The history of VITAMINS (pt.1)

In this post, I would like to introduce you to the concept of vitamins. While you may already know that vitamins are important molecules, let's explore what they truly are. Chemically, vitamins are organic compounds composed of carbon atoms arranged in chains. Nutritionally, they are essential compounds needed in small quantities to support normal metabolism, growth, and overall well-being. Vitamins differ from macronutrients like protein, carbohydrates, and fats, as they are required in smaller amounts. Most vitamins are not produced in sufficient quantities by our bodies, which is why we need to obtain them through our diet. When our intake of vitamins is insufficient, it can lead to deficiencies and related health issues. Despite being present in minuscule quantities, vitamins are as crucial to our health as macronutrients.

The discovery that vitamins are essential for a balanced diet was a groundbreaking scientific revelation that revolutionized our understanding of nutrition. It revealed that by consuming an adequate diet, we can cure diseases like scurvy, rickets, beriberi, and pellagra, which had plagued societies for centuries, adversely affecting both individuals and economic development. In the past, these diseases were not associated with malnutrition. It was only in the late 19th century that a paradigm shift occurred, recognizing the link between poor nutrition and disease. The discovery of vitamins was not the work of a single individual. Communication among scientists was challenging due to limited access to medical journals and the absence of the internet. Researchers often worked in isolation, unaware of the progress made by others.

In the 1880s, Dr. Kanehiro Takaki, a naval doctor, observed that beriberi, a neuropathic disease prevalent among Japanese sailors, could be prevented through dietary modifications. In the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), researchers found that a component in rice bran could prevent beriberi among prisoners who primarily consumed polished white rice. Dutch physician Christian Eijkman created a model of the disease in chickens, and through further investigations, it was discovered that the "something" in rice bran was easily destroyed, ruling out minerals, protein, or fat. This substance, named thiamin or vitamin B1, was found to cure chickens when added in minute amounts to their feed.

Scurvy, a disease affecting individuals on long sea voyages and those with limited access to fresh food, was another longstanding issue. During that time, it was believed that many illnesses were caused by germs present in contaminated meat or other food sources. However, the accidental discovery of a scurvy model in guinea pigs enabled researchers to screen materials for their anti-scorbutic (anti-scurvy) properties. This led to the identification of ascorbic acid, also known as vitamin C, as the compound responsible for combating scurvy. The deficiency theory, which postulated that these diseases were caused by the absence of certain essential substances in food, emerged from these animal studies.

Polish biochemist Casimir Funk, while working in London on isolating the anti-beriberi factor, believed that this compound was an amine and that deficiencies of similar compounds caused pellagra, scurvy, and rickets. He coined the term "vital amines," later shortened to "vitamines," to describe this class of compounds. However, subsequent research revealed that not all vitamins are amines. Nonetheless, the term "vitamin" was universally adopted to refer to organic compounds required in small quantities for optimal health. 


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