Nutrition, lifestyles, behavior and movement are not those of a hundred years ago. We have to accept the concept that our habits are so radically changed, to prepare the ground for new kinds of organic disorder. If before the main causes of death were of infectious origin and, occasionally, on a more or less recognizable hereditary basis, now the primacy belongs to degenerative diseases. Coronary diseases, heart attacks and chronic heart failure, if referring to the circulatory system; at the nervous level, the vasculopathic forms leading to cognitive decline become more and more frequent. Finally, metabolism sees its main representatives in obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Vitamin deficiencies in the past certainly occurred, although there was no knowledge of nutritional or chemical order whatsoever. Vitamin C (scurvy) deficiency has historically been recorded among crews on ships on long trade routes. Even rickets (vitamin D deficiency) has historically been associated with areas of the world with limited solar irradiation, or with eating habits that are free of milk and derivatives. Finally, vitamin B12 deficiency has always been described as the classic “pernicious anemia” with symptoms of bone marrow (incomplete formation and / or maturation of red blood cells) and neurological diseases, in the form of severe neuropathy that could leave permanent damage. .
The last 25 years of scientific research have been involved in publications of how the vitamins, which we all know, have a broader spectrum of action than described so far. Many vitamins, therefore, rediscover capable unsuspected actions on different target organs. The conditioning of hormonal responses, the immune system, the maturation of almost all embryonic tissues, the regeneration of tissues in adults, the protection of cellular damage from radiation, toxins and carcinogenic substances have been described. Some of the same vitamins have been reclassified “hormone-like factors”: this is the case of vitamin D, which now becomes capable of controlling immune responses, protecting pancreatic cells from diabetes, cardiac function and memory mechanisms.
The amount of data published is enormous, but for convenience the examples referring to the most familiar vitamins are reported.
Carotene, pigment responsible for the color of many fruits and vegetables, is the precursor of vitamin A. It acts by sequestering oxidizing radicals that can cause cellular lesions. The scientific community, in fact, is in agreement with the consumption of foods rich in carotene (carrots, cauliflowers, apricots and colored fruit or vegetables) in all subjects with a high risk of pulmonary, gastric and colon neoplasia. From its metabolism derives the retinoic acid, the true vitamin A. This interacts with both its own nuclear receptors (RAR-alpha, RAR-beta), but also with cellular proteins that prepare the ground for its genetic actions. Through these interactions, it can condition the regeneration of bone marrow, skin and mucous membranes, lung health, the migration of brain stem cells and, together with vitamin D, maintain bone stability. It is no wonder, therefore, that there may be clinical cases of osteoporosis resistant to therapy, not because there is a real lack of calcium or vitamin D, but of vitamin A. On the other hand, vitamin A is not only for the health of the eyes or skin, as has always been said.
Tocopherols (vitamin E) have historically been associated with the integrity of the reproductive system (fertility), but also with the skin and red blood cells. They are indeed among the most potent natural antioxidants, but the neutralization of free radicals is not the only mechanism of action of vitamin E. Some cellular proteins (alpha-TTP) have been recently discovered that carry tocopherol-alpha up to the nucleus. cellular, to condition the gene expression of target tissues. This mechanism appears to underlie forms of cerebellar ataxia of previously unknown origin. The historical efficacy of vitamin E in many forms of infertility is not only linked to its antioxidant power. It seems, in fact, that it dialogues with the molecular signals of omega-3 acids, during the very early stages of embryogenesis. Furthermore, it is proved that pharmacological doses of vitamin E (> 200mg) cause hypoglycemia and improve insulin resistance. Finally, it was chemo-preventive against breast, ovarian and prostatic carcinomas.
Vitamin H (biotin) is a historically known vitamin to exclusively regulate the metabolism of sugars. There are few foods that contain vitamin H in significant quantities (bovine liver, milk, egg yolk, soy and brewer’s yeast), while the intestinal bacterial flora provides an endogenous synthesis that humans can exploit. Beyond being an enzyme cofactor of sugar metabolism, vitamin H is able to condition gene expression by acting directly in the cell nucleus. This mechanism was noted 10 years ago, relating its structure to that of sulforaphane, a chemo-preventive present in broccoli. In vivo studies showed that the intravenous administration of biotin or sulforaphane, separately, solicited almost overlapping responses on nerve cells and lymphocytes. The two molecules have a common target, the nuclear protein HDAC-1, whose inhibition allows the expression of genes that suppress cell replication, especially in cancer cells. The intracellular biotin transport protein (HLCS), finally, can surprisely interact directly with steroid hormone receptors, even if at the moment the meaning of this is unknown.
And what about vitamin K? Everyone knows that if it is low, there is the risk of easily meeting the bleeding. In fact, it intervenes in the synthesis of prothrombin and for this reason it is considered “the anti-hemorrhagic vitamin”. There are several forms present in foods of plant origin, but a certain amount is synthesized in our intestine by similar symbiotic strains to Escherichia coli. Some very rich food sources are broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach, chickpeas, peas, eggs and liver Vitamin K acts as a coenzyme of a glutamate carboxylase which determines the carboxylation of glutamic acid residues, converting it into γ-carboxyglutamic acid (Gla). This makes some proteins active: protein C, protein S and factors 7, 9 and 10 of coagulation. The activated protein C deficiency appears to be responsible for a genetic risk of deep vein thrombosis and spontaneous abortion. The S protein, on the other hand, serves to maintain the integrity of the retina’s photosensitive cells. But that is not all. The same enzymatic mechanism that activates these proteins serves the function of two other important skeletal proteins: the osteocalcin hormone and the GLA protein of the bone matrix. Osteocalcin is processed by osteoblasts and its levels are positively correlated with the bone formation quotient between normal and osteoporotic women. In addition, those who take anticoagulants for cardiovascular disease (warfarin, coumadin) are recognized as categories at greater risk of developing osteoporosis and, consequently, bone fractures. So, together with vitamin A and vitamin D, K also now seems to play an important role in bone integrity.
Finally, vitamin D does not only serve to assimilate calcium into the bones; its receptors are distributed in practically all the organs. Its anti-carcinogenic properties against breast, prostate and colorectal cancers have been confirmed by decades of studies. In the brain it conditions the maturation of brain synapses during puberty, but it strengthens the molecular mechanisms of memory in adults. Still at the cerebral level, it can regulate the synthesis of serotonin and there is experimental evidence that this may prove useful in the symptomatic treatment of autism. In the pancreas, vitamin D ensures embryonic maturation for future production of insulin, and at the immune level prevents the appearance of autoimmunity. Finally, it is very recent to discover that it is indispensable to fertility. An English study has shown that more than 45% of infertile women have vitamin D levels in the range of insufficiency, and 26% in net deficiency. The study involved women undergoing in vitro fertilization or intracytoplasmic sperm injection, transfer of frozen embryos or both. A link between vitamin D and infertility was theorized, after the receptors and vitamin D enzymes were found in the endometrium. Furthermore, in animal studies, vitamin D deficiency leads to decreased fertility and reduced reproductive function. In brackets, vitamin D deficiency in women is proven to increase the risk of pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes and lower birth weight.
We await with interest what further vitamins reserve us, these unknown neighbors….
- edited by Dr. Gianfrancesco Cormaci, PhD, specialist in Clinical Biochemistry.
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