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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Horny goat weed?: Addressing the vitamin craze

Published: April 1, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc.

It was not until recently that GNC became the new adult candy store, but that’s just one occurrence in what’s really a larger trend. Increasingly, advertisements for strange pills and liquids that claim to have the essential vitamins and minerals we all need for youth, bigger breasts, strength and the like plague our television screens and the pages of our magazines.

Enough with the fortified Odwalla’s, Muscle Milk and Flintstone Vitamins (sorry Bam Bam), it’s time to go back to the basics and examine the most crucial vitamins our bodies need and evaluate the necessity of the supplements now available.

Starting with my fantastic class notes from Dr. Elaine Lai’s Diet and Health class, vitamins are organic micronutrients needed for normal function, growth and maintenance of the body and do not yield any energy. There are two main types of vitamins: fat soluble and water soluble. Their type affects the way they are metabolized and how they travel in the body.

Instead of describing vitamins simply by their denotation, it’s easier to describe them based on the category in which they lie, as similar categories have overlapping functions. I also promise to address recent research done on horny goat weed because yes, that’s apparently a real supplement with the kind of effects you could derive from the name …

Vitamin A (standing for Awesome, but not really) plays an important role in bone growth, vision, reproduction, cell division and differentiation, and immune system regulation, not to mention that they help lymphocytes. Although rarely advertised, this vitamin comes in two forms called preformed vitamin A and provitamin A, both of which are crucial for distinct effects in the body.

Preformed vitamin A is found in animal products like liver, milk or fortified cereal; the body absorbs it in the form of retinol, which is crucial to the maintenance and overall health of the retina in the eye, as well as night vision. Provitamin A is found in yellow, orange and dark green fruits and vegetables, in which its referred to as cartotenoids. According to the National Institute of Health, less than 10 percent of the 563 cartotenoids can be converted into retinol; however, other ones like lycopene, found in tomatoes, can have anti-oxidant effects crucial for combating cancer-causing free radicals.

The recommended Daily Value (DV) of vitamin A is about 5,000 International Units (IU). Don’t recognize IUs? It’s a measurement created to help us understand the nutrient contents of food. To put things in perspective, one cup of skim milk has about 500 IU, while three ounces of chicken liver have about 12,325 IU of preformed vitamin A. Meanwhile, one cup of raw spinach has about 2,813 IU, and one raw carrot has about 8,666 IU of proformed vitamin A.

Comparing the nutrient value of these foods with the recommended daily value, it seems quite easy to consume the necessary amounts of vitamin A without the aid of supplements. People at risk of vitamin A deficiency that could benefit from supplemental vitamins are people who have digestive absorption problems like Celiac’s or Crohn’s disease; vegans and other people who don’t ingest animal sources may also be at risk. The general rule of thumb for the American population as a whole is that we get most of our recommended daily value of vitamins from our foods; we have actually increased access and production of these foods compared with other countries.

Vitamin D, which is fat soluble, is crucial to the maintenance of strong bones, as it helps the body absorb calcium from foods and supplements. Very few foods have naturally occurring vitamin D. Fatty fishes and mushrooms provide small amounts, but the majority of our intake comes from fortified milk and breakfast cereals. I think of vitamin D as standing for Delightful, because it’s the sunshine vitamin: when the skin is directly exposed to the sun, vitamin D3 synthesis occurs; this is the type primarily responsible for the health effects of vitamin D. Because of these sources, it’s likely that we meet our daily quota.

However, some people our age who might be at risk are those with fat absorption problems, people with dark skin, obese people and those who need to keep themselves covered from sunlight at all times. Deficiencies can lead to a softening of the bones that makes them susceptible to fracture. These people should seek a supplement of about 200 IU a day, which is equivalent to 50µg per day.

Vitamin E (for Excellence!) is found primarily in corn oil, soybeans, margarines and dressings. It serves as a good antioxidant that can help fight forms of cancer and can also serve as a support for the immune system. There’s no real limit on vitamin E ingestion, so the more, the merrier!

Vitamin K (Kool!) is cool because it helps with blood clot formation. It’s also a coenzyme to other metabolic pathways as well. It’s a sneaky vitamin because it’s produced by bacteria in the large intestine without you ever knowing! This special ability makes vitamin K deficiency especially rare. However, people with inflammatory bowel disease or have undergone abdominal surgeries recently may be at risk and should seek supplemental aid.

These are just a few of the important yet lesser known vitamins we need daily.

Vitamin B is also extremely crucial to the maintenance of brain function and the nervous system, as well as to the formation of blood. It’s commonly consumed in whole grains, beans and even in the yeast in beer! Ah, redemption … Finally, vitamin C coordinates cofactor enzymatic reactions in your immune system and acts as an antioxidant. It too is abundant in our diets, as it’s found in commonly-eaten foods like citrus fruits, camel milk and lamb tongue (now available at the new C-Store!).

As you can see, many of our essential vitamin needs are actually met by our daily diets. Those billion supplemental pills advertised on TV won’t necessarily be effective in changing our overall health. So, before you drink your third emergenC of the day, give your body a break and practice other healthy methods like sleeping and exercising.

As always, tune in for more health tips and send me an e-mail at with any health-related questions you may have (and a special shout out to Professor Lai for all the vitamin information!).