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Find out why not eating your 5 a day could leave you with diarrhoea and bandy legs!

A most brilliant chemical factory…but…

The human body is a brilliant chemical factory: it can make millions of complex, chemical compounds. But, as brilliant as it is, it cannot make vitamins. Without vitamins we would die as we need them for the chemical reactions that keep us alive!

What vitamins?

Today, we only know of 13 vitamins. These are:

  • Vitamin A - Retinol
  • Vitamin B:
  • B1 - Thiamine
  • B2 - Riboflavin
  • B3 - Niacin
  • B6 - Pyridoxine
  • B12 - Cyanocobalamin
  • Folic acid
  • Vitamin C - Ascorbic acid
  • Vitamin D - Calciferol
  • Vitamin E - Tocopherol
  • Vitamin K - Menaquinone
  • Pantothenic acid
  • Biotin

If you eat a proper, balanced diet, including fresh fruit and vegetables, you probably won’t get a vitamin deficiency disease. Sadly, deficiency diseases are still common as many people in the world are still not lucky enough to enjoy a good diet.

Solving the mystery plagues

Limes on a ship

The first vitamin deficiency disease to be recognized was scurvy. This is vitamin C deficiency; this means the body is not getting enough vitamin C. In ancient times, a deadly plague would sweep across Greece, Egypt and Rome from time to time, but no one knew what this disease was. It was, in fact, poor nutrition. In the Middle Ages, armies and navies lost up to 50 per cent of their men due to scurvy.

Tree needle potions!

A treatment for scurvy was discovered when a French explorer arrived in the newly-discovered America. Most of his men were suffering from scurvy. Native Americans advised him to give them a potion made from tree needles. The tree needles were rich in vitamin C, and this cured most of his men.

In 1742, James Lind, a British naval commander, tried to get the British Navy to carry fruit on all of its ships. He even wrote a book describing lemon juice as a ‘miracle cure’. He was ignored. But 62 years later Captain Cook started giving his men lime juice. None of his men died of scurvy. At the time no one knew why citrus fruit had such a miraculous effect, but from then on all British Naval ships carried barrels of limes. To this day Americans still refer to the British as ‘limies’ because of this practice!

What’s that smell? Diarrhea!

Symptoms of scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) begin with:

  • Poor appetite
  • Poor weight gain
  • Diarrhea
  • Rapid breathing
  • Fever
  • Irritability
  • Tenderness and discomfort in legs
  • Swelling over long bones
  • Bleeding (hemorrhaging)
  • Feelings of paralysis

As the disease progresses, the symptoms get worse including:

  • Bleeding gums
  • Loose teeth
  • Hemorrhage of the skin
  • Bleeding in the eye
  • Protruding eyeball
  • Bleeding of the cartilage between joints
  • Skin disorder

Prevention is better than a cure!

Fruit and Veg

Scurvy can be prevented by eating enough vitamin C. Foods that contain vitamin C include:

  • Oranges
  • Lemons
  • Blackcurrants
  • Guava
  • Kiwifruit
  • Papaya
  • Tomatoes
  • Strawberries
  • Carrots
  • Bell peppers
  • Broccoli
  • Potatoes
  • Cabbage
  • Spinach
  • Paprika
  • Liver
  • Oysters
Foods high in Vitamins

A totally preventable epidemic

Vitamin A deficiency is still a huge problem in the world. Between 250,000 and 500,000 children become blind every year. Half of them die within a year of losing their sight. What’s sad it that this is a totally preventable epidemic: all that’s needed is a diet containing fresh milk or vegetables like carrots.

Could ‘golden rice’ help?

Golden Rice

British scientists have recently developed a genetically modified (GM) strain of ‘golden rice’. This has about twenty times as much beta carotene as ordinary rice.

What is beta carotene?

Beta carotene is converted directly into vitamin A by the body. This could potentially save the sight and the lives of millions of people. GM crops are, however, viewed very suspiciously by some people and it could take many years for ‘golden rice’ to be grown on a large scale.

Get out!

Vitamin D keeps the major organs and bones healthy. Without it bones (particularly in the legs) can lose calcium and become soft resulting in a disease called rickets. This was a very common disease in Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Symptoms of rickets (vitamin D deficiency)

Symptoms of rickets include:

  • Knobbly enlargements on the ends of bones (arms, legs, spine, pelvis)
  • Bowing legs under weight
  • Forward projection of the breastbone (pigeon chest)
  • Odd-shaped skull
  • Distorting pelvis under weight
  • Spinal curvature
  • Delayed formation of teeth
  • Muscle cramps
  • Impaired growth (adults less than 5 feet tall)

A hundred years ago it was common to see people who suffered from some or all of these symptoms.

Vitamin D is also needed to keep your immune system functioning correctly. A lack of it can lead to all sorts of problems like an increase in allergies or an increased vulnerability to diseases.

Buy tissues in bulk, aint no sun in the winter!

Have you ever wondered why people tend to get many more cold or flu bugs in the winter? Recent research suggests one possible factor: the biggest source of vitamin D comes from sunlight. In fact, it is very difficult to get enough vitamin D just from food. To make vitamin D in large amounts the skin needs to be exposed to sunlight that contains Ultra Violet (UV) radiation.

What is UV light?

There are two types of UV light: UV A and UV B.

We need the short wavelength UV B to make vitamin D. It is also, unfortunately, the same kind of UV that causes sunburn and skin cancer. Most people now wear sunscreen or cover up as soon as the sun comes out. This is great for preventing skin damage but the problem is that it might block out UVB rays all together!

Do I need to go to Benidorm?

No, you don’t need to go to Benidorm and get burned to a crisp to top up with vitamin D. All you need is about twenty minutes a day of exposure to natural sunlight. And you can’t generate Vitamin D (or get a tan) by sitting in a car or conservatory! You should be able to give your skin a chance to build up a good supply of vitamin D long before you start to burn. If you want to stay out longer, and stay safe, then just slap on the sunscreen after twenty minutes.


Unexplained diseases

There have been many unexplained epidemics over the last couple of decades:

  • Allergies and cancers have increased
  • Autism is on the rise
  • Cases of depression have multiplied

Perhaps there is a link between all or some of this.

What if…

What if this has something to do with people staying out of the sun and smothering themselves and their kids with sun block? And why do very cloudy countries like Scotland have such an awful health record? This may just prove to be the biggest health story of the century.

What does this mean to you?

Everyone has to decide for themselves on the evidence. There is no single conclusive study. Should you go out and get a good dose of sunshine on a regular basis and suffer an increased risk of skin cancer? Or should you cover up and sit in the dark risking vitamin D deficiency?

You need to decide

As for me I’m catching the Costa Brava plane. Viva Espana!


Can you design and perform an experiment to work out which type of citrus fruit contains the most vitamin C?

Hint: Google Iodine titrations!

The big questions:

What is a vitamin?

What are deficiency diseases?

How do we make sure we all get enough vitamins to be healthy?

Which are the most important vitamins?

Do you have a deficiency disease? How would you know?