How Vitamins Work

By Howard J. Bennett

Most parents have rituals in the morning. (A ritual is a just fancy way of saying a person does the same thing on a regular basis.)

Ritual 1: Get dressed and drink a cup of coffee.

Ritual 2: Tell the kids it’s time to get up for school.

Ritual 3: Clean the cat litter or take the dogs out for a morning pee.

Ritual 4, 5 and 6: Tell the kids it’s really time to get up for school.

Ritual 7: Feed the kids.

If you live in the average American home, Ritual 7 may also involve taking a vitamin. But what are vitamins and how do they work? Basically, vitamins are substances in food that help your body function properly.

Your body is made up of 50 trillion cells. The Earth is home to 7 billion people. That means there are 7,000 times more cells in your body than there are people on the planet!

Each of your cells is programmed for a specific job. Brain cells enable you to think. Muscle cells allow you to move. Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout your body. Even though cells have different tasks, they all carry out their functions through chemical reactions. A chemical reaction occurs when two or more molecules interact with each other to create something new.

Tens of thousands of chemical reactions take place in your body every minute. In order for this to proceed smoothly, the body uses enzymes to speed up the pace of these reactions. One of the ways vitamins work is by helping enzymes do their job.

Here’s an example.

Hundreds of years ago, pirates and sailors suffered from a condition called scurvy, which was caused by not having enough Vitamin C in their diet. (They didn’t eat many fruits or vegetables.) One of the ways Vitamin C works is by helping with the production of collagen, a protein that gives connective tissue (cartilage, tendons, skin, etc.) its strength. Without Vitamin C, collagen is not as strong as it should be. This leads to loose teeth, poor wound healing, body aches and other symptoms of scurvy.

Here are some other functions aided by vitamins.

• Vitamin A: promotes night and color vision and a healthy immune system

• B Vitamins: important for nerve cell function, making red blood cells and producing energy in cells

• Vitamin D: increases calcium absorption from food to make strong bones

• Vitamin E: prevents cell damage that occurs as a result of daily cell activity

• Vitamin K: helps blood clot, or form scabs

If you eat a well-balanced diet, you don’t need to take a vitamin. However, if you shy away from certain foods, especially fruits and vegetables, a daily vitamin can help keep you in tip-top shape. Check out the following link if you’d like a list of foods that are rich in vitamins:

Bonus Fact: In addition to vitamins, a healthful diet includes a variety of minerals like calcium and iron. Check out the following link if you’d like a list of foods that are rich in minerals:

© 2013 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
(First published in the Washington Post 6/3/13.)

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