It was only in 1912 that the word Vitamin was born. First spelled ‘Vitamine’ due to the ‘amine’ chemistry involved, Dr. Funk, Ph.D., isolated Vitamin B1 (Thiamine) from brown rice building on other work that had showed that people (and chickens) who ate brown rice didn’t get beriberi while those who ate milled white rice did. I feel the need to say “Paging Dr. Funk.” Lay down a funky bass line for Vitamin B! Previously, beriberi was suspected to be an infectious disease. A similar pattern surrounded the discovery of the cause and cure for scurvy.
There have been so many important developments in science and medicine over the past 100 years, I think we as a species are still adjusting to the implications. Vitamins, nukes, space flight… It’s a lot to digest. It seems we will either figure out our planetary priorities and make this a great place for everyone to live, or…
Keeping the focus on vitamins, let’s look at what we know, when it was discovered, and how that influences the study of historical pharmacognosy. This means what people ate to feel better. As I previously explored, some of the traditional Chinese medicines for beriberi indeed contained thiamine. In the mineral department, seaweed and dried fish were shipped inland to Chinese villages with goiter. Clearly it was unnecessary to isolate and name thiamine and iodine for these substances to be useful in treating deficiency diseases. However, as Chinese medicine has its own symbolic system, the explanations were more likely to be that a treatment for the swollen feet of beriberi “drained dampness” and that seaweed got rid of swollen neck goiters due to the “salty flavor.”
James Lind is credited with doing the first ever clinical trial with the result of discovering citrus fruits could cure and prevent scurvy. That was in 1747. Scurvy continued to be a problem into the 1900s! Excited by his discovery, he marketed a citrus juice concentrate, but because it had been cooked, the Vitamin C was gone. This didn’t help his career and appreciation of his discovery.Here, we see that the flavor ‘sour’ was still in the final product, but the actual chemical structure of Ascorbic Acid was gone. There are many more examples of this to uncover, where the initial observation was correct but the treatment designed was not. I’ve encouraged others to contribute similar observations to this project.
To celebrate the word Vitamin’s 100th birthday, here’s a rundown of the main vitamins, when they were discovered, signs of deficiency, and main dietary sources (focusing on traditional herbs).
Vitamin A (retinol, beta-carotene) is most famous for its role in helping night vision and color vision. Carrots and liver are the most common foods known to contain the various forms. It was first isolated in 1917 by both Elmer McCollum and Thomas Osborne who were working on cattle health. It was the first fat-soluble vitamin found. Vitamin A is also plentiful in dandelion greens, spinach, kale, and broccoli. In Chinese herbal medicine, Gou Qi Zi (wolfberry, goji berri, lycium berry) have plentiful amounts of carotenoids and have been recommended for eye problems for centuries. The eyes are related to the liver in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which could have to do with observations of improved eyesight in malnourished people who eat liver.
B Complex Vitamins
There are 8 essential B vitamins:
- Vitamin B1, Thiamine–deficiency causes beriberi, which can be fatal. Shows up as swollen legs, fatigue, lungs fill with fluid, neurological symptoms such as confusion, confabulation, eye twitching. Eventual heart failure. Isolated in 1912 by Casimir Funk. Traditional herb sources include ephedra and bean sprouts.
- Vitamin B2, Riboflavin–deficiency rarely occurs on its own, if so it’s called ariboflavinosis and shows up as cracked, red lips (including corners of the mouth), mouth ulcers, and dry, scaling skin. The eyes may become sensitive to light and bloodshot. Itchy scrotum is another symptom, and eventually death. Yeast is a great source. Eggs, meat, and milk also have significant amounts. This is another vitamin milling of whole grains reduces. It’s also destroyed by light. Saffron contains quite a bit, but is used in such small amounts it’s unlikely to be a good dietary source. Thyme, asparagus, taro, celery, and bean sprouts are other plant sources. Perilla leaf (Zi Su Ye) is another source which is used in Chinese medicine.
- Vitamin B3, Niacin–Pellagra is the deficiency disease caused by lack of niacin. Around 1915, Joseph Goldberger did experiments on prisoners to induce pellagra. The first symptoms were headache, confusion, and appetite loss. Then the skin symptoms showed up (significant scaly sores). Medical students are taught that it shows up as “4 D’s”: Diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia and death (generally after a few years). Smooth red tongue (black tongue in dogs!), red skin lesions, insomnia, and aggression would have most TCM doctors diagnose this as a heat condition. Aggression and argumentiveness also typically develop. Brewer’s yeast (and thus beer) are common sources for niacin. Conrad Elvehjem gets credit for isolating nicotinamide/niacin in 1937. Interesting herb sources for niacin include horsetail (Equisetum arvense), Asparagus, Radish leaf, bean sprouts, mugwort, hops, raspberry, coriander (Chinese parsley), and ginger root.
- Vitamin B5, Pantothenic Acid–Discovered by Roger Williams in 1919, this is essential to metabolism of proteins, carbs, and fats. It’s unusual to have a B5 deficiency, as it’s present in many foods. If there is a deficiency, it may show up first as fatigue, irritability, and apathy. Burning sensations on the feet, numbness, and cramps can also occur, as well as skin lesions similar to other B Vitamin deficiencies. Severe deficiency can lead to loss of hair color, but it is unlikely that supplementation in normal people would restore grey hair. Traditional herbs containing Pantothenic Acid in high amounts include endives (the highest by far), peas, oats (Avena sativa), cucumber, tomato, mung bean sprouts, celery, lettuce, asparagus, carrot, and onion.
- Vitamin B6, Pyridoxine–there are a few forms of B6, which assist in balancing sodium and potassium as well as making red blood cells. Deficiency can cause nerve damage (showing up as peripheral neuropathy, numbness and tingling in the extremities), seizures, skin and mouth sores. Overdose for a long time can also cause numbness of the hands and feet. It was discovered in the 1930s. Good food/herb sources include avocado, wheat, barley, rice, soybean, and oats. There’s also a small amount in chocolate.
- Vitamin B7, Biotin–Biotin deficiency is rare, as our intestinal bacteria generally make plenty. Eating raw egg whites is one way to get biotin deficiency. Egg yolks contain significant biotin. Deficiency leads to hair loss, scaly rashes around the face and genitals, and neurological symptoms (depression, hallucinations, numbness and tingling of extremities). Good traditional sources include soybean (the top by far), wheat, lentil, pea, and garlic. American ginseng is fairly high on the list with 9 parts per million, but a far cry from soybean’s 750 ppm.
- Vitamin B9, Folic Acid–essential to prevent neural tube defects in developing babies, women who may become pregnant are encouraged to take folic acid supplements. Deficiency is rare in those who eat green, leafy vegetables or fortified breads. When it does occur, it can involve mental symptoms such as confusion, forgetfulness, irritability, and depression. Also swollen tongue, mouth ulcers, and heart palpitations can show up. Lack of folate can lead to anemia, especially during pregnancy. Folic acid crystals were isolated in 1945. Brewer’s yeast is once again a good source, as are egg yolks, liver, kidney, and sunflower seeds. Other herb sources are lentils, aloe vera, and american ginseng. Bean sprouts have some (4.1 ppm), but lentils are the winner by far (1070 ppm).
- Vitamin B12, Cyanocobalamin–very difficult to get through a vegetarian diet, deficiency leads to pernicious anemia. Excess oral intake can lead to hives and dangerous swelling of the lips, tongue, and throat. Cyanocobalamin is just one form of the vitamin. Cobalt is at the core of the molecule, which is rare. Around 1928, Edwin Cohn made a liver extract for treating pernicious anemia, but it wasn’t until 1948 that Vitamin B12 was isolated (in part by Mary Shaw Shorb), and only in 1956 was the chemical structure discovered by Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin. Women in science was still a rare occurrence in that era, and there still isn’t a good gender balance. Usually animals get Vitamin B12 from bacterial fermentation in the gut. Sometimes this includes coprophagia. I’d rather eat termites, which are a rich source, though oysters, crab, clams, cheese, and milk are more likely to be part of my diet. Beef liver, lightly fried, is probably the richest food source.
I’ll continue on to Vitamin C, D, etc. in a future post…