Food as medicine and food therapy have been steadily gaining traction in the health discussion. More and more people with complex diseases, autoimmune and others, are looking to diets to optimize their health. But of course, how can we possibly talk about diet and nutrition without discussing vitamins and minerals? So for those of you who’ve ever wondered why your parents kept buying those Flintstone gummies: sit down, buckle up, and enjoy the ride. This post is for you!
Vitamins vs Minerals
Before anything else, let’s define vitamins and minerals. While both are essential to human health, there are some pretty major differences between the two.
For starters, minerals are simple inorganic elements that can’t be broken down further. Indeed, they keep their chemical structures as they pass through our digestive tracks and are eventually used by our cells. Minerals help maintain electrolyte balance in blood, support normal muscle functioning and healthy bone growth. In total, there are sixteen essential minerals: calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium (the four key electrolytes), chloride, sulfur, phosphorus, iron, zinc, and the trace minerals: copper, manganese, iodine, selenium, molybdenum, chromium, and fluoride.
On the other hand, vitamins are organic compounds that work with enzymes to support many of our cells’ reactions. In total, there are thirteen essential vitamins: A, 8 B vitamins, C, D, E, and K. Vitamins play a super important role in our bodies, acting as antioxidants to protect our cells from damage and contributing to healthy growth, strong bones, and normal blood clotting.
With all that said, it’s probably safe to assume that those Flintstone gummies from the deep crevices of your childhood may have influenced your health more than previously thought. This is especially true for people with autoimmune diseases, as receiving as healthy balance of vitamins and minerals is key to maintaining strong immune health. As such, we’ll be using the rest of this blog post to discuss the specific vitamins and minerals that are important for people with autoimmune conditions.
Vitamins important in immune health
Vitamin A is an essential, fat-soluble nutrient important for mucus membranes and maintaining the health of our immune systems. It also plays an important role in keeping eyes and skin functioning properly. You can get your dose of vitamin A as retinol, from animal-based foods like dairy, fish and meat (fun facts: liver is a particularly rich source of vitamin A, so is butter). Yellow and orange vegetables and fruits are also sources of vitamin A, as they contain beta-carotene–a precursor to the vitamin(2). Depending on your genes, you may be better or worse at converting beta-carotene into retinol.
Vitamin B is a set of eight independent vitamins–each with its own unique function (3). The vitamin B group is particularly involved with the function of the nervous system, eyes, blood, and mitochondria (energy producing cell organelles).
Vitamin B6, pyridoxine
Vitamin B6 is one of the most important B vitamins. While it is an integral player in hundreds of your body’s functions, it functions most importantly in protein metabolism and brain development. You can find vitamin B6 almost everywhere, but it’s notably prominent in fortified cereals, poultry, fish, dark leafy greens, oranges, and cantaloupe (4).
Vitamin B9 (also known as folate and folic acid) plays a large role in DNA formation and cell division. You can get your dose of vitamin B9 from many fruits and vegetables (e.g., oranges, asparagus and broccoli, legumes and fortified cereals).
Vitamin B12 (also known as cobalamin) is an essential nutrient that plays a key role in DNA replication and red blood cell formation. Vitamin B12 deficiencies are especially common in chronic illnesses and old age, sometimes because of inability to properly absorb B12 from food in the intestines. Therefore, some people need sublingual or even injected B12 to get enough. You can find vitamin B12 in foods like meats, fish, and dairy and fortified cereals and milks (5).
This essential nutrient acts as a powerful water-soluble antioxidant. Because it’s water-soluble, if you don’t replenish it from diet regularly, your body is unable to synthesize it. This is why historically, sailors on long voyages without fresh fruit developed scurvy, a Vitamin C deficiency disease. Vitamin C plays a large role in healthy immune system function and cell repair. Many fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamin C: Strawberries, oranges, lemons, kiwis, kale, tomatoes, and broccoli (6).
Vitamin D describes a group of fat-soluble compounds that increase the absorption of many key minerals (e.g. magnesium, calcium, and phosphorus) into the bloodstream. Vitamins D2 and D3 are the most important vitamin D subgroups for humans. They play a large role in maintaining bone health by promoting the absorption of calcium. While your skin naturally produces vitamin D3 in response to UV rays (sunshine), you can also find it in foods like tuna, salmon, egg yolks, and dairy.
Vitamin E is a group of fat-soluble compounds with antioxidant properties. They are important in several immune activities, and are involved in healing damage to the skin and eyes. Alpha-tocopherol is the form of vitamin E that is most useful to us. Although it is found in many foods, it is the most abundant in green leafy vegetables, nuts, and certain vegetable oils (7,8).
Vitamin K contains group of structurally similar, fat-soluble compounds. They are key in blood clotting and bone metabolism. Although Vitamin K1 and K2 are the most abundant vitamins in our diet, we consume them from different sources. K1 is found mostly in green leafy vegetables, whereas K2 is most abundant in butter, egg yolks, lard, and animal–based foods (9).
Minerals important in immune health
Calcium is an essential mineral that is particularly important for the growth of bones and teeth. It is also one of the four key electrolytes. If blood levels of calcium are too low, the body can borrow calcium from bones and teeth. This is not a good thing. Calcium is found in bioavailable forms in many foods such as dairy products, green leafy vegetables, fish, nuts and seeds (10). Calcium supplements are not all the same. Simple forms of calcium, such as ground bone or shells, are not very bioavailable. Chelated compounds more closely mimic the way we get calcium from food.
Copper is an essential trace mineral that helps enzymes deliver energy in cells. Too much copper can be toxic and certain diseases–like Wilson’s and Menkes’–can affect the ability of the body to use copper. Many foods contain copper, including shellfish, whole grains, nuts, beans, dark leafy vegetables, animal liver, black pepper and yeast (10).
Iron is the most abundant chemical element on Earth and an essential component of hemoglobin (the molecule that carries oxygen in red blood cells). As a result, iron is commonly found in foods containing blood. Therefore, iron is in meats like beef, lamb, ham, turkey, veal, chicken, liver as well as in seafood like shrimp, clams, mackeral, scallops and tuna. The type of iron in blood is referred to as heme iron, and is more easily absorbed than the non-heme iron found in legumes and in vegetables such as spinach, sweet potatoes, kale, collards, string beans and broccoli (11).
Magnesium is the fourth most abundant chemical element in your body and is necessary for more than 300 different physiological reactions. It can help reduce the effects of oxalates (found in many foods), which can exaggerate autoimmune symptoms and inflammation. It’s also one of the four electrolytes that the body uses in large quantities for water management and blood pressure regulation. Magnesium deficiency is common in the chronically ill and the elderly, especially women. Such a deficiency can produce constipation and muscle cramps. It is common in many foods including cashews, dark chocolate, green leafy vegetables, salmon, and avocado (10).
Phosphorus is an essential mineral that forms the sugar-phosphate backbone of DNA and RNA. It plays a key role in the transfer of energy in cells during ATP synthesis. It is found naturally in both plant and animal foods, but it is most easily used by our body when consumed from animal products. Animal products high in phosphorus include beef, ham, turkey, chicken, dairy products, fish and scallops. Plant sources include sunflower seeds, whole grains, beans, and nuts (10).
Potassium is essential to life and is found in all the cells in the body. It another of the four key electrolytes, maintaining fluid and electrolyte balance. Potassium and sodium balance each other in your blood. Too little potassium contributes to high blood pressure. The average human consumes up to 7 grams of potassium per day and can store 140 grams in body cells. Found in many fruits and vegetables, including bananas, oranges, cantaloupes, prunes, sweet potatoes, spinach, broccoli, and mushrooms. Certain foods contain an above–average amount such as coffee, nuts, sardines and chocolate (10).
Selenium is an essential trace element. Evidence shows that it acts as an antioxidant and increases anti-inflammatory properties. It is also important to fertility and cognitive function and may have anti-cancer effects. It is naturally found in certain foods but is most prevalent in nuts and fish like walnuts and tuna (10).
Sodium is essential to all living things. It’s the last of the four key electrolytes (potassium, calcium and magnesium are the others). Our bodies contain about 100 grams, but this value fluctuates as we constantly consume and excrete sodium (through the kidneys). Although sodium is needed for many body functions, it is easy to get too much sodium from our diet, which can contribute to high blood pressure. That being said, too little sodium can negatively affect the body as well. The FDA sets the upper daily intake at 2,300 milligrams. Sodium is found in above average amounts in many processed, smoked, and canned foods (12).
Zinc is an essential trace element necessary in forming active sites for over 20 metallo-enzymes, which promote many biological reactions. It is important in immune function, blood clotting, and thyroid function as well as many others. It is found naturally in many foods, but some foods such as beef, lamb, sunflower seeds and cheese, contain higher amounts (10).
Overall, these vitamins and minerals are essential for everyone, and may be of particular importance to those with autoimmune diseases due to their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. With this breakdown we hope to ease your journey through navigating the information surrounding dietary supplements.
Written by: Bonnie Feldman, DDS, MBA, Becca Malizia, BS, Ellen M. Martin
- Palanisamy Arulselvan et al. “Role of Antioxidants and Natural Products in Inflammation.” Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. Vol. 2016. 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5075620/
- Health Information. “Vitamin A.” National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements. 2018. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminA-HealthProfessional/
- The Nutrition Source. “Three of the B Vitamins: Folate, Vitamin B6, and Vitamin B12.” Harvard T.H. Chan. School of Public Health. 2018. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/vitamins/vitamin-b/
- Health Information. “Vitamin B6.” National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements. 2018. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB6-HealthProfessional/
- Fenech, M. “Folate (vitamin B9) and vitamin B12 and their function in the maintenance of nuclear and mitochondrial genome integrity.” Mutation Research. Vol 2011.11. 2012. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22093367
- Padayatty, S et al. “Vitamin C as an Antioxidant: Evaluation of Its Role in Disease Prevention.” Journal of the American College of Nutrition. Vol. 22:1. 2003. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07315724.2003.10719272
- Health Information. “Vitamin E.” National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements. 2018. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminE-HealthProfessional/
- Medical Encyclopedia. “Vitamin E.” US National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus. 2018. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002406.htm
- Schwalfenberg, G. “Vitamins K1 and K2: The Emerging Group of Vitamins Required for Human Health.” Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism. Vol 2017. 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5494092/
- “Periodic Table.” The Royal Society of Chemistry. 2018. http://www.rsc.org/periodic-table
- “Iron Rich Foods.” American Red Cross. 2018. https://www.redcrossblood.org/donate-blood/blood-donation-process/before-during-after/iron-blood-donation/iron-rich-foods.html
- For Consumers. “Lowering Salt in Your Diet.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 2018. https://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm181577.htm