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How Do Vitamins Work?

Contributed by Dr. Jeffrey Blumberg

Whether it's being able to see at night1 or nourish our skin,2 vitamins assist us with the physiological processes that make life possible. Think of them as a full-time construction or maintenance crew that helps us to work, grow, and develop properly.

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While vitamins might not take the spotlight as the crew chief, the various jobs our bodies need to do would not be possible without their help.

Ideally, we get the vitamins we need from the foods we eat.2 In the body, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats combine chemically with other substances to provide energy and build body tissue. Enzymes produced from specific vitamins, initiate or accelerate these chemical reactions.3, 4  For example, the B vitamins help with the formation of active enzymes that help transfer energy from the food we ingest to the body.3

Water- vs Fat-Soluble

Each vitamin has a different job to do, but they also work as a team regulating the various biological processes within our bodies.5, 6 How vitamins are used and processed by the body depends on their chemical makeup. Vitamins fall into two categories:

Water-Soluble Fat-Soluble
Vitamin C and B vitamins Vitamins A, D, E, and K

Water-soluble vitamins are absorbed by the intestine and carried by our blood to specific body tissues where they are needed, but they are easily lost through sweat and urine. Consequently, they must be replenished more often.

Fat-soluble vitamins on the other hand, can take quite a while to break down and remain in the body longer. Vitamins A and D get stored in the liver while vitamin E is stored in body fat.7, 8

Different purposes of vitamins
Vitamin Purpose
Vitamin A Helps form and maintains healthy teeth, bones, soft tissue, mucous membranes, and skin.7
Vitamin B6 Helps break down proteins, helps maintain normal nerve function and form red blood cells.8
Vitamin B12 Essential for metabolism. It also helps form red blood cells and maintains the central nervous system.8
Vitamin C Promotes the health of teeth and gums as well as wound healing.8
Vitamin D Helps the body absorb calcium, which is important for healthy teeth and bones. It also helps maintain proper blood levels of calcium and phosphorus.7
Vitamin E An antioxidant that plays a role in the formation of red blood cells.7
Vitamin K Required for normal coagulation of the blood. Some studies suggest that it helps maintain bone health in the elderly.7
Biotin Essential for the metabolism of proteins and carbohydrates, and in the production of hormones and cholesterol.8
Niacin Helps maintain healthy skin and nerves. It also helps maintain healthy cholesterol levels.8
Folate Works with vitamin B12 to help form red blood cells. It is also necessary for the production of DNA which controls tissue growth and cell function.8
Pantothenic acid (B5) Essential for the metabolism of food. It also plays a role in the production of hormones and cholesterol.8
Riboflavin (B2) Works with the other B vitamins. It is important for body growth and the production of red blood cells.8
Thiamin (B1) Helps the body’s cells change carbohydrates into energy. It is also essential for heart function and healthy nerve cells.8

When to Take a Multivitamin

While dietary supplements should never be a substitute for a healthy diet, a typical multivitamin supplement with minerals can help substantially to make up any shortfalls between required amounts of nutrients and the usual amounts most of us get in our daily lives.

If you’re not sure whether you’re getting all the essential vitamins you need every day from your diet, consult with a nutritionist or your doctor, and consider the added benefits of taking a daily multivitamin.

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