Archive for February, 2015

vitamin wordle

Vitamins: be more curious

These ramblings first appeared in Newstrack, the magazine of Derwent Valley Orienteers. I have expanded them here as vitamins seem to fall into that middle bit of the Venn diagram of my running, my obsession with polar exploration and work as a gastro nurse. But be warned – you may learn more about polar history than nutrition if you read on …

Mike Stroud, expedition doctor and 1992/3 Antarctic crossing partner to Sir Ranulph Fiennes, stated that runners are unlikely to be lacking in vitamins & minerals because their hearty intake of macronutrients should include the necessary micronutrients. However these nutritional basics are often overlooked and runners need optimum nutrition for recovery from injury and the rigours of training (and orienteers for concentration).

It was the Polish biochemist Caisimir Funk (1884-1967) who, in 1911, coined the term ‘vitamine’ or ‘vital amine’ (an amine is an organic compound containing a nitrogen atom) when he proposed that diseases such as beriberi, rickets, sprue (an early term for coeliac disease), scurvy and pellagra were caused by nutritional deficiencies instead of germs – the theory developed by Louis Pasteur in the 1870s. The final e was axed by British food scientist Jack Drummond in 1920 when it was suspected that vitamin A, for one, did not contain an amine.

Vitamin A, safe and riskier sources

Vitamin B, complex and complicated

Vitamin C, a survey of scurvy

Vitamin D, calcium homeostasis hormone

Vitamins E & K, clotting counterweights

The Vitamin Tube Map © Sally Chaffey 2015

The Vitamin Tube Map
© Sally Chaffey 2015


Looking back on this survey of the vitamins, it seems they really were a magical discovery a century ago, when deficiency diseases were first recognised as such. Our parents told us to eat our greens; we are more relaxed, perhaps because florid cases of rickets, scurvy and beriberi are now rare.

We owe our understanding of the micronutrients to those doctors and public health officials who postulated the existence of the vitamins by observing human deficit and used trial and error to find a dietary cure. Then the biochemists and chemists who spent years isolating the active substances and attempting to synthesise these substances de novo. Finally the sailors, pioneers, prisoners, volunteers and brave self-experimenters on five continents who found out the hard way.

The supplement industry is massive and continues to grow, but the conclusion I have drawn is that a fresh and varied diet is safer and better for you. It seems astounding that deficiency diseases have only come to be understood in the last hundred years. What paradigm shift will be next?

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