By Dr. Theresa Adebola John
Vitamin C or ascorbic acid is important in the synthesis of collagen, the main structural protein around cells in connective tissues and in the skin. Collagen keeps our skin firm and resilient and protects it from wrinkling. Vitamin C function also keeps the blood vessels strong and holds the teeth in their sockets. Vitamin C is essential for healthy bones and teeth, gums, and blood vessels. It plays a significant role in tissue repair, synthesis of some nerve transmitter molecules (neurotransmitters) and brain function, and supports immune function. Vitamin C helps the body to absorb iron. Vitamin C deficiency leads to scurvy which is characterized by weak blood capillaries, poor wound healing, bone deformity in children, bleeding and inflamed gums, loose teeth and anaemia. Vitamin C is also an antioxidant that neutralizes harmful reactive molecules thereby it helps to prevent cell damage caused by reactive molecules and reduces risk of diseases such as heart disease and some cancers, including those of the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, and breast.
We have discussed vitamin A which is one of the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.
Vitamin D is chemically a steroid structure and acts like a hormone. If we are regularly and sufficiently exposed to sunlight, our skin can synthesize vitamin D under the influence of sunlight. If we do not get enough sunlight we would need dietary supplement of vitamin D. Under sunlight the skin produces cholecalciferol which is then converted by the liver to calcidiol and then by the kidneys to calcitriol, which is the active form of vitamin D in the body. Vitamin D promotes intestinal absorption and metabolism (body usage) of the minerals calcium and phosphorus. It is important for maintenance of normal blood levels of calcium and phosphorus which are utilized to form teeth and bones and give bones strength. Deficiency leads to osteomalacia (softening of bones) in adults and rickets in children seen as bone deformities such as bow legs. Supplements can reduce the risk of non-spinal fractures and skeletal deformities.
Vitamin E is an antioxidant. Antioxidants neutralize reactive molecules that can damage cells. Vitamin E protects the heart, eyes, nerves, and helps in skin healing and prevents scarring. It may prevent degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and may protect against prostate cancer. Premature or low weight babies who do not absorb fat well may become deficient in vitamin E. Vitamin E deficiency can cause peripheral neuropathy, muscle problems, ataxia, eye disease such as retinopathy, red blood cell destruction and anaemia, and impairment of immune responses.
Vitamin K is an essential player in the formation of blood clotting factors. It activates proteins and calcium essential to blood clotting. Vitamin K is also important for controlling binding of calcium in bones and other tissues. It reduces risk of hip fractures. Deficiency of vitamin K results in abnormal bleeding such as nosebleeds and internal hemorrhage.
In summary, vitamins are very important for good looks, good health, and ability to function well in life. In order to obtain all the vitamins we have discussed, we need to eat a variety of foods regularly and some fresh fruits and vegetables should be included.
As with many aspects of life in Africa, we don’t lack natural resources but we are often poor in standard of living. For lack of knowledge, people hunger and thirst, people are malnourished, people suffer, and people perish. With the abundant sun and abundant rain, there should be such a variety of foods from fruits and vegetables to carbohydrates and oils that malnutrition should not be a problem in Africa. Vitamin deficiency should not be an issue even amongst the lower income people. We do need to apply more science to industry and to profitably utilize natural products for better life and living in Africa. Africa’s paradox of not lacking but being poor can be solved through scientific knowledge from a culture of research and development.
About the author: Dr. Theresa Adebola John is a lecturer at Lagos State University College of Medicine (LASUCOM) and an affiliated researcher at the College of Medicine, University of Tennessee, Memphis. For any comments or questions on this column, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0816094463