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The ABCs of Vitamins

What's the story behind your supplement?

WebMD Feature

It's hard to imagine that during the 1970s, when scientist and nutrition pioneer Linus Pauling trumpeted megadoses of vitamin C, vitamins were still considered by many to be for health nuts and weirdos.

These supplements -- once called "vitamines" -- were once touted as miracle cures, beauty boosts, and sex aids. Yet as the century has progressed, vitamins have slowly worked their way into the mainstream, helping to prevent a host of ailments.

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By 1921, only vitamins A, B, and C were known, according to Rima L. Apple, author of Vitamania and a professor of consumer science at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Thanks in part to increasing government interest in nutrition, by the 1940s the number of known vitamins was 20.

All About C

A century or more before Linus Pauling, English sailors ate limes to prevent an anemia-causing condition called scurvy. Preventing scurvy wasn't the only merit of vitamin C. By the time a researcher dubbed vitamin C a "mystic white crystal of health" in 1938, its antioxidant qualities were well-documented -- and linked to helping prevent cancers and heart disease.

While clinical trials over the years have failed to support Pauling's argument that vitamin C prevents colds, a National Institutes of Health study shows high doses may help people fight cancer, heart disease, cataracts, and possibly arthritis.

Vitamin B

During World War II, soldiers were shipped off to battle with vitamin packets along with their rations. Researchers argued that workers taking vitamin B seemed calmer and were less likely to go on strike. By 1937, manufacturers regularly enriched flour with niacin, one of the B vitamins. The supplement helped prevent a disease then commonly known as pellagra -- a lack of niacin that can lead to stomach problems and even mental disorder.

Besides niacin, the vitamin B family includes thiamine, folic acid, B6, riboflavin, and B12. Tufts University researchers have shown that B vitamins may help improve mental dexterity among seniors.

We all get some form of B vitamin in the grains we eat, but most of us must take supplements to get all our bodies need. In January 1998, the FDA required food makers to enrich bread and cereals with B vitamins.

Folic Acid

One of the most important B vitamins is folic acid. In 1991, new research found that women taking supplemental folic acid before pregnancy had fewer birth defects such as spina bifida in their unborn children. The next year, the U.S. Public Health Service recommended that women in their childbearing years increase their intake of folic acid from 180 to 400 micrograms a day.

A recent Food and Drug Administration study also found a possible link between children with Down's syndrome and low levels of folic acid in their mothers during pregnancy. "It's been the most amazing breakthrough in pregnancy in the whole century," says Elizabeth Ward, a registered dietitian and author of Pregnancy Nutrition.

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