Why We Need Vitamins

When Ritual’s founder and CEO, Katerina Schneider, first approached our VP of Research & Development, Dr. Luke Bucci, the first thing she wanted to know was: do we even need these things? Is it just marketing? As it turns out, we do need vitamins. We sat down with Luke to find out more.

Okay, so starting from the top, we always hear about how necessary vitamins are. Why is that?
Vitamins are specific molecular compounds that perform very precise functions in our bodies. For example, Vitamin B12 runs an enzyme called methionine synthase that is crucial for making DNA and RNA, which are used for making new cells, especially blood cells. No other substance can do what each vitamin does, which is what makes them so essential.

If vitamins are so important, why don't our bodies make them on their own?
That has perplexed biologists forever. Some of the molecules that go into vitamins are very difficult to make from scratch, so we evolved to eat other microbes, plants and animals that could make them for us. In other words, it’s more efficient to get vitamins from our diet than to spend metabolic energy synthesizing them ourselves.

Here’s another thing we’ve never understood: If you already eat a reasonably healthy diet, why would a vitamin be at all necessary?
First of all, hardly anyone eats a perfect diet all of the time. Less than 5% of Americans get the recommended daily value of essential nutrients and those are usually people who take a supplement, according to a recent study in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics. An okay diet may be enough to prevent a nutrient deficiency disease—say, scurvy—but it’s not enough for your best health.

But do deficiencies really matter? Most people seem to be getting by, even with poor diets.
You’re right. But only because our bodies have evolved to compensate. And here’s where it gets complicated: Say you don’t have enough calcium. Your body will steal it from your bones; that’s where bone loss comes from. Supplements work to fill the gaps in your diet so your body doesn’t have to.

How can we tell if we’re getting what we need without a bunch of tests?
A major symptom of vitamin deficiency is fatigue. This happens because your body is busy triaging for all those missing nutrients. You might notice it first in your mood because it turns out all those happy chemicals in your brain--your neurotransmitters--need folate, B12, magnesium, and more. Hunger can be another sign of vitamin deficiencies. If several essentials are missing, your body starts to makes you eat more in an effort to get them. This can kick off a bad cycle, since it’s easy to respond to cravings with low-nutrient junk food, which leads to--guess what?--more hunger.

What determines the Daily Values?
Expert panels in the scientific branch of the US government review the published data and carefully consider links between health and nutrient intake, how much is too much, how much is too little, how much is just right for the general population, and many other details. Once agreement is reached (that's not easy!) their recommendation then goes through a lengthy and laborious political process to enact. It might take 10-20 years before that knowledge is made a part of how foods and supplements are regulated.

Can you take too many vitamins and what happens then?
Certainly. Though because there’s a very large margin of safety with most supplement dosages, you’d have to really work at it. The most common way people overdo it is by taking megadoses (thousands of times the Daily Value). If it’s just once, it generally just leads to GI disturbances. Over time, your symptoms would be fatigue and possibly some nerve issues. The two vitamins to really watch out for are A and D, as prolonged overdosing can be hard on your organs.

Is it important to get enough of every single vitamin? Or can they sub in for one another?
Vitamins definitely aren’t interchangeable. First, each vitamin has its own unique functions, so while some may be more important than others, there aren’t any substitutions. Second, vitamins often work together. For example, vitamin D and vitamin K cooperate to give you strong bones, so if you’re missing one of them, you’re not getting the full benefit--even if you’re getting loads of the other. You can think of it like the links in a chain of events: the weakest link determines health. As with everything, balance is essential.

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