Author: Mario Van Biljon NHDip: MicroBiology

The business of vitamins and optimal health

The body requires a wide variety of nutrients, including vitamins, on a daily basis to help maintain health. Quite simply, they are the catalysts necessary for the maintenance of life. Each vitamin has specific functions, but they must work together to help your body efficiently perform its necessary tasks.

Vitamins are an essential component of the structures and functions in our bodies, which take years to develop to their full capacity. In physically active individuals vitamins work to give you an edge by enhancing the effects of training to build better structures and improve bodily functions. If you consume them daily in optimal amounts, train regularly and consistently then slowly but surely, every cell in your body will gradually improve and your body will transform, until it looks, feels and performs the way millions of years of genetic evolution intended.

For all you health, physique and performance conscious readers, your goal of optimum nutrition, of which optimal vitamin intake plays a vital role, should be to:

  • Support optimal physical performance
  • Promotes a low incidence of illness
  • Enhance mental performance
  • Promote emotional well-being
  • Foster a long and healthy lifespan

Research has clearly demonstrated that through optimum vitamin intake we are able to:

  • Improve quality of sleep
  • Protect against diseases and extend lifespan
  • Increase resistance to infections and illness
  • Improve mood and mental concentration
  • Increase IQ

Why RDAs don’t cut it

RDAs are determined by panels of scientists on various government bodies worldwide, based on levels that are known to prevent deficiency diseases, such as scurvy. RDAs are certainly not designed with optimal health in mind, and there is a huge difference between levels required to prevent illness and those required to ensure optimal health and wellness.

Since not all scientists are in agreement with each other on RDA levels, you may find that from country to country RDAs vary significantly.

RDAs do not take individual circumstances into consideration, nor do they consider what is optimal for an individual. As an example, your vitamin needs could be double if you smoke, drink alcohol, lead a high stress lifestyle, are menopausal, take birth control pills or live/work in a highly polluted area.

To complicate things even more, it is very difficult to meet even modest RDA levels through diet alone, and what we perceive to be a well balanced diet often fails to meet this lowly requirement. In fact, scientific surveys have shown that up to 85% of those who think they eat a well-balanced diet are, in fact failing to meet measly RDA recommendations.

Years ago university textbooks claimed that athletes required no more vitamins than sedentary folk, and that these requirements were well covered by the RDA, which they could get from a well-balanced diet. Thankfully a ton of evidence from more recent scientific research has buried that theory for good!
Through this research we now know that hard training athletes have nutritional requirements far above the average person. We also know that modern food processing techniques can decimate the vitamin content of foods and that the typical modern day diet is therefore not conducive to delivering the vitamin levels required for hard training athletes to maximise their performance and maintain peak health. For instance, laboratory analysis shows us that oranges picked green and then ripened using ethylene gas, before being kept for weeks in storage, may have virtually no vitamin C content left in them at all!

Health and physique conscious fitness fanatics will never achieve optimum health and performance if they are even slightly deficient in any one of the numerous micro-nutrients essential for optimal physical function. Unfortunately most athletes and active individuals overlook multivitamins because they are searching for wonder supplements, while neglecting the vital role these “basic” micro-nutrients play in optimising health and performance.

Compared to the average sedentary person, a hard training athlete produces far more free radicals, has substantially higher energy production requirements and needs significantly more “body building” material to facilitate tissue repair and recovery.

Therefore, athletes and active individuals have higher micro-nutrient requirements, far exceeding general RDA recommendations, which are very difficult if not impossible to meet through reliance on a whole food diet alone. An athlete’s micro-nutrient requirements are therefore best met through combining a balanced diet with intelligent supplementation.

VITAMINS – A brief overview:

Comes in two forms, namely the animal form, retinol, which is stored in the body and the vegetable form, beta-carotene, which is converted into retinol, unless body levels are already high. Vitamin A is essential for growth, the production of Growth Hormone and the maintenance of the skin, lungs, gastrointestinal tract, womb etc. Vitamin A is also a powerful anti-viral vitamin, mainly because its inclusion in cell walls makes them stronger and more resistant to viral attack. Bodily secretions, like sweat, tears and saliva, as well as the immune cells, all need vitamin A for the production of lysozyme – a protective anti-bacterial enzyme. Vitamin A is helpful in cancer prevention and treatment of pre-cancerous conditions. More vitamin A is required by people fighting infections, especially viral ones. Lack of vitamin A causes night-blindness (or more serious xerophthalmia) and dry flaky skin. Research on athletes shows that strenuous exercise causes a substantial release of vitamin A from the liver into the bloodstream and repeated bouts of daily strenuous exercise, which rapidly depletes liver vitamin A stores, increasing daily requirements substantially.

Recommended daily intake: Optimal serum retinol levels can generally be achieved and maintained with a daily vitamin A intake of 1000 – 2000 RE (3330 – 6660 IU)

Toxicity: Vitamin A levels can build up in the liver and lead to toxicity with repeated supplementation. Do not supplement with more than 3000 RE (10000 IU) daily.

Vitamin C has a multitude of beneficial effects, ranging from it’s powerful antioxidant and immuno-supportive effects, to its role in ligament and tendon synthesis. It has been documented to actually suppress the body’s natural production of cortisol and is also an important element in energy production. Symptoms of vitamin C deficiency include frequent colds and infections, bleeding or receding gums, nose bleeds, easy bruising, slow wound healing and lack of energy. Serious athletes generate increased levels of tissue damaging free radicals, so their requirements for vitamin C, which is the body’s major extracellular antioxidant, are often far in excess of what can be obtained from whole foods alone.

Recommended daily intake: Since new research on vitamin C suggests that gram (not milligram) amounts (depending on training frequency, intensity and volume) may be required to protect athletes engaging in intense training from the ravages of free radicals, I generally recommend daily supplementation with 500 mg – 2000 mg daily.

Toxicity: Vitamin C toxicity is very low and not likely, even at levels of ≥ 5000 mg per day.

With exposure to sunlight the body can produce its own vitamin D. The main function of vitamin D is the regulation of calcium absorption. It is responsible for getting calcium into the blood stream and delivering it to the bones for building purposes. Vitamin D deficiency is linked to decreases in bone strength and density and causes rickets. Vitamin D also plays an important role in muscle contraction, aerobic energy production and immunity. Vitamin D is fat-soluble and is therefore stored in the body.

Recommended daily intake: While intense endurance training lowers blood levels, exposure to daily sunlight makes deficiency in warm sunny climates, such as South Africa, unlikely (especially amongst the physically active who partake in outdoor activities). Athletes who train Intensely generally need no more than 5 – 10 micrograms (200 – 400 IU) daily.

Toxicity: Vitamin D is fat soluble and daily intake of 50 micrograms or more may build up over long periods to be toxic.

Best known for its antioxidant effects, vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin. It is necessary for normal immunity and antibody response. As an antioxidant in our fat layers, it neutralises free radicals and works with other nutrients to improve our resistance to infection.

Insufficient vitamin E intake puts the physically active person’s organs, muscles, blood and brain cells under increased oxidative stress, which can lead to injury and long-term illness. Serious athletes generate increased levels of tissue damaging free radicals and thus their requirements for vitamin E, which combats free radicals in the body, are often far in excess of what can be obtained from whole foods diets alone.

Recommended daily intake: Most athletes’ vitamin E requirements are met with daily supplementation of 400 – 800 IU.

Toxicity: Vitamin E toxicity is unlikely, even at levels of ≥2500 IU per day.

These are water-soluble vitamins that help turn the food we eat into energy. Deficiency symptoms are varied, although the first signs are always mental and emotional, probably because the brain is absolutely dependent on getting a 24 hour supply of these vitamins. B vitamins are important co-enzymes in the metabolism of macro-nutrients and cellular respiration (energy production). Physically active individuals have higher nutrient and energy requirements, so they must metabolise larger quantities of carbohydrates, proteins and essential fats than sedentary folk. As such vitamin B requirements increase.

Vitamin B1 (Thiamin):

Essential for digestion and the body’s use of carbohydrates. Thiamin is also required for the metabolism of the essential branch chain amino acids (BCAA) – L-Leucine, L-Valine and L-Isoleucine. It promotes proper energy production and nerve cell function, which are both important in assuring proper muscle function.

Recommended daily intake: 20 – 50 mg/day.
Toxicity: Thiamin is non-toxic to at least 500 mg/day.

Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin):

Essential for the cellular production of energy from carbohydrates, fats and proteins, and in the formation of glutathione, a vital endogenous antioxidant. People who exercise a lot need more vitamin B2 for energy conversion, and to make glutathione to combat their increased levels of free radicals.

Recommended daily intake: 20 – 50 mg/day.
Toxicity: Vitamin B2 is non-toxic to at least 200 mg/day.

Vitamin B3 (Niacin):

Vitamin B3 has the remarkable ability to help remove unwanted cholesterol and is a vasodilator (dilates blood vessels) at high doses. It is essential for the energy cycle, the manufacture of fats and proteins and over 200 other important enzymatic reactions. Some niacin can be synthesized by the body using the amino acid tryptophan.

Recommended daily intake: 25 – 50 mg niacin daily.
Toxicity: Vitamin B3 is non-toxic to at least 200 mg/day.

Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid):

Needed to make stress hormones and can help those suffering from high stress levels or concentration problems. It forms part of coenzyme A, which is essential for the breakdown of carbohydrates and fats. Pantothenic Acid is also essential for the manufacture of steroid hormones and brain neurotransmitters, as well as for use in energy cycles, so it is also very important for athletes.

Recommended daily intake: 25 – 50 mg daily.
Toxicity: Vitamin B5 is non-toxic to at least 200 mg/day.

Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine):

Essential to amino acid metabolism and is thus critical to optimum growth and repair of muscle tissue. It is also essential in the biochemical breakdown of muscle glycogen, which fuels the energy cycle. Athletes who rely heavily on glycogen to fuel exercise and eat a protein diet should take more pyridoxine.

Recommended daily intake: 15 – 30 mg daily.
Toxicity: Vitamin B6 is non-toxic to at least 100 mg/day.

Vitamin B7 (Biotin):

Found in yeast and liver, biotin is a co-enzyme for certain enzymes that incorporate carbon dioxide into various compounds. It is essential for the formation of glucose, lipogenesis (the formation of fatty acids) and the breakdown of BCAAs. Without sufficient biotin your body cannot make proper use of fats, sugars or proteins and it causes hair loss and muscle and skin (dermatitis) disintegration.

Recommended daily intake: 200 – 500 mcg daily.
Toxicity: Biotin toxicity is low and not likely, even at levels of ≥ 5000 mcg per day.

Vitamin B9 (Folic Acid):

Found in liver and green leafy vegetables, and is made by intestinal bacteria. It is concerned with nucleoprotein synthesis and red blood cell formation, so a lack of Folic Acid causes anaemia. Folate deficiency is, in fact, the most common deficiency in the world. It is also essential for amino acid metabolism, DNA synthesis and cellular growth. It is often given to pregnant women to prevent anaemia and neural tube defects (spina bifida).

Recommended daily intake: 400 – 800 mcg daily.
Toxicity: Folic Acid is non-toxic to at least 2000 mcg/day

Vitamin B12 (Cyancobalamin):

Only animal-derived foods contain viable amounts of B12, which is required for the formation of red blood cells and therefore oxygen transport. Typical signs of deficiency include anaemia and neural dysfunction. B12 also reportedly helps boost energy levels, protect the liver and increase appetite.

Recommended daily intake: 25 – 50 mcg daily
Toxicity: Vitamin B12 toxicity is low and not likely even at levels of ≥ 250 mcg per day.

Choosing a multivitamin supplement

A number of multivitamin supplements on the market claim to supply 100% of the RDA of all necessary vitamins. Unfortunately, as we have already discussed, because a hard training athlete’s requirements far exceeds the RDA, a multivitamin of much higher potency is generally required. When buying a multivitamin I recommend looking for a supplement that can supply the following potencies per daily serving, at the very least:

Vitamin My Recommendation RDA Vitamin My Recommendation RDA
VIT A 700 – 1400 RE 1000 RE VIT B12 25 – 50 mcg 1 mcg
VIT D 5 mcg 200 IU FOLIC ACID 400 – 800 mcg 200 mcg
VIT E 400 – 800 IU* 15 IU NICOTINAMIDE 20 – 50 mg 18 mg
VIT B1 20 – 50 mg 1.4 mg BIOTIN 200 – 500 mcg 100 mcg
VIT B2 20 – 50 mg 1.6 mg PANTOTHENIC ACID  20 – 50 mg 6 mg
VIT B6 15 – 30 mg 2 mg VIT C 500 – 2000mg* 60 mg

* Note: Even the highest potency multivitamins on the market often don’t contain adequate quantities of the important antioxidant vitamins C and E to meet the requirements of hard training athletes. For peak performance and optimum recovery I would therefore recommend taking a 1000 mg vitamin C tablet, once or twice daily and at least 300 – 600 IU of vitamin E per day.


Regular exercise puts increased micro-nutrient demands on the body and there are not too many things more detrimental to your health, recovery, fat burning and lean muscle building efforts than a non-optimal micro-nutrient status. As such, a proactive approach is required from all levels of fitness enthusiast to ensure they maintain an adequate bodily micro-nutrient status. Daily supplementation with a well formulated multivitamin helps prevent deficiencies, which can result from limited dietary variety, increased vitamin depletion from exercise and stress, and/or reduced caloric intake while dieting.