The value of vitamins

However wonderfully made, our bodies sometimes need extra help to keep healthy and strong.

In recent years, dietary supplements have gained popularity as a surefire route to wellbeing.

All the more reason, says Faculty of Land and Food Systems researcher Yvonne Lamers, to understand how we use nutrients from supplements as well as natural food sources and fortified food products.

A Canada Research Chair in Human Nutrition and Vitamin Metabolism, Lamers focuses on B vitamins, specifically the levels required for normal cellular activity. She explores the metabolic consequences of both high and low B-vitamin intake and aims to discover potential underlying mechanisms between nutrition and disease.

Asst. Prof. Lamers explains that B-vitamins such as folate and vitamin B-12 are necessary not only for making cells and DNA synthesis, but also to keep the brain healthy.

“Lower levels of folate and vitamin B-12 have been linked to higher risk of pregnancy complications, heart disease, stroke, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Lamers is using an innovative research method that allows her to trace and quantify B-vitamin dependent pathways in the cell’s metabolic processes. Called a whole body kinetic study, the amino acids and vitamins have been “labeled” with stable isotopes, atoms that are naturally occurring and found in the environment, food and our bodies.

The labeled amino acids, or vitamins, are delivered into the study participants’ circulation either orally or intravenously. Over a time span of several hours, the researcher can take blood, breath or urine samples to evaluate the turnover of the labeled vitamins or amino acids, their ways of degradation and their transformation into other cellular components.

“This approach helps us to clarify which pathway is affected to what extent by the altered B-vitamin level,” says Lamers. “For example, I can look at how different vitamin levels may assist or potentially impair and lower the formation of amino acids, which are the building blocks for proteins.”

Another line of inquiry for Lamers’s work is folic acid, a synthetic form of folate—a B vitamin that helps to prevent birth defects. Currently, women of childbearing age are recommended to take between 0.4 and one milligram of folic acid per day for the prevention of neural tube defects such as spina bifida, a type of birth defect that develops in the first few weeks of pregnancy.

In 1998, the Canadian federal government introduced a mandatory program to fortify foods such as white flour, pasta, and cornmeal with folic acid. The food fortification program has succeeded in lowering the rates of neural tube defects.  However, the high intake of fortified foods and supplements has made it possible for people to ingest large amounts of folic acid. Recently, scientists have raised questions about whether high intake levels of folic acid may create imbalances with other nutrients, specifically with a less than optimal vitamin B-12 status. “I want to look at the metabolic effects of high amounts
of folic acid in comparison to a naturally occurring folate form, whether folic acid impairs the pathways linked to DNA formation and cellular activity.”

Lamers’s findings will feed into a review of current public health policies regarding nutrient intake, vitamin supplementation and food fortification.

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UBC Reports | Vol. 57 | No. 2 | Feb. 4, 2011

Assistant professor Yvonne Lamers studies human nutrition and vitamin metabolism. Photo: Martin Dee

Assistant professor Yvonne Lamers studies human nutrition and vitamin metabolism. Photo: Martin Dee

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Vitamin D
for pregnant women

By Lorraine Chan

Blame it on Canada’s watery winter sun, but women who are pregnant or breastfeeding need to take vitamin D supplements, according to human nutrition researcher Tim Green.

“Our preliminary data shows that Vitamin D levels in the mother’s blood are fairly low,” says Green, an associate professor in the Faculty’s Food, Nutrition and Health program and lead investigator of the study funded by the Canadian Institute of Health Research.

He explains that vitamin D is vital for bone health. Without it, babies can develop rickets, a condition when bones are too soft and do not form properly. Green’s research partners include the BC Women’s Hospital and Health Centre and the departments of pediatrics and obstetrics and gynecology at UBC’s Faculty of Medicine.

“Although we get a small amount of vitamin D from food, our bodies create it as it absorbs sunlight,” says Green. “And during the Canadian winter, especially in Vancouver, there isn’t enough sun for this to happen.”

Green is exploring how much vitamin D pregnant and breastfeeding women are currently getting and how much they should take as supplements to ensure health for themselves and their babies. The study makes use of donated supplements created by Natural Factors.

With more than 200 pregnant women as study participants, the research team is measuring the effect of vitamin D supplements on the growth of the baby and on the bone health of mother
and baby.

As well, the study investigates the possible effect of skin colour on vitamin D levels. Skin with darker pigments, either naturally or from a tan, tend
to absorb less light, and therefore affects the amount of vitamin D the body produces. Researchers will measure how much light is reflected by a person’s skin using a device called a colorimeter.

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