AskDefine | Define vitamin

Dictionary Definition

vitamin n : any of a group of organic substances essential in small quantities to normal metabolism

User Contributed Dictionary

see Vitamin




  1. Any of various organic compounds that are considered essential for human development.
vitamin: organic compound essential to human health
  • Finnish: vitamiini
  • German: Vitamin
  • Malayalam: ജീവകം (jeevakam)
  • Polish: witamina
  • Russian: витамин
  • Spanish: vitamina

See also

Extensive Definition

A vitamin is an organic compound required as a nutrient in tiny amounts by an organism. A compound is called a vitamin when it cannot be synthesized in sufficient quantities by an organism, and must be obtained from the diet. Thus, the term is conditional both on the circumstances and the particular organism. For example, ascorbic acid functions as vitamin C for some animals but not others, and vitamins D and K are required in the human diet only in certain circumstances.
Vitamins are classified by their biological and chemical activity, not their structure. Thus, each "vitamin" actually refers to a number of vitamer compounds, which form a set of distinct chemical compounds that show the biological activity of a particular vitamin. Such a set of chemicals are grouped under an alphabetized vitamin "generic descriptor" title, such as "vitamin A," which (for example) includes retinal, retinol, and many carotenoids. Vitamers are often inter-convertible in the body. The term vitamin does not include other essential nutrients such as dietary minerals, essential fatty acids, or essential amino acids, nor does it encompass the large number of other nutrients that promote health but are otherwise required less often.
Vitamins have diverse biochemical functions, including function as hormones (e.g. vitamin D), antioxidants (e.g. vitamin E), and mediators of cell signaling and regulators of cell and tissue growth and differentiation (e.g. vitamin A). The largest number of vitamins (e.g. B complex vitamins) function as precursors for enzyme cofactor bio-molecules (coenzymes), that help act as catalysts and substrates in metabolism. When acting as part of a catalyst, vitamins are bound to enzymes and are called prosthetic groups. For example, biotin is part of enzymes involved in making fatty acids. Vitamins also act as coenzymes to carry chemical groups between enzymes. For example, folic acid carries various forms of carbon group – methyl, formyl and methylene - in the cell. Although these roles in assisting enzyme reactions are vitamins' best-known function, the other vitamin functions are equally important.
Until the 1900s, vitamins were obtained solely through food intake, and changes in diet (which, for example, could occur during a particular growing season) can alter the types and amounts of vitamins ingested. Vitamins have been produced as commodity chemicals and made widely available as inexpensive pills for several decades, allowing supplementation of the dietary intake.


The value of eating a certain food to maintain health was recognized long before vitamins were identified. The ancient Egyptians knew that feeding a patient liver would help cure night blindness, an illness now known to be caused by a vitamin A deficiency. In 1753, Lind published his Treatise on the Scurvy, which recommended using lemons and limes to avoid scurvy, which was adopted by the British Royal Navy. This led to the nickname Limey for sailors of that organization. Lind's discovery, however, was not widely accepted by individuals in the Royal Navy's Arctic expeditions in the 19th century, where it was widely believed that scurvy could be prevented by practicing good hygiene, regular exercise, and by maintaining the morale of the crew while on board, rather than by a diet of fresh food. He fed mice an artificial mixture of all the separate constituents of milk known at that time, namely the proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and salts. The mice that received only the individual constituents died, while the mice fed by milk itself developed normally. He made a conclusion that "a natural food such as milk must therefore contain, besides these known principal ingredients, small quantities of unknown substances essential to life." When the article was translated into German, the translation failed to state that it was a newly discovered nutrient, a claim made in the original Japanese article, and hence his discovery failed to gain publicity. Polish biochemist Kazimierz Funk isolated the same complex of micronutrients and proposed the complex be named "Vitamine" (a portmanteau of "vital amine") in 1912. The name soon became synonymous with Hopkins' "accessory factors", and by the time it was shown that not all vitamins were amines, the word was already ubiquitous. In 1920, Jack Cecil Drummond proposed that the final "e" be dropped to deemphasize the "amine" reference after the discovery that vitamin C had no amine component.
Throughout the early 1900s, the use of deprivation studies allowed scientists to isolate and identify a number of vitamins. Initially, lipid from fish oil was used to cure rickets in rats, and the fat-soluble nutrient was called "antirachitic A". The irony here is that the first "vitamin" bioactivity ever isolated, which cured rickets, was initially called "vitamin A", the bioactivity of which is now called vitamin D. What we now call "vitamin A" was identified in fish oil because it was inactivated by ultraviolet light. In 1931, Albert Szent-Györgyi and a fellow researcher Joseph Svirbely determined that "hexuronic acid" was actually vitamin C and noted its anti-scorbutic activity. In 1937, Szent-Györgyi was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery. In 1943 Edward Adelbert Doisy and Henrik Dam were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery of vitamin K and its chemical structure.

In humans

Vitamins are classified as either water-soluble, meaning that they dissolve easily in water, or fat-soluble vitamins, which are absorbed through the intestinal tract with the help of lipids (fats). In general, water-soluble vitamins are readily excreted from the body. Each vitamin is typically used in multiple reactions and, therefore, most have multiple functions.
In humans there are 13 vitamins: 4 fat-soluble (A, D, E and K) and 9 water-soluble (8 B vitamins and vitamin C).

In nutrition and diseases

Vitamins are essential for the normal growth and development of a multicellular organism. Using the genetic blueprint inherited from its parents, a fetus begins to develop, at the moment of conception, from the nutrients it absorbs. It requires certain vitamins and minerals to be present at certain times. These nutrients facilitate the chemical reactions that produce among other things, skin, bone, and muscle. If there is serious deficiency in one or more of these nutrients, a child may develop a deficiency disease. Even minor deficiencies may cause permanent damage. For the most part, vitamins are obtained with food, but a few are obtained by other means. For example, microorganisms in the intestine—commonly known as "gut flora"—produce vitamin K and biotin, while one form of vitamin D is synthesized in the skin with the help of natural ultraviolet in sunlight. Humans can produce some vitamins from precursors they consume. Examples include vitamin A, produced from beta carotene, and niacin, from the amino acid tryptophan.

Side effects and overdose

In large doses, some vitamins have documented side effects that tend to be more severe with a larger dosage. The likelihood of consuming too much of any vitamin from food is remote, but overdosing from vitamin supplementation does occur. At high enough dosages some vitamins cause side effects such as nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting,
When side effects emerge, recovery is often accomplished by reducing the dosage. The concentrations of vitamins an individual can tolerate vary widely, and appear to be related to age and state of health. In the United States, overdose exposure to all formulations of vitamins was reported by 62,562 individuals in 2004 (nearly 80% of these exposures were in children under the age of 6), leading to 53 "major" life-threatening outcomes and 3 deaths—a small number in comparison to the 19,250 people who died of unintentional poisoning of all kinds in the U.S. in the same year (2004).


Dietary supplements, often containing vitamins, are used to ensure that adequate amounts of nutrients are obtained on a daily basis, if optimal amounts of the nutrients cannot be obtained through a varied diet. Scientific evidence supporting the benefits of some dietary supplements is well established for certain health conditions, but others need further study. Some research has suggested that supplements do not only provide no tangible health benefits for generally healthy individuals, but may actually increase mortality.
In the United States, advertising for dietary supplements is required to include a disclaimer that the product is not intended to treat, diagnose, mitigate, prevent, or cure disease, and that any health claims have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.
Intake of excessive quantities can cause vitamin poisoning, often due to overdose of Vitamin A and Vitamin D (The most common poisoning with multinutrient supplement pills does not involve a vitamin, but is rather due to the mineral iron). Due to toxicity, most common vitamins have recommended upper daily intake amounts.

Governmental regulation of vitamin supplements

Most countries place dietary supplements in a special category under the general umbrella of foods, not drugs. This necessitates that the manufacturer, and not the government, be responsible for ensuring that its dietary supplement products are safe before they are marketed. Unlike drug products, that must explicitly be proven safe and effective for their intended use before marketing, there are often no provisions to "approve" dietary supplements for safety or effectiveness before they reach the consumer. Also unlike drug products, manufacturers and distributors of dietary supplements are not generally required to report any claims of injuries or illnesses that may be related to the use of their products.

Names in current and previous nomenclatures

The reason the set of vitamins seems to skip directly from E to K is that the vitamins corresponding to "letters" F-J were either reclassified over time, discarded as false leads, or renamed because of their relationship to "vitamin B", which became a "complex" of vitamins. The German-speaking scientists who isolated and described vitamin K (in addition to naming it as such) did so because the vitamin is intimately involved in the Koagulation of blood following wounding. At the time, most (but not all) of the letters from F through J were already designated, so the use of the letter K was considered quite reasonable.
The following table lists chemicals that had previously been classified as vitamins, as well as the earlier names of vitamins that later became part of the B-complex:

See also

portal Food


General References Include:
  • Stedman's Medical Dictionary. Ed. Maureen Barlow Pugh 27th ed. Baltimore: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2000.
  • Donatelle, Rebecca J. Health: The Basics. 6th ed. San Francisco: Pearson Education, Inc. 2005.

External links

vitamin in Arabic: فيتامين
vitamin in Min Nan: Bî-tá-mín
vitamin in Bosnian: Vitamini
vitamin in Bulgarian: Витамин
vitamin in Catalan: Vitamina
vitamin in Czech: Vitamín
vitamin in Danish: Vitamin
vitamin in German: Vitamine
vitamin in Estonian: Vitamiinid
vitamin in Modern Greek (1453-): Βιταμίνη
vitamin in Spanish: Vitamina
vitamin in Esperanto: Vitamino
vitamin in Basque: Bitamina
vitamin in Persian: ویتامین
vitamin in Faroese: Vitamin
vitamin in French: Vitamine
vitamin in Galician: Vitamina
vitamin in Korean: 비타민
vitamin in Armenian: Վիտամին
vitamin in Croatian: Vitamini
vitamin in Indonesian: Vitamin
vitamin in Icelandic: Vítamín
vitamin in Italian: Vitamine
vitamin in Hebrew: ויטמין
vitamin in Georgian: ვიტამინები
vitamin in Latvian: Vitamīni
vitamin in Luxembourgish: Vitamin
vitamin in Lithuanian: Vitaminas
vitamin in Hungarian: Vitamin
vitamin in Macedonian: Витамин
vitamin in Malayalam: ജീവകം
vitamin in Marathi: जीवनसत्त्व
vitamin in Dutch: Vitamine
vitamin in Japanese: ビタミン
vitamin in Norwegian: Vitamin
vitamin in Norwegian Nynorsk: Vitamin
vitamin in Novial: Vitamine
vitamin in Occitan (post 1500): Vitamina
vitamin in Polish: Witaminy
vitamin in Portuguese: Vitamina
vitamin in Romanian: Vitamină
vitamin in Russian: Витамины
vitamin in Simple English: Vitamin
vitamin in Slovak: Vitamín
vitamin in Slovenian: Vitamin
vitamin in Serbian: Vitamini
vitamin in Sundanese: Vitamin
vitamin in Finnish: Vitamiini
vitamin in Swedish: Vitaminer
vitamin in Tamil: உயிர்ச்சத்து
vitamin in Telugu: విటమిన్
vitamin in Thai: วิตามิน
vitamin in Vietnamese: Vitamin
vitamin in Turkish: Vitamin
vitamin in Ukrainian: Вітаміни
vitamin in Urdu: حیاتین
vitamin in Yiddish: וויטאמין
vitamin in Chinese: 维生素

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

adermin, adjuvant, aneurin, antiberi-beri factor, ascorbic acid, axerophthol, biotin, carminative, carotene, cholecalciferol, choline, cobalamin, counterirritant, cryptoxanthin, cyanocobalamin, emmenagogue, ergocalciferol, expectorant, folic acid, hepatoflavin, hormone, inositol, lactoflavin, maturative, menadione, naphthoquinone, niacin, nicotinic acid, ovoflavin, pyridoxine, tocopherol, vasodilator, vitamin B, vitamin Bc, vitamin D, vitamin G, vitamin H, vitamin K, vitamin M
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