Published on 28 January 2024

    Vitamins are essential for the body to function properly — but this doesn’t mean you should automatically start loading up on supplements. 

    The term “vitamins” was coined when Dr Casimir Funk, a Polish biochemist was studying certain properties in food that seemed to prevent nutritional diseases such as beri-beri (Vitamin B1 deficiency) and scurvy (Vitamin C deficiency). This class of organic compounds seemed “vital to life”, so he named them “vitamines” — a term that has evolved into what we now know as vitamins.

    Both vitamins and minerals are micronutrients which are needed in small amounts for our bodies to function properly. The 13 essential vitamins: Vitamins A, C, D, E, K, and the B group of vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12), are found in organic sources such as plants and animals, while minerals are inorganic elements that originate from the earth and water. Both vitamins and minerals play specific roles in bodily functions, and their corresponding deficiencies are linked to a range of health issues, including greater susceptibility to illness due to a weak immune system.

    Who should take vitamin supplements?

    Ms Joyce Ho, Senior Pharmacist, Alexandra Hospital (AH), shared that while most people can get the necessary vitamins from their diets, those with certain medical conditions — such as malnutrition and gastrointestinal disorders — may need vitamin supplementation. In addition, vitamins may interact with medications and lead to unwanted outcomes such as reduction of medication efficacy.

    Lifestyles and life events also have a role to play in whether you require vitamin supplements. “Pregnant females for example, would require supplements such as folic acid (Vitamin B9), required for healthy brain and spine development of the foetus. Vegetarians and vegans are at greater risk of developing Vitamin B12 deficiency due to their plant-based diet since it is mainly present in foods of animal origin. Plant-based foods do not naturally contain Vitamin B12,” said Ms Ho.

    Factors such as an unbalanced diet and excessive alcohol consumption can affect the body’s ability to absorb certain nutrients. For example, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to liver damage, thus affecting the normal function of our liver. This can in turn affect the production of bile fluid by the liver cells, which is supposed to help us to absorb fats and fat-soluble vitamins optimally.

    When consuming vitamin supplements, it is important to note the difference between fat-soluble and water-soluble vitamins. While excess water-soluble vitamins (B and C) are passed out in urine, fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) are stored in the liver, skeletal muscles and fatty tissue. This means that water-soluble vitamins need to be replenished regularly, while excessive intake of fat-soluble vitamins over a prolonged period can lead to a build-up — potentially reaching toxic levels.

    It’s best to consult a medical professional if you’re unsure of whether you need supplements.