B1, also known as thiamin, is especially important for athletes because it plays a vital role in helping the body break down carbohydrates and to release the energy from carbs for use by the body. It is also essential for healthy mucus membranes and optimal functioning of the cardiovascular and nervous systems as well as supporting muscle functioning throughout the body.

A variety of foods are good sources of vitamin B1 including milk, potatoes kidney beans, bread and meats (especially pork and organ meats). Many breakfast cereals are also fortified with vitamin B1. Adult males should have at least 1.5 mg of Vitamin B1 a day, although most diets contain at least this. There is not a great risk of ingesting too high a dose of B1.

Vitamin B2, also known as riboflavin, is important for athletes because of the vital role it plays in the release of energy from foods containing protein and/or fat. It helps the body break down these foods and benefit from their energy stores. It also assists in cell growth. It is broken down easily and constantly used by the body so it needs to be replaced frequently.

Milk, meat and eggs are all good sources of vitamin B2. Supplementing up to 50 mg of B2 a day can be beneficial, although care should be taken to not dramatically exceed this dose and risk a toxic reaction in the body. Exercise depletes this vitamin more quickly so athletes should pay particular attention to its supplementation.

Niacin is a water-soluble vitamin, also known as vitamin B3, and its levels in the body are also critical for the production and release of energy stores in the body. It also blocks the breakdown of certain fats, increasing high-density cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) levels in the blood.

Bread, potatoes and meat are good sources of niacin. Fortified breakfast cereals also generally contain this important vitamin. 16mg a day is recommended, although higher doses are recommended for athlees. Side effects reported from large doses include skin rashes, dryness and itching.

Pantothenic Acid, also known as vitamin B5, is critical for the body’s production of energy. It also plays an important role in the production of neurotransmitters, which are vital to the optimal functioning of the nervous system. It has also been shown to have positive effects on wound healing and cholesterol reduction.

This vitamin is found in almost all foods, but particularly high amounts are found in green vegetables, nuts, yeast and liver. Yogurt, legumes and chicken are also good sources. As with most vitamins, consuming food fresh rather than canned is important to obtain optimal amounts of pantothenic acid. Adults need about 5 mg of pantothenic acid daily. It is not generally thought to be toxic to humans but very high doses (10 – 20 g daily) have been shown to produce mild adverse effects like diarrhea.

Vitamin B6 is necessary for the protein to be utilized by the body. It is vital for the healthy function of the body’s hemoglobin, which is responsible for allowing oxygen to travel in the blood around the body. Oxygen supply is critical to the optimal function of muscles and other tissues. Immune system and blood sugar regulation benefits are also attributed to vitamin B6.

Vegetables (particularly potatoes), milk, meat and fish are all good sources of vitamin B6. Bananas and garbanzo beans also provide high amounts. About 1.5 mg of vitamin B6 is recommended daily and studies show the body may be able to tolerate up to 100 mg daily. Too much vitamin B6 can lead to nerve damage in the arms and legs so those supplementing should take care not to exceed this dose.

Vitamin B12 is essential for the healthy production of red blood cells and the synthesis of DNA. Red blood cells play a critical role in the distribution of oxygen around the body and, therefore, the strength and endurance of the muscles and other tissues. DNA is essential in creating new cells, since it the basis of cell division and repair are not possible. The nervous system functioning also benefits from B12.

Vitamin B12 is found in animal foods, for example, liver, milk and fish. Like other vitamins, eggs are also a good source of B12. Vegetarians and especially vegans have to be particularly aware that they do not become deficient in Vitamin B12 since it is found only in animal products. Hence supplementation is necessary. There is no established upper limit for B12 supplementation and this vitamin is not considered toxic.

Folic acid, like B12, is also needed for the production of red blood cells, the synthesis of DNA and healthy nervous system function. Cell division is thought to be related to adequate amounts of folic acid in the body. It also has been shown to have the potential to decrease chances of heart disease and stroke.

Raw green vegetables are the best source of folic acid. Dried peas and beans and sunflower seeds are also high in this vitamin. Folic acid supplements are also recommended, but supplementation should not exceed 1 mg daily because, although chances of toxicity are low, too much folic acid might mask symptoms related to B12 deficiency.

Biotin, also known as vitamin B7 or vitamin H, plays an important role in helping the body break down fats and proteins, making them more readily available for use by the body. It strengthens hair and nails and is critical in helping the body maintain stable blood sugar levels.

Whole grains, milk, eggs and nuts are common sources of biotin. Liver can also provide this vitamin in substantial amounts. Biotin requirements for adults are 30 mcg daily. No significant side effects have been noted with larger supplemental doses and studies show the body tolerates supplementation well, without the risk of toxicity. Biotin, like many vitamins, can be depleted easily when certain drugs are taken.

It is recommended that all people take a daily multi-vitamin and multi-mineral supplement to make up for areas that are lacking in the diet. This is even more important for athletes since vigorous exercise depletes stores of vitamins and minerals faster. Unfortunately, the FDA recommended daily values of most vitamins provide just enough to prevent a deficiency, but usually are not enough to keep the body running optimally for athletes. Hence, athletes should ensure they take “super” multi-vitamins and minerals that contain much higher levels of some nutrients.

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