What are vitamins for?

Supplied with food, vitamins are essential for our body. What is the role of these small molecules?

Multivitamin juices, “superfoods”, fortified with vitamins, nutritional supplements and more. Vitamins have become an important marketing argument. If they are really needed for our body, they are also not miracle molecules that will cure all evil. What are the true roles of vitamins then?

Vitamin is an organic molecule necessary for the proper functioning of the body, which cannot be produced by the body. Therefore, it is imperative that we consume it through food, otherwise we run the risk of deficit, sometimes with serious consequences. “It is precisely the deficiency situations that allow us to first understand the usefulness of vitamins,” explains Dr. Boris Hansel, a nutritionist at Bichat Hospital in Paris. In this way, the scurvy of sailors, deprived of fresh fruits, helped to understand the importance of vitamin C.

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Mechanisms for action of vitamins

Vitamins have several roles. They may, for example, be coenzyme. Enzymes are small “machines” that transform other products to perform the actions required for the cell to function properly and sometimes need partners to do so. For example, vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5 or even B6 are involved in enzymatic reactions such as energy production.

Other vitamins, such as vitamin C, are antioxidants. Many activities in the cell produce aggressive molecules called “free radicals”. Ascorbic acid will stabilize these radicals to prevent them from attacking the cell. Vitamin E, which is able to be inserted into cell membranes, is also an antioxidant.

Finally, vitamins can serve as messengers. Thus, vitamin D, partially synthesized by the skin through sun exposure, can undergo modifications to become calcitriol. Not only is this molecule necessary for calcium absorption, it is also a messenger that will make cells produce more than certain proteins.

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A variety of roles and sources

Through these various mechanisms of action vitamins are beneficial for the whole body: for the eyes, bones, skin, digestive system, blood and more. Consumption of sufficient amounts is therefore necessary, especially in the long term. “We know there is a link between taking a person’s vitamin and certain illnesses like diabetes or cancer,” says Dr. Hansel.

But you don’t have to succumb to marketing sirens, because finding vitamins isn’t really that complicated: knowing that vegetables are full of them is present everywhere in the diet. We find Vitamin E in vegetable oils, Vitamin B3 in fish, Vitamin B12 in eggs … In particular, it is necessary to find all the necessary variety of vitamins that the National Nutrition and Health Program recommends a balanced diet and diverse. Unfortunately, “there are situations of under-nutrition in relation to optimal needs, such as vitamins C or D,” regrets Matilde Touvier, an epidemiologist and director of research at Inserm, but “in France, the deficit is in the minority and mainly affects groups from disadvantaged populations. “And only those deficient or at risk situations (pregnancy, alcoholism, bariatric surgery, vegan diets) can justify a prescription supplement. Apart from these special cases,” we don’t know what the perfect balance is between in various vitamins, “warns Dr. Hansel.” No one multivitamin cocktail is not validated by solid scientific research. ”

What are vitamins for?
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