Vitamins, micronutrients and antioxidants. With increasing frequency, we commonly hear and read about these words. We are told that they are good for us, necessary for optimal health, and can be obtained through diet or supplementation. These terms often cause confusion because their definitions are complex and overlapping. For example, vitamin E is a vitamin and a micronutrient (all vitamins are micronutrients—but not all micronutrients are vitamins) and is also an antioxidant. Read on and you’ll understand.
I would like to define these terms to help you understand their role in promoting health.
Micronutrients are nutrients required by humans in small quantities necessary for a wide array of physiological functions including the production of enzymes, hormones and other substances essential for proper growth, development, and health. Tiny amounts of these micronutrients are essential to life and their absence can lead to severe health effects including death. Micronutrients include trace elements such as iron, copper, iodine and ALL vitamins. We must obtain micronutrients including vitamins either through our diet or from supplementation usually in the form of a daily pill (e.g. multivitamin).
Vitamins are organic compounds (organic = contains carbon) that are required in small amounts to sustain life. Humans cannot synthesize vitamins in sufficient quantities. Our bodies either do not produce enough of the vitamins, or do not produce them at all. There are 13 vitamins that are classified as water-soluble or fat-soluble. The fat-soluble vitamins are vitamins A, D, E, and K. The water-soluble vitamins include vitamins B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B7 (biotin), B9 (folic acid or folate), B12 (cyanocobalamin), and vitamin C (ascorbic acid).
An antioxidant is a molecule (or chemical) that inhibits the oxidation of other molecules. Oxidation is a chemical reaction that transfers electrons or hydrogen from a molecule or substance to an oxidizing agent. Reduction is the opposite chemical reaction. An example of oxidation is when a peeled apple turns brown; this is oxidation in action. Vitamin C is an antioxidant and if you apply orange juice to a peeled apple you will prevent (or delay) this oxidation reaction from occurring.
Oxidation reactions can produce free radicals which can start a chain reaction that can damage a cell or lead to its death. By ‘free radical’ I am not referring to a student from UC, Berkeley in the 1960s but instead to any atom or molecule that has a single unpaired electron in an outer shell—that’s the depth of the chemistry involved in this blog. Antioxidants terminate these chain reactions by capturing the free radicals and oxidizing themselves (they perform reduction and are referred to as reducing agents).
Our bodies maintain complex systems of multiple types of antioxidants to help maintain health. Insufficient levels of antioxidants cause oxidative stress and may damage or kill cells. Oxidative stress plays a role in many human diseases including cancers and chronic inflammatory diseases. Interestingly, many cancer treatments including chemotherapy and radiation therapy kill cancer cells by causing oxidative stress.
Supplementation with antioxidants has been shown in scientific studies to promote health including promoting colon health.
Here’s to your colon health!
Frank Farrell, MD, MPH, AGAF