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There's no doubt that we need vitamins to keep our bodies fit, healthy and strong, but can we get enough of them from the food that we eat or do we need to take supplements?

Scurvy, the disease which was once the scourge of the British navy, was conquered in the 18th century by an English doctor. He discovered that giving the sailors lemons and limes to supplement their diet on long voyages could prevent the vitamin C deficiency which gave rise to the unpleasant disorder.

Lemons and limes thus became the first vitamin supplements. Since then, more than a dozen vitamins have been identified that are vital for health and more are being discovered even today.

Now evidence is mounting that some of these vitamins - notably A, C and E - may have another vital role in preventing certain types of cancer, heart disease and cataracts.

Vitamins are complex organic substances essential in small amounts for the normal functioning of the body. Our bodies cannot make most vitamins themselves so we must get them from our diet.

Vitamins fall into two main categories - fat soluble and water soluble. The fat-soluble kind, which include A, D, E and K, are absorbed with fats into the bloodstream and then stored in fatty tissue, mainly in the liver. Our reserves of these vitamins may last for several years so a daily intake is not essential. The water-soluble vitamin C and those from the B group can only be stored in limited amounts, so we should top up our stores every day.

Vitamin supplements are a range of dietary preparations containing one or more vitamins, sometimes combined with minerals - chemical elements which we also need to maintain health. They are not intended to replace the vitamins we get from our diet but, as their name suggests, to supplement our diet at times when we may not be getting enough of certain nutrients.

Most doctors maintain that if you have a well-balanced healthy diet, there's no need for you to take vitamin supplements. However, many doctors of nutritional medicine, who specialize in treating medical problems with nutritional supplements, disagree. The theory does not take into account that some people may need more of certain vitamins if they are in poor health or because their lifestyle puts a heavy demand on their vitamin reserves - heavy drinkers, for example.

Others may need supplements because they are fussy eaters, or constantly dieting, or they may cook foods in such a way that many of its vitamins are destroyed.

Also, not everyone absorbs vitamins from their diet efficiently. This may lead to vague symptoms and a feeling of being under par.

However, you can have too much of a good thing. In large doses, some vitamins can be harmful - particularly the fat-soluble A and D. Too much vitamin D can lead to kidney stones and kidney damage in the long term, while too much vitamin A can cause bone and liver damage and birth defects.

Some people like to take a multi-vitamin and mineral as a 'health insurance' for times when they don't manage to keep to a healthy diet, or as a kind of general tonic to build up their strength after illness or surgery. Vitamins can also be taken to treat certain medical conditions; for instance there is evidence that vitamin B6 relieves some symptoms of PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome) while a lack of folic acid (a type of B vitamin) can cause a form of anaemia.

However, if you are pregnant or trying for a baby; if you have a medical condition; if you are taking medicines or are at all concerned about your health, you should always consult your doctor before taking vitamin supplements.

It's important to ensure that you don't end up taking too much of one vitamin. The vitamin content of different products may be given in different measurements. The easiest way to compare products is to look for the percentage of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) in each daily dose.

The RDA is a fairly arbitrary figure based on what a healthy person eating an 'average' diet is estimated to need. However, some people may need more and some less than this to maintain optimum health, so it is a rather misleading term. It is due to be replaced by estimated average requirement, or EAR, which stresses that the given figure is just a general rule of thumb.


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