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Vitamins and Deficiency Diseases
Since ancient times physicians have been aware, even without scientific names or labels, of the effects of the lack of trace substances, now labeled vitamins and minerals, in the diet. Although they couldn’t precisely identify what these substances were, ancient manuscripts show that they learned to treat deficiencies by supplementing the diet with specific foods or substances.
In our busy modern world, with our chaotic, fast-paced lifestyles it is easy to fail to eat a healthy, balanced, vitamin-rich diet. We focus on calorie counts and fat and carbohydrate grams and don’t always concern ourselves enough with nutritional value.
To save time and effort, we frequently eat foods that are canned, packaged or pre-prepared. We eat fast foods that are high in fat and salt. We rarely know where our fresh foods come from, fresh foods lose vitamins while in transport, and even the healthiest foods lose vitamin content when canned or packaged.
Vitamins are vital for the preservation and maintenance of health and must be taken in through outside sources such as fresh foods and sunlight. At present science recognizes 13 of these vitamin compounds, labeled by combining alphabetical letters; A, B, C, D, E, and K and subscript numbers. Each vitamin has a specific job in the body, A is important for vision, B for energy and general health, C is essential for the immune system, D for bone health and density, E is a potent antioxidant and K is essential for blood coagulation. Any severe lack of vitamins can have serious effects on health.
Commercial vitamin supplements have now been marketed for almost a century. But before that people had to obtain all of their vitamins from natural sources, primarily foods and sunlight. Seasonal and regional variations in fresh foods and their associated vitamin content often led to the incidence of what are now called ‘deficiency diseases.’ Lifestyles could also contribute to vitamin deficiency, e.g. lack of sunlight can lead to vitamin D deficiency. Deficiency diseases were also seen in populations that primarily consumed processed foods rather than natural foods.
Physicians and scientists now classify deficiency diseases as ‘Primary’ and ‘Secondary.’ Primary deficiency diseases, such as scurvy, rickets, beriberi, and pellagra are caused by the almost total lack of necessary vitamins in the victim’s diet. Secondary deficiency diseases are caused by the body’s failure to properly metabolize vitamins due to smoking, alcohol consumption, and the use of some medications or of a severely restricted diet. Research in the 18th and 19th centuries demonstrated that the ‘deficiency diseases’ rickets, a condition that caused curvature of the leg bones is caused by vitamin D deficiency, and beriberi, a skin condition caused by lack of vitamin B, could also be treated and cured through the addition of the proper vitamins to the victims’ diets through dietary and lifestyle adjustments.
Although the best source of dietary vitamins is still a healthy, well-balanced diet, the use of vitamin supplements can be of benefit, especially for people with busy, high-stress lifestyles and for growing children. As we don’t always know how much vitamin content our canned, pre-prepared or fast food diets actually provides us, the use of a daily multivitamin can plug up any holes that may exist in our day-to-day nutrition.