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Consider this your intro to vitamins 101

So, what exactly are vitamins and minerals, and why do we need them? ‘Vitamins are organic compounds, and minerals are chemical elements. In general, they are not made by the body or, if they are, they aren’t made in sufficient amounts – which is why we need to ingest them. Most importantly, they are vital for bodily functions and without them, people can get very sick,’ says Dr Bianca Berndoerfler from Tygerberg Hospital. But how do you know what you need, and when? We unpack the top heroes and what they do for you.


Vitamin A

This antioxidant helps boost the immune system, improves vision, maintains healthy skin and is good for growth and development. A deficiency can cause poor night vision or burning, itching and dryness in the eyes, leading to inflammation of the eyelids and blindness. Getting too much can cause dizziness, nausea, headaches and even liver damage, says dietitian Maxine Botha.


B vitamins

There are eight B vitamins: B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9 and B12. Together, they are called vitamin B complex. ‘This vitamin complex helps turn our food into fuel, giving us the energy to sustain ourselves daily,’ says Maxine. ‘Even though these vitamins work together, they have individual benefits, such as keeping your nails, hair and skin healthy; improving immune function; and reducing inflammation.’ Just as each B vitamin has its own benefits if you take in enough of it, a deficiency will cause individual symptoms. These include cracks around the mouth, nausea, heart complications and anaemia.


Vitamin C

Winter is on its way, so you may be thinking it’s time to increase your intake of vitamin C. After all, vitamin C fights colds and flus, right? Turns out, that’s actually a myth; but vitamin C is vital for many other reasons. It’s good for strengthening your blood vessels, giving your skin its elasticity, healing wounds, and helping to repair and maintain teeth and bones.


Vitamin D

Did you know that vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin? ‘This is because modest exposure to sunlight is usually sufficient for most people to produce their own. You only need about 20 minutes outside to get enough vitamin D,’ explains says registered dietitian Michelle Tolmay, ‘which most people can get even if they are not trying.’ So, why is vitamin D so important? Its key role is absorbing calcium and promoting healthy bones and teeth, but there is also journal research that shows that vitamin D can reduce your risk of cancer, says Dr Berndoerfler.


Iron has a lot of jobs: It helps move oxygen around the body through the haemoglobin; it’s essential in the production of blood; and it is needed for growth, development and normal cell activity. And, if you have a deficiency? ‘Low levels of iron can cause iron-deficiency anaemia, one of the world’s most common nutritional deficiencies,’ warns Michelle. ‘Iron-deficiency anaemia can lead to tiredness, reduced ability to work and concentrate, and increased risk of infections.’



You may already know that calcium builds and maintains bones and teeth. What you may not know is that ‘it also aids nerve function, regulates heart function and helps muscles contract,’ according to Michelle. And without it you increase your risk of developing hypocalcaemia, osteopenia and osteoporosis. Symptoms of these include bone fractures and muscle cramps, numbness in hands and feet, and confusion or memory loss, among others.



Magnesium plays a very important role in the maintenance of muscle and nerve function, while also ensuring a steady heart rhythm and healthy immune system. Magnesium also helps reduce migraines, pain, asthma and sleep disorders; while a lack of magnesium is associated with insulin resistance, heart disease and high blood pressure. And that’s not all – loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, fatigue and weakness are all early signs of magnesium deficiency.



‘Most people get enough potassium because almost all fruit, vegetables, meat and fish contain it,’ Dr Berndoerfler explains. This is good news because potassium is crucial to heart, muscle and nerve function. It also supports digestive health, regulates blood pressure and helps build strong bones. But, despite its abundance in food, there are certain conditions that can cause a potassium imbalance, such as diabetes, kidney diseases, alcoholism and bulimia. If you live with any of these, you should keep an eye on your potassium levels.


Words: Erin Coe | Image: Unsplash


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