It has been a century since a Polish-American biochemist named Casimir Funk coined the word vitamine, and now, 100 years later, the 13 essential vitamins play an important role in the health of our bodies, including our brain health, at all stages of life. However, there are some experts who believe other nutrients should be given vitamin status.
Discovery of Vitamins
In 1912, Dr. Funk isolated the first vitamin (B1) from rice bran. At that time, rice-hulling machines were being used to process rice. Unfortunately, hulling can strip grains of vital nutritional elements. As a consequence, new health problems began emerging among people who relied on de-hulled grains as a staple food. Symptoms included weakness, fatigue and, as the condition progressed, apathia, polyneuropathy, paralysis, cardiomyopathy, and heart failure. This dietary-deficiency disease is now known as beriberi. Funk realized that a compound inside of the rice bran that had been removed in the hulling process was essential for human health. He gave the newly discovered substance the name “vitamine” — a combination of vita (Latin for “life”) and amine (a nitrogen compound).
For 100 years, the word vitamin has been an umbrella term for a group of essential micronutrients that play a range of important roles in our bodies. Most vitamins must be obtained from the diet, classifying them as essential. Compared to the macronutrients protein, carbohydrates, and fat, vitamins are present in food in minute quantities. When intake is inadequate, vitamin-deficiency disorders occur.
In many countries, people do not have access to vitamin-rich foods or do not choose foods such as liver (rich in vitamin A), broccoli (vitamin C), and nuts/seeds (vitamin E); this increases mortality rates and leads to serious health problems. The average adult in industrialized countries eats about 600 grams of food per day on a dry-weight basis, of which less than one gram consists of vitamins. Even in the U.S., inadequate vitamin intake is surprisingly common. For example, the average American eats less than three servings of fruit and vegetables daily. No single food contains all of the vitamins; therefore, a balanced and varied diet is necessary for an adequate intake. However, due to hectic lifestyles, many people are not eating a well-balanced diet, so it is important to choose enriched or fortified foods, or to use vitamin supplements.
The Nourished Mind
Our brains are the center of how we view and interact with the world around us. The mind is our control center, taking in cues from the environment and regulating how we react, housing our memories and our learning processes, and coordinating movement. As the most metabolically active part of the body, the brain demands nutrients to support its work. The brain relies upon glucose to function, and vitamins are essential for us to metabolize glucose and other energy-yielding nutrients.
Vitamins play an important role in overall health for everyone, from infants to seniors. And there are several vitamins that play specific roles in brain health. While all of the vitamins are essential, there are a few that specifically help to support brain health:
- Pregnant and Nursing Women: Folic acid (B9) plays a key role in helping the body make new cells and is very important before and during pregnancy. This B vitamin helps to reduce the risk of neural tube defects for the developing baby.
- School-Age Children: A number of studies have shown that nutrition can help support mental performance in school-age children. The key micronutrients that play an important role in brain health include the B vitamins (B1, B2, B6).
- Adults: Adequate intakes of folic acid, vitamins B6 and B12 help to support cognitive function throughout life. These three vitamins help maintain healthy homocysteine levels, which may protect blood vessels in the brain.
- Seniors: Nutrition can support mental performance in the aging population. Vitamin B5 is needed to help brain and nerve cells function, and it assists in their normal metabolism. Vitamin D receptors are found in the hippocampus and outer layer of the cerebrum, key areas of cognition. Low vitamin D serum levels can be associated with poorer cognitive function in older adults.
We must get vitamins from the foods we eat or through nutritional supplements. Sources of brain-healthy vitamins include:
- Vitamin B1: liver, fish, leafy vegetables, fruits, and nuts
- Vitamin B2: liver, eggs, meat, milk, cheeses, cereals, vegetables
- Vitamin B6: chicken, liver, fish, nuts, corn, whole grain cereals, vegetables, fruit
- Vitamin B9: liver, dairy products, milk, egg yolk, dark green leafy vegetables, beets, wheat germ, peanuts, oranges
- Vitamin B12: liver, meat, eggs, fish, dairy products
- Vitamin D: oily fish, egg yolk, mushrooms; additionally, vitamin D can be synthesized in the skin when it is exposed to sunlight
- Vitamin E: fats and oils
Can the alphabet of vitamins expand? Some experts believe there are other nutrients that should be given vitamin status. These nutrients include lutein and zeaxanthin — of the 600 carotenoids, only these two are found in the retina of the eye — and the omega-3 DHA, which makes up 93 percent of all omega-3 fats in the retina and 97 percent of the omega-3s in the brain.
Interestingly, in the early 1920s, omega-3 fatty acids were classified as “vitamin F.” That didn’t change until the 1930s, when two researchers determined that the essential fatty acids would be better classified as fats than vitamins, resulting in omega-3s losing their vitamin status.
No matter the age, it is vital to incorporate the 13 essential vitamins into daily diets. As more research and scientific breakthroughs occur, we may one day see the number of vitamins increase.
Michael McBurney, Ph.D., is head of scientific affairs at DSM Nutritional Products.