Biology

What are Vitamins?: Definition, Functions, and Health Benefits

From a very young age, we are told to eat our vitamins and minerals to stay healthy. But what are they?

Vitamins vs Minerals

Vitamins and minerals both help our bodies work properly, and they aid with functions such as growth and development. So what is the difference between the two? Simply stated, vitamins are organic and minerals are inorganic. This means that vitamins come from living sources, like plants and animals, while minerals come from elsewhere, such as the earth. Vitamins tend to have more complex structures than minerals, and because of this, are more prone to degradation via heat or chemicals. Today, we will be focusing on vitamins.

What is a Vitamin?

There are 13 essential vitamins that are required for human survival. Among these, there are two types of vitamins: water-soluble and fat-soluble. Water-soluble vitamins are found in the watery parts of food, and they enter our circulation easily. This also means that they are excreted easily, which is why it is important to consume these vitamins daily. The water-soluble-vitamins are Vitamin C and B-complex vitamins. Fat-soluble vitamins are absorbed by the body better when consumed with fat. They travel around the body less, but they are stored longer than water-soluble vitamins. This means that they don’t need to be consumed daily, as the body can store these vitamins in the liver or fat, then slowly release them as needed. The fat-soluble vitamins are vitamins A, D, E, and K.

Functions of Water-Soluble Vitamins

Vitamin C: Ensures proper gum and teeth health and creates collagen, which helps support body tissues and heal wounds. May help boost the immune system. Found in citrus fruits, potatoes, strawberries, and broccoli.

Thiamin (Vitamin B1): Helps maintain skin, hair, muscle, and nerve cells by converting the carbohydrates we consume into energy. Found in pork, brown rice, and watermelon.

Riboflavin (Vitamin B2): Important for growth and making production red blood cells. Found in dairy, leafy vegetables, and whole grains.

Niacin (Vitamin B3): May help lower cholesterol levels and helps maintain a healthy nervous system. Found in meat, mushrooms, and whole grains.

Pantothenic acid (Vitamin B5): Assists in metabolizing food in order to create lipids, such as steroids and cholesterol. Found in eggs, whole grains, and tomatoes.

Pyridoxine (Vitamin B6): Reduces the risk of heart disease and processes proteins. Found in meat, legumes, and soy products.

Biotin (Vitamin B7): Helps process and break down carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids. Found in whole grains, fish, and soy products.

Folic acid (Vitamin B9): Vital in creating new cells, especially during pregnancy. Aids in DNA and red blood cell production. Found in legumes, chick peas, and green vegetables.

Cobalamin (Vitamin B12): Reduces the risk of heart disease and maintains healthy red blood cells and nervous system. Found in meat, fish, and dairy.

Functions of Fat-Soluble Vitamins

Vitamin A: Maintains healthy teeth, skin, and bones. Found in eggs, leafy vegetables, and yellow/orange fruits.

Vitamin D: Helps body absorb and regulate calcium and phosphorus levels. Requires sunlight to make.

Vitamin E: An antioxidant that helps the body use other vitamins. Found in nuts and vegetable oils.

Vitamin K: Helps blood clot and maintains calcium levels. Found in eggs, milk, and green vegetables.

Vitamin Deficiencies

Each vitamin has a specific recommended daily amount. While every individual’s body is different, there are consequences when the body does not get enough. As seen above, vitamins are vital in regulating human function, and each vitamin has a specific role in maintaining the intricate balance within the human body. Therefore, specific vitamin deficiencies will cause specific problem depending on the vitamin’s original function. One of the most common vitamin deficiency in the United States is for Vitamin D, which we get from the sun. Lack of Vitamin D causes weakened immunity and high blood pressure. Extreme deficiencies can cause life-threatening diseases and ailments as well. Vitamin C deficiencies can lead to scurvy, which is disease that causes bleeding gums. Severe Vitamin A deficiencies can lead to blindness and increase the risk of infections. Rickets is a disease cause by a Vitamin D deficiency, and it causes weak bones and deformities of the skeleton. Some of these diseases only occur when there is a severe lack of vitamins, but it is still important to remember that our bodies require all 13 vitamins in order to function properly.

Consuming Excess Vitamins

If vitamins are so good for us, there should not be any consequences for taking extra, right? Unfortunately, just like anything in life, vitamins should be consumed according the guidelines. This means not exceeding the daily recommended limit. For example, extreme levels of Vitamin B6 can cause damage to nerves, which results in numbness. Likewise, too much Vitamin A can damage bones. However, through a normal diet, it is very difficult to intake excess vitamins, so problems only arise when unnecessary supplements are taken.

How to Consume Enough Vitamins

Maintaining a healthy diet is usually a surefire way to consume all essential vitamins. This means making sure to eat foods such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. However, individuals who have specific diets, such as vegetarianism or veganism, or medical conditions may have to take vitamin supplements. For example, Vitamin B12 is mostly found in animal products, so individuals who do not consume animal products must take supplements or consume food fortified with B12. There are a variety of vitamin supplements in the market nowadays, but it is always important to consult a doctor before doing so. This ensures that intake only the amount of vitamins that you are supposed to.

Vitamins Takeaway

Our bodies need 13 different vitamins to survive. By eating a wide variety of food, we are making sure that our bodies have every building block needed to function properly. Because deficiencies and excesses of vitamins can have potentially dangerous effects, it is important to meet the daily required amount for each vitamin.

Works Cited:

“5 Most Common Nutrient Deficiencies Explained and What to Do About It.” Parsley Health, 24 Oct. 2019, http://www.parsleyhealth.com/blog/nutrient-deficiencies-explained/.


Harvard Health Publishing. “Listing of Vitamins.” Harvard Health, http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/listing_of_vitamins.


“Vitamins and Minerals (for Teens) – Nemours KidsHealth.” Edited by Mary L. Gavin, KidsHealth, The Nemours Foundation, July 2014, kidshealth.org/en/teens/vitamins-minerals.html.


“Vitamins and Minerals Explained.” Pharmacy Times, http://www.pharmacytimes.com/publications/otc/2015/OTCGuide-2015/Vitamins-and-Minerals-Explained.


“Vitamins and Minerals.” HelpGuide.org, 16 Apr. 2020, http://www.helpguide.org/harvard/vitamins-and-minerals.htm.


“Vitamins: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002399.htm.

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