Expert advice from HORSE magazine on how to keep healthy this winter

Q: We’re always being told by equine nutritionists how important vitamins are for our horses. Is it just as important that we take vitamin supplements to keep us healthy?

Sarah Donald, Kent

A: Vitamins are essential to help our bodies function normally and they are required for growth, as well as general well-being and vitality.

With few exceptions, the body cannot manufacture or synthesize vitamins, so they must be supplied through the diet or in dietary supplements. A lot of people think vitamins can replace food. This is not the case. In fact, vitamins cannot be used without proper ingestion of food.

Vitamins help regulate metabolism, help convert fat and carbohydrates into energy and they also assist in forming bone tissue.

It is very important to have an adequate intake of vitamins for good health and optimum performance. However, taking large doses which are over and above the body’s requirements, will not improve performance. Indeed, excessive intake of vitamins can, in fact, be harmful and dangerous.

If you want a vitamin supplement, have a one-a-day product containing 100 per cent of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for each vitamin.

In order to increase your vitamin intake you should eat plenty of fruit and vegetables – aim for at least five portions a day. Do not overcook vegetables as this destroys vitamins. Keep them crisp by microwaving or steaming. If boiling, keep it brief and use the minimum amount of water. Wholemeal foods are better than processed foods so try wholemeal versions of your favourite carbohydrate foods, such as bread.

My advice is to increase the intake of essential nutrients through the consumption of more fruit and vegetables rather than through a pill.

Understanding vitamins

  • Vitamin A promotes growth and repair of body tissues, healthy skin and a healthy lining of the mouth, nose and urinary tract. It also helps vision, especially in dim or poor light.

    If you are deficient in vitamin A it may show in night blindness, increased susceptibility to infections, dry scaly skin, loss of smell and appetite, frequent fatigue and also defective teeth and gums.

  • Vitamin B1 (Thiamine) plays a key role in the body’s metabolic cycle for generating energy. Lack of vitamin B1 may lead to loss of appetite, weakness, a feeling of tiredness, mental depression, heart and gastrointestinal problems.

    Sources of vitamin B1 include milk, pork, eggs, vegetables and fruit as well as wholegrain cereals. Vitamin B1 can be lost through cooking.

  • Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin) is necessary for carbohydrate, fat and protein metabolism and to aid in the formation of antibodies and red blood cells. Lack of vitamin B2 may result in itching and burning eyes, cracks and sores in the mouth and lips as well as digestive disturbances.

    Sources of vitamin B2 are widely distributed, especially in food derived from animal products. In the United Kingdom animal products, such as meat are an important source.

  • Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine) is involved in the metabolism of amino acids (proteins) and is required for the formation of haemoglobin. Lack of vitamin B6 may result in nervousness, insomnia, skin eruptions, loss of muscle control and arm and leg cramps.

    Vitamin B6 occurs widely in food, especially in meat, fish, eggs and whole cereals, as well as some types of vegetables.

  • Vitamin B12 is needed for the formation of red blood cells. Deficiency of vitamin B12 may lead to pernicious anaemia, poor appetite, growth failure in children and depression.

    Sources of vitamin B12 include animal products and micro-organisms including yeast. The vitamin does not occur in vegetables.

  • Folate (Folic Acid) acts with vitamin B12 and is important for the growth cells. Deficiency in folic acid could result in gastrointestinal disorders.

    A folic acid supplement is required pre-conceptionally and throughout the early stages of pregnancy, in order to decrease the possibility of the baby having spina bifida.

    Sources of folic acid include yeast extract, green leafy vegetables and fortified breakfast cereals. It is easily destroyed by cooking.

  • Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid) is required for healthy tissue. It is also essential for healthy teeth, gums and bones and it helps wounds to heal.

    Lack of vitamin C causes scurvy, which may lead to soft and bleeding gums, swollen and painful joints and slow wound healing. Vitamin C is present in vegetables and fruits but itis readily lost through storage and during cooking.

  • Vitamin D helps to maintain bone strength and healthy teeth and it improves the absorption and utilisation of calcium and phosphorus.

    Lack of vitamin D may lead to rickets, tooth decay, softening of bones and improper healing of fractures. Vitamin D comes from the action of sunlight on the skin.

  • Vitamin E is an antioxidant and most foods contain this vitamin. The richest sources of the vitamin include vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, cereal products and egg yolk.

  • Vitamin K is required for blood clotting and it is present in vegetables, such as spinach, cabbage, cauliflower and peas and various cereals.