The ABCs of Vitamins
What's the story behind your supplement?
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.
Popeye ate spinach -- rich in vitamin E -- to boost his strength. But vitamin E has a racier reputation. Its chemical name, tocopherol, comes from the Greek word meaning "to bear offspring" -- a reference to its reputation for improving sexual prowess.
"It was sort of the naughty vitamin," says Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, a professor of nutrition at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston.
In the 1990s vitamin E has been revealed as a powerful antioxidant as well. In 1993, researchers from Harvard University found that those who took vitamin E reduced their risk of heart disease by nearly 40 percent, says Meir Stampfer, MD, a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health.
But it's impossible to get an optimal dose of vitamin E from your diet, so supplements are necessary.
On the Horizon
What's coming up with nutritional supplements?
To start with, take a look in your salad bowl. In the last 10 years, scientists have worked to identify phytochemicals, the compounds that make fruits, grains, legumes and vegetables so good for us. These compounds include lycopene, the natural antioxidant found in tomatoes.
New research may also begin to identify why certain people are more likely to respond to vitamin therapy than others. "What the last 15 or 20 years have given us are the associations between vitamin intake and certain diseases," says Jacob Selhub, PhD, of Tufts University's Jean Mayer Center. "What the next century will show us is what's the causality."