"Take your vitamins" is a phrase well known to most children born after 1950. Amazingly, the value of vitamins was largely unknown until German biological chemist Casmir Funk's groundbreaking work on "vitamines" in 1912 and its translation into English in 1922. Today, children study the Food Pyramid in school and learn about vitamins and nutrition at an early age. What was once advanced chemistry has become everyday knowledge.
Vitamins are soluble substances that nourish various organs and processes throughout the human organism. They may act as antioxidants, hormones or catalysts, helping the body form everything form skin cells to fatty acids. They aid blood clotting, energy production, help make red blood cells and brain and nerve tissue. Vitamins are present in all fruits, vegetables and legumes. Some vitamins are present in fish, liver, dairy products and poultry. Our bodies need a certain amount of all vitamins to work properly but, with some vitamins, like A, B6, C and D, too much can cause problems ranging from headaches and nausea to liver damage and kidney stones. Some vitamins work best when balanced with complementary amounts of other nutrients; D helps the body use calcium and phosphorus, both needed for healthy bones and growth. Vitamins safeguard the body against specific conditions: vitamin C prevents scurvy and retards cataract development; vitamin D prevents rickets and, with calcium, forestalls osteoporosis; vitamin E is used to slow the progression of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's and helps wounds and skin heal.
Vitamins are groups of compounds. They are defined not so much as by what they are as by what they do. Vitamin A helps maintain eyes, skin, urinary tract and the lining of the respiratory tract. The complex of vitamins called B helps the heart and nervous system function, aids in metabolism and helps produce red blood cells, brain and nerve tissue. Vitamin C keeps teeth, gums and bones healthy. Vitamin E helps prevent oxidation of certain fatty acids that keep skin and tissue supple. They do these things by preventing or stimulating the natural processes of the body. It is through our understanding of these processes that today's children are stronger, bigger and healthier than their parents or grandparents.