- BBC World News
At the beginning of the 17th century, Fray Antonio de la Ascensión lived through hell and witnessed a miracle.
He had been appointed by the Count of Monterrey as cosmographer of a maritime expedition to discover California, which sailed from the port of Acapulco in May 1602. A few months later, the crew began to suffer “the horrible disease of the ships.”
According to their travel report, they had “spots, inflammation of the gums, which prevented eating anything, pimples on the skin, swelling of the knees, which made it impossible to move the legs.”
All this accompanied by “a universal pain of the whole body”. “And it is so glassy, and sensitive, that anything that is touched causes so much pain, that if it is not shouting, and voices, you cannot have rest,” he adds.
In the end, they died, sometimes in the middle of a sentence when they were “talking to others.”
They finally docked in Mazatlán.
“On the ship, when I arrived here, you could not hear but cries and exclamations of our lady; and so she, as a pious Mother, felt sorry for so many people, and she came, luckily, that In nineteen days that the ship was here, they all received their health“.
It was a miracle: “There were no medicines, no drugs from apothecaries, no prescriptions, no drugs from doctors, no other human remedy,” emphasizes Fray Antonio.
What there was was a chance discovery.
One of the sailors who disembarked to bury the deceased saw a fruit “that the natives here called xocohuitztales”, he tasted it and he liked it. A few days later, after eating more of these prickly pears, he noticed that his teeth didn’t hurt as much and that he felt better, so he started giving it to his companions.
Today we know that the sailors were suffering from scurvy, an ailment that was then bitterly common and deeply mysterious: no one knew what caused it, and although experience showed sailors that citrus fruits relieved it, it was not known why.
We also know that the cure for this and many other such terrible and fatal diseases is simple: vitamins.
But little about the vitamins themselves has been straightforward. Discovering them was an act of faith that required believing in something that could not be seen. And understanding them is a task that we are far from completing.
Discover what is not
We are often aware of how significant the discovery of penicillin was, but not so much of the suffering that vitamins alleviated.
The story began in the mid-19th century, at the time of the Pasteurian revolution, when microbial infection was thought of as the possible explanation for all diseases.
That is why researchers who were looking for the cause of diseases such as scurvy or beriberi they expected to find something, not the absence of something.
So it was very difficult, it took several decades and the enormous effort of many scientists to glimpse what was happening.
His discovery was a milestone in modern medicine: for the first time in history we learned that disease and even death could be caused not only by infectious agents but by the simple absence of a single substance in our diet, a vitamin.
It was and still is very rewarding for doctors to see their patients get better from serious conditions just by making sure they get the right vitamins.
Vitamin A, found in dairy products, liver, and fish, prevents blindness and growth deformities. Enough Vitamin B1 Avoid el beriberi, which from the middle of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th was one of the main causes of mortality in Asia.
Even “vampirism”, as was sometimes said to the pelagra, which produces the desire for raw meat, blood dripping from the mouth, pale skin and susceptibility to the sun, aggression and insanity, is just a lack of vitamin B3.
Thus, many more; the list is long.
They are vital but we don’t have them
Today we know that there are 13 human vitamins and we have named them with the letters A, B, C, D, E and K. If the accounts do not give you it is because there are 8 B vitamins.
They are essential to our life … but then why can’t our bodies produce almost any of them?
Experts think that the earliest life forms, those that existed about 4 billion years ago, could produce them on their own.
Over time, some species I know experts came back in producing some of them, like the plants that became factories of vitamin C.
Others, not only ours, were lost that ability.
Primates, as well as guinea pigs, bats, and songbirds, for example, cannot produce vitamin C even though we have all the genes used by vertebrates that can.
Recent research reveals that as animals, including ourselves, began to consume fruits and leaves that provided us with all the vitamin C we needed and more, we stopped producing it.
Thus, species began to depend on each other creating what scientists call the “vitamin trade.”
Two exceptions, but one unpleasant option
We do, however, maintain the ability to produce two of the 13 vitamins.
One is vitamin D, which is produced by our skin cells when sunlight falls on them, which is fortunate in that it is difficult, though not impossible, to get enough through diet.
The other is vitamin B12.
To be more precise, it is not produced by our bodies: B12 is produced by bacteria.
What happens is that we have these bacteria in our intestines. Unfortunately, they are in the final part of the digestive tract, where it can no longer be absorbed by the body.
Rabbits have the same problem, and they solve it by eating their poop.
We prefer to obtain the B12 that we need by consuming other things, such as beef or clams, since these animals have their bacteria in the part of their intestines where it can be absorbed.
A brilliant scientist with a dubious idea
Food contains a cheap and simple way to end the suffering of millions of people around the world.
A balanced diet, with a mixture of fruits, vegetables, grains, and fats, can provide the tiny amounts of vitamins necessary for good health.
Only in special cases, doctors recommend taking higher doses of vitamins, such as in pregnancy, when a folic acid supplement helps prevent birth defects in babies.
But 50 years ago, it appeared someone who would transform the world’s perception of vitamins. Someone so powerful that he would take them out of doctor’s offices and into millions of homes and stores.
It was about Linus Pauling, a scientific superstar. Albert Einstein considered him a genius.
He had won two individual Nobel prizes, one for Chemistry and one for Peace. Also, he was charming and charismatic. It seemed like he could move effortlessly from one area of science to another. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of chemistry, physics, biology, and medicine.
In the late 1960s, the great man had a great idea. Pauling became convinced that vitamins could not only prevent deficiency diseases, they could do something much bigger.
He believed that they had the power to prevent diseases that had nothing to do with deficiency, diseases that threatened us all, such as cancer, heart disease, and could even delay aging.
The key, according to Pauling, was to take them in large doses.
When he brought his message to the world, the public loved it.
His idea also inspired a generation of health gurus, who advised taking high daily doses of vitamins. And a huge industry was generated.
If the amount of vitamin C needed to fight scurvy was 10 milligrams and could be found in an orange slice, then the equivalent of more than 100 oranges, and more than 250 times the recommended daily dose, it was even better Because that would prevent you from getting the most irritating illness, the common cold.
That, for example, popularly became a persistent scientific truth, despite an overwhelming body of evidence saying that for most people, taking high doses of vitamin C to prevent colds is a wasteful expense.
The problem is that, in other cases, studies have shown that taking high doses of vitamins can have more disastrous effects than losing money.
While it remains possible that high-dose vitamin supplements will one day be proven to protect against some diseases, so far the definitive evidence to support such claims remains largely elusive.
And as we discover more about some vitamins, it is becoming clear that in large doses can have unexpected and sometimes dangerous consequences.
Until we understand more about these powerful chemicals, most doctors advise the usual: balanced diet, exercise, and a little sun.
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Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.