Image of different vitamins such as A, B1, B2, E, C, and more in the form of candy tablets.

Your 13 Essential Vitamins

Written by: Wan SofaSyifa
Reviewed by: Fenny Lim, BSc. (Hons) Nutrition, UKM

What are Vitamins? Vitamins are micronutrients that are needed by the body. It can be divided into water-soluble and fat-soluble vitamins. Depending on the type, the benefits of the vitamins differ. Since vitamins were first isolated and chemically defined in 1926, researchers agree that thirteen (13) essential vitamins greatly benefit the human body.

How Vitamins Work

The food we eat is made from several chemical compounds. These compounds usually contain vitamins, minerals, polysaccharides, and more in different amounts depending on the food. When you eat, your body breaks down the compounds and absorbs the nutrients accordingly. The absorbed nutrients help your body function better depending on the type of nutrients [1].

13 Essential Vitamins You Need

In total, there are 13 essential vitamins that nutritionists agree your body needs. These 13 essential vitamins are also, at times, dubbed as the alphabet vitamins. These vitamins are A, C, D, E, K, and B complexes. Each vitamin comes from different food sources and has various benefits linked to them.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is one of the most common vitamins you can find. This vitamin can be found in animal products and fruits or vegetables with orange tints. Sourced of vitamin A includes; meat, poultry, eggs, sweet potatoes, squash, spinach, mangoes, and carrots. 

You need to take about 700 micrograms (2,333 IU) for women and 900 micrograms (3,000 IU) for men of vitamin A daily to get its full benefits. You can take up to 3,000 micrograms (about 10,000 IU) but be careful not to overdose since it can lead to liver problems.

Some of the benefits of vitamin A are [2];

  • Prevents night blindness and improves eye health
  • Stimulates the production and activity of white blood cells
  • Supports bone remodeling
  • Helps maintain endothelial cells
  • Regulates cell growth and division

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is one of the most notorious vitamin groups in the commercial market, especially during the Covid-19 epidemic. Vitamin C or ascorbic acid can be found in most citruses, but other food sources also include; bell peppers, strawberries, tomatoes, white potatoes, and cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower). 

The recommended daily vitamin C intake is around 75 milligrams for women and 90 milligrams for men, with smokers taking an additional 35 milligrams for both genders. While no absolute proof of adverse effects exists in taking above the maximum recommended intake of 2,000 milligrams, the excess will simply be excreted.

Benefits of vitamin C include [3];

  • Helping the body naturally fight infections
  • Producing collagen
  • Encouraging wound healing
  • Improving skin health and appearance

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is unique because it is an external nutrient and hormone available in your body. Scientists have discovered that most of your organs and tissues contain receptors for vitamin D, so the number of benefits this vitamin can give you might expand as more research is done.

Surprisingly, small amounts of vitamin D are naturally available in food; the best source is spending 10 to 15 minutes a day in the sun without sunscreen. Some food, such as milk, orange juice, or cereals, may be fortified with vitamin D. There are also small amounts in fatty fish, such as salmon, fish liver oils, certain mushrooms, egg yolks, and beef liver.

The recommended daily vitamin D intake actually differs as you age;

  • Women and men aged 19 to 70 need 15 micrograms (600 IU)
  • Women and men above the age of 70 need 20 micrograms (800 IU)

As for the highest daily intake, regardless of age or gender, you need to take no more than 100 micrograms (4,000 IU) per day.

Known benefits of vitamin D are [4];

  • Improving bone health
  • Improving muscle strength
  • Decreasing the risk of cell cancers
  • Regulating immune and inflammatory cells for heart health
  • Encouraging better insulin function

Vitamin E

Vitamin E has many different forms, but the only one used by your body is alpha-tocopherol. This form of vitamin E can be found in most plant-based oils, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. The recommended daily intake for vitamin E is 15 milligrams (22 IU) for both men and women, for pregnant women at 19 milligrams (28 IU), with the highest intake at 1,000 milligrams (1,500 IU).

The benefits of vitamin E are mostly reliant on its effectiveness as an antioxidant [5]; for example,

  • Protecting the cells from damaging free radicals
  • Enhancing the immune function
  • Preventing blood clotting in the heart and arteries
  • Improving eye health (when combined with other vitamins and minerals)
  • Improving cognitive health (when combined with other vitamins)
  • Improving skin health due to its anti-inflammatory effect

Research on vitamin E is still extensively being done to understand its full potential better.

Vitamin K

Vitamin K comes in two forms: phylloquinone in green veggies and menaquinones in animal or fermented foods – bacteria can also produce it in your body. Examples of food that contains phylloquinone are; kale, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, soybean, and canola oil. Fermented food containing many menaquinones is natto, and it can also be found in smaller amounts among certain proteins (meat, eggs). 

So far, there is no recommended daily vitamin K intake, so we have adequate intake (AI). The AI for vitamin K is 120 micrograms for men and 90 micrograms for women.

The benefits of vitamin K are [6];

  • Stimulating blood clotting for wound healing and improving cardiovascular health
  • Improving the production of proteins in bones – helps improve bone density
  • Preventing the hardening of arteries in the heart to reduce the risk of heart attack

Vitamin B Complexes

The bulk of your 13 essential vitamins are the various forms of vitamin B or vitamin B complexes. In total, there are eight (8) types of vitamin B; vitamin B1 (thiamin), riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin (vitamin B3), pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, biotin (vitamin B7), folate and folic acid, as well as vitamin B12.

Vitamin B1 (Thiamin)

Vitamin B1 or thiamin can be found naturally in food and, sometimes, added commercially due to its purported benefits. Vitamin B1 can be found in meats, fish, and whole grains. The recommended daily intake for vitamin B1 is 1.1 milligrams for women and 1.2 milligrams for men. Since most research yielded no negative results, no Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) for vitamin B1 exists.

Vitamin B1 is important in basic cell functions and nutrient breakdown, so its main benefit is related to this role. The two main benefits of vitamin B1 are [7];

  • Improving heart function – thiamin helps with the heart’s motor function
  • Preserving cognitive function – thiamin helps prevent the death of nerve cells, memory loss, plaque formulation, and glucose metabolism reduction

Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)

Vitamin B2, or riboflavin, can be produced naturally by the gut bacteria in your body. Still, it is not enough to supplement your dietary needs. Externally, vitamin B2 can be found in meat, fortified food, nuts, and vegetables. Examples of foods that contain vitamin B2 are; dairy milk, yogurt, lean beef, beef liver, chicken breast, almonds, and spinach.

The recommended daily intake for vitamin B2 is 1.1 milligrams for women and 1.3 milligrams for men. While there is no UL for riboflavin, any excess vitamin B2 is directly excreted, and you can notice it in bright yellow-colored urine.

Researchers agree that the benefits of vitamin B2 are [8];

  • Acting as key components of coenzymes for
    • Cell growth
    • Energy production
    • Fats, steroids, and medication breakdown
  • Preventing migraines as prophylactic therapy
  • Reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases

Vitamin B3 (Niacin)

Vitamin B3 or niacin can be found in food and is often sold as a dietary supplement. The common forms found are nicotinic acid and nicotinamide. Food that contains vitamin B2 is mainly red meat, poultry, fish, brown rice, nuts, seeds, legumes, and bananas. The recommended daily intake of vitamin B3 varies based on gender and hormone levels with the specific units – milligrams (mg) of niacin equivalents (NE);

  • For men, the recommended intake is 16 mg NE
  • For women, 14 mg NE
  • For pregnant women, 18 mg NE
  • For lactating women, 17 mg NE

The UL for vitamin B2 for all groups is 35 milligrams.

Several benefits of vitamin B3 are [9];

  • Acting as a key component of coenzymes with more than 400 dependent enzymes
  • Reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Reducing memory loss
  • Reducing the risk of dementia

Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid)

Vitamin B5, or pantothenic acid, is similar to vitamin B3 in that it can also be produced in the gut but in lesser amounts than the recommended daily intake. Externally, it can be found in meat, organ meats (such as livers and kidneys), chicken breast, mushrooms, avocados, oats, and more.

For vitamin B5, the recommended daily amount for men and women is the same at five (5) milligrams. However, pregnant women need six (6) milligrams daily, and lactating women need seven (7) milligrams. So far, there is no limit on how much vitamin B5 you can take.

Purported benefits of vitamin B6 are [10];

  • Creating coenzyme A (CoA) that helps;
    • Build and break down fatty acids
    • Perform other metabolic functions
    • Build fats with the acyl carrier protein
  • Reducing cholesterol levels
  • Reducing low-grade inflammation

Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine)

Vitamin B6, or pyridoxine, can be found in most animal and plant foods. Food containing vitamin B6 includes poultry, salmon, tuna, beef liver, leafy green vegetables, bananas, papayas, chickpeas, and more. The recommended daily intake for vitamin B6 differs based on age, gender, and health condition, such as;

  • Men aged 14 to 50 need at least 1.3 milligrams daily
  • Men aged 51 and above need at least 1.7 milligrams daily
  • Women aged 14 to 18 need at least 1.2 milligrams daily
  • Women aged 19 to 50 need at least 1.3 milligrams daily
  • Women aged 51 and above need at least 1.5 milligrams daily
  • Pregnant women need at least 1.9 milligrams daily
  • Lactating women need at least 2.0 milligrams daily

For UL, the limit for adults is 100 milligrams daily, with teens a slightly lower dosage than that.

The benefits of vitamin B6 includes [11];

  • Acting as the coenzyme pyridoxal 5’ phosphate (PLP) that
    • Works as the measurement for B6 blood levels
    • Assist over 100 other enzymes in the body
  • Reducing homocysteine levels that may contribute to
    • Reduced likelihood of developing cardiovascular diseases
    • Reduced likelihood of developing stroke
    • Improve cognitive function as you age
  • Reducing the severity of morning sickness
  • Reducing the cancer risks

While there is a systematic review of the effects of vitamin B6 on cancer prevention, you need to remember that cancer research is still ongoing, and no conclusive results have been shown. Current research only shows the possibility of vitamin B6 in reducing cancer risks. This applies to other vitamins that might contribute to cancer prevention.

Vitamin B7 (Biotin)

Vitamin B7, or biotin, can be found in pork, salmon, beef liver, cooked eggs, avocados, sweet potatoes, nuts, and seeds. It is also one of the most common ingredients in multivitamin supplements, with other B vitamins or minerals. While there is no recommended daily intake or UL for this vitamin, there is an AI of 30 micrograms daily for both men and women, with lactating women needing a slightly higher dose of 35 micrograms.

Most researchers agree that the benefits of vitamin B7 are [12];

  • Assisting enzymes in breaking down fats, carbs, and proteins
  • Regulating the signals sent by cells
  • Assisting in gene activity for cell development

Commercially, vitamin B7 is often linked with hair, skin, and nail health. There are study designs for these benefits, but they have weaknesses and might be possible due to the above-mentioned benefits.

Vitamin B9 (Folate or Folic Acid)

Vitamin B9 can be found naturally in food as folate and in dietary supplements as folic acid. In food, the sources of vitamin B9 are leafy green vegetables, beans, peanuts, fresh fruits, whole grains, aquatic food, eggs, and more. However, folic acid, commonly used in dietary supplements, has a higher absorption rate, 85% against 50%. 

Because of this, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) requires manufacturers to add vitamin B9 as folic acid in commonly eaten food since the recommended daily intake for this vitamin is quite high – 400 micrograms for both men and women. The maximum daily intake for both is 1,000 micrograms.

Vitamin B9 is highly beneficial because it can [13];

  • Help form DNA and RNA for protein metabolism
  • Help break down homocysteine
  • Help produce healthy red blood cells – especially during rapid growth periods such as pregnancy
  • Reduce neural tube defects – a condition where spinal and brain birth defects happen during pregnancy.
  • Reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke – for healthy individuals
  • Reduce the risk of cognitive decline
  • Reduce the risk of cancer

Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin)

Out of all vitamin Bs, vitamin B12 or cobalamin can only be found in animal food unless specifically supplemented with other food groups or taken as a dietary supplement. Meat, fish, shellfish, poultry, eggs, and dairy products are some examples of foods rich in vitamin B12. Dietary supplements are easier to absorb than natural sources of vitamin B12 because of the form it takes.

For the recommended daily intake, you should take 2.4 micrograms of vitamin B12 daily with an increased dose during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Pregnant women need to take 2.6 micrograms daily, and breastfeeding women 2.8 micrograms. As of yet, there is no set UL limit for vitamin B12, and taking a little bit higher than the recommended dose is preferable since this vitamin has a low absorption rate compared to others on the list.

Benefits of vitamin B12 include [14];

  • Playing a vital role in red blood cell production
  • Playing a vital role in DNA formation
  • Developing brain and nerve cells
  • Decreasing homocysteine levels might reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Improving cognitive function as you age

What Happens If You Have Vitamin Deficiency?

Depending on the type of vitamins, the effects of these deficiencies may differ, and the symptoms are more apparent when you lack a combination of vitamins instead of simply one. Common symptoms are;

  • Fatigue and general weakness
  • Skin and hair dryness
  • Mood swings, particularly depression
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Slow wound healing
  • Lowered immunity
  • Lowered bone density – easy fractures
  • Skin pigmentation; darker or paler

If left untreated or prolonged, these deficiencies can lead to severe complications such as;

  • Loss of neural sensation in hands and feet
  • Muscle and joint weakness
  • Vision loss or impairments
  • Decreased cognitive function and memory loss
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Fetal development problems for pregnant women

Key Takeaways

You must get all the nutrients you need to maintain a healthy body as you age. These 13 essential vitamins are nutrients your body cannot produce per the recommended amount and must be supplemented externally. A balanced diet based on the sources of these vitamins is crucial. Dietary supplements are a good option so you can be more assured you get enough vitamins in a day.

When choosing dietary supplements, you must read the labels properly and choose the ones with the right ingredients. If you have complications or are simply concerned, always consult your health practitioner for the best options.

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