The other vitamins


This year, in my quest to heal my gut and restore balance to my hyperactive immune system, I am looking at the other “vitamins” that no one talks about but are incredibly important for mental and physical health. I’m talking about the vitamins that are supportive of your unique inner being; the ones that fill your heart and bring warmth to your center. These vitamins are different for everyone. Acknowledging these other vitamins is vital to the health of your physical body and the health of your spirit.

Why am I seeking the other vitamins? For one thing, I felt like I had lost a little light from my smile. Maybe I forgot how to play hard and have fun doing it. I wasn’t laughing as much. As we get older and the more worries we hold on to, the less we live in the present moment and the less we might feel joy and satisfaction with our life. I’ve been studying so much about what goes wrong in the body that sometimes I forget how much goes right. In therapy, I am learning to listen to that inner voice, which is me, not some nebulous evil, but me. My inner voice is telling me to have more dance, play, fun, and joy. To turn my face to the sun and smile! Because life isn’t all that bad and there are more aspects of my life that I need to seek out besides exercise and having a perfect diet. So 2023 is the year I start taking in these other vitamins. The ones that light a fire in my soul and bring a smile to my face. The ones that I did naturally as a child. Those are the ones that will keep me young.

Studying the function of the human body has resulted in a little bit of an obsession with vitamins and minerals and even certain phytonutrients that are sure to cure all my ills. I wasn’t necessarily trying to make up for what is lacking in my diet like so many do with an insurance policy by way of a multi-vitamin, but I was trying to use targeted supplements to increase my iron stores, and my Vitamin D levels, and balance out my hormones. The more I learned the more I added to my daily regimen until I realized that I had a basket of supplements in my pantry that I was taking every day. Without even realizing it, I fell into a reductionist trap, using a pill for every ill.

During the fall of last year, I went through a toxicity course which opened my eyes to the reality of just how much polypharmacy and polysupplements can harm. Our liver is incredible. It has to manage toxins, waste, and endogenous compounds that our bodies produce, and it has to break down exogenous compounds that we bring into our bodies orally. We ask a lot of our liver and it gets no thanks, probably barely a thought on any given day until there is an overt sign of damage, which takes years and years to develop.

So this month, instead of pills and fads and the latest and greatest scientific discovery in the form of a pill, I am taking a supplement holiday and pursuing some neglected “vitamins” that are just as important, and I might argue, more important than any other isolated vitamin out there.

Vitamin D for Dance

I have always loved to dance. My mom remembers when I was obsessed with Shirly Temple and pretended to tap dance in the kitchen. I took ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop, lyrical, and point from elementary school to high school. Then college came and the opportunity for dance class diminished. As an adult, I gave ballroom dancing a try. I totally loved it but it was incredibly expensive and in a way fed into my perfectionist mentality, sometimes causing undo stress when I had to perform in front of people. Dancing closely with another human being is incredibly challenging, something I am happy to have learned and tried, but at the end of the day, wasn’t for me. What I missed was the dancing from my childhood. So I started an adult tap class at the end of December. Not only do I feel excited and I am meeting a wonderful group of women of all ages and experiences, but my sister takes the class too. For 45 minutes every Monday, I get to dance and laugh at myself and just have a wonderful time. Dancing always made me free and happy. I highly recommend you find some Vitamin D too. It doesn’t have to be a structured dance class. Dancing around the kitchen or dancing while cleaning will do the trick. Just as long as you add it into your week.

Vitamin P for Play

I only discovered Vitamin P during one of my therapy sessions. We were talking about my inner child and what she might be trying to tell me. I had to really consider what I was missing and why “she”, would be trying to send the adult me a message. She has been sending lots of messages lately, but when I thought about how much I loved playing with my niece and nephew when they were little and how the day would be so full of laughter and excitement, and joy, I realized I was missing play. Finding play can be challenging when you have a full-time job, kids, and a house to manage and maintain. I think we lose play because there can be too many adult tasks we feel must be prioritized instead of play and that play is less important as we age and become an adult. We forget that play is not only fun but a way to imagine and experience the world that is around us.

Play is intrinsically motivated activities and even higher functioning animals like mammals and birds play. Play usually contains at least 5 essential elements to make it meaningful and create memories: making decisions, using intrinsic motivation, becoming immersed in the moment, being spontaneous, and enjoyable. Physical play, social play, and constructive play are types of play that children do naturally but adults will have to be intentional about finding. For adults, simple things like a fun hobby you enjoy or taking a long walk somewhere new and exploring your surroundings, playing an imaginary game with a child, or even exploring new ways for you to express your own unique creativity.

Vitamin N for Nature

Oh, the great outdoors! Fresh air, sunshine, a gentle breeze stirring the leaves, the sounds of birds greeting the morning, and a sense of connection to the world around me. Humans are a part of nature, no matter how much tech we rely on or how far above we perceive our intelligence over plants and mammals. Nature for me is even about freedom. When I am outside I feel a sense of total freedom. When I am able to go for an easy run or walk through the trails behind our neighborhood, I am free, no one can get me or bother me. There is no phone or music to distract me from the connection to the outside world. You may not be as lucky as I am to have nature trails surrounding a small lake, but many cities are starting to build safe walking trails attached to city parks. Finding your spot for connection with nature is a critical piece for wellness.

“If you are in a bad mood, go for a walk. If you are still in a bad mood, go for another walk.” Hippocrates

I yearn for nature on a daily basis. Nature sometimes calls to me and even a short 10-minute walk down the street and back has a significant calming effect on me. It is close to magic. I never totally understood this wonderful effect of nature until I read a book called “Go Wild” by Dr. John Ratey. I learned so many things from reading this book, but one thing stuck out the most to me. The word shinrin-yoku. A beautiful Japanese term for basking or bathing in the natural world. Extensive studies done in Japan over the last few years on the health effects of compounds called phytoncides, chemicals secreted by plants and trees, lead to the national movement of shinrin-yoku. These chemicals make their way into the olfactory of humans and then straight to the brain where they can affect stress levels, regulate pain perception, and even reduce anxiety. One of the most powerful effects is on natural killer cells, which are part of the immune system's first line of defense.

About 3 years ago, I wrote an article about forest bathing or basking. You can follow the link at the footer to read more. When I originally wrote that article I didn’t really delve into what phytoncides were and the relationship between phytoncides and phytonutrients. Coming back to shinrin-yoku and its benefits led me to do a little more research on phytoncides and how they affect the body.

Phytoncides are antimicrobial allelochemical volatile compounds. The word actually means “exterminated by the plant” and was first coined in 1928 by a Russian biochemist named Dr. Boris Tokin. He found that some plants give off very active substances that help to prevent them from rotting or being eaten by insects or animals. Picture the smells that fill your nostrils when stepping into a wooded area. Those smells are active phytoncides you are inhaling. Cedar, pine, oak, tea tree and more give off phytoncides. Small pungent plants like garlic, locust, and many spices are also capable of excreting phytoncides. More than 5,000 volatile substances defend plants from bacteria, fungi, and insects by inhibiting or preventing the growth of the attacking organism. Truly a fascinating world right outside our doors.

So the next time you feel a little “under the weather”, rather than running to the nearest pharmacy and picking up a high-dose Vitamin C tablet, just go for a walk near some trees. Maybe even find a spot in the sun and sit beneath a green canopy for a few minutes. Breathe deep and slow, letting all of the powerful antimicrobial compounds enter your body and boost your own body's natural ability to fight sickness.

Vitamin M for Meditation

For the last few months I have seriously neglected Vitamin M. During the summer of last year I had an amazing morning routine. I would get up, go for a walk, and immediately meditate. I was able to hold that for 40 days straight until we got a puppy. Then my morning routine was forgotten as I was sleep deprived and on constant potty break duty.

During the holidays I realized I desperately needed to get back on track. Even a short 10-minute break to reflect, be present in the moment and be still has a tremendous impact on daily well-being. I even wrote an article about switching up my morning routine and how that hack was critical to being able to meditate in the first place. But this year, my morning routine isn’t so hot. Sometimes my schedule is all over the place and the puppy is, well, still a puppy. So instead of being rigid with my mornings, I allow them to flow. In some ways, this makes me less productive but it is definitely less stressful. Meditation was so hard to do last year, but this year I find when I crave stillness at any point in the day I will just go meditate. It doesn’t have to be strict and I don’t have to make it one more thing to stress about during the day. I just do it. This week my aim is to meditate twice a day, maybe even 3 times a day. Building a meditation practice into daily life is just as essential as 3 daily nutritious meals.

Vitamin T or F for Tribe and Friendship

I think COVID really brought vitamin T and F to light as loneliness and the feeling of isolation drove many people to seek out medications for depression and anxiety. In 2022, the World Health Organization published a news release warning countries about the increased prevalence of depression and anxiety and the gap in care that exists in mental health services. The WHO reported a 25% increase in depression and anxiety worldwide during the first year of the pandemic alone. Recent surveys show that although the rates of depression are no longer increasing at an astounding rate, the prevalence globally is still higher than pre-pandemic levels. As of 2022, nearly 50 million Americans, about 19.8%, report symptoms of depression and anxiety.

There are multiple factors that can be attributed to mental health disorders, but COVID shined a spotlight on just how much social isolation impacts our well-being. Not only does social isolation impact our ability to work, seek support from loved ones and engage in our community, but it is a direct cause of loneliness. A study published in April of 2022 in the Journal of Aging linked feelings of loneliness and unhappiness to aging a person faster than smoking. Loneliness, unhappiness, and hopelessness added up to a year and eight months to someone’s age — five months more than smoking. Living in a rural area also increases age markers compared to people living in an urban setting.

“Your body and soul are connected — this is our main message,” Fedor Galkin, a co-author of the study and lead scientist at the Hong Kong startup Deep Longevity.

Studies in 2015 and 2016 found that social isolation is a major health problem that can increase the risk of premature death by 14 percent. Data from the universities of California and Chicago found that loneliness all by itself can trigger genetic changes which cause illness and early death. Feeling alone triggers the “fight or flight” stress signal which affects the production of white blood cells. It also increases genes that promote more inflammation in the body while lowering the genes that fight illness. This makes sense from a survival standpoint. Even though we may not want to admit it, our genes are still primitive and our survival depended on our tribe and community. Being kicked out of the tribe meant death.

I find it very disheartening that this data was available before COVID and yet we ignored the impact that isolation and loneliness have on our health as human beings. Especially to the elderly and school-age children. I don’t think we have even reached the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the full ramifications of social distancing and its impact on our mental health going forward.

I hope we start to learn that humans do need each other. We need a tribe, we need friends, we need a community in which we can be a part of and we need to receive and give support to those people in our community. We need to be able to be in the room with others. Virtual friends and meet-ups do not provide the same benefits as actually being face-to-face with people. Oxytocin, the hormone most notably thought of as mother-child bonding, lifetime pair-bonding, and the emotional connection we feel when socializing, is actually stimulating dopamine release during social interactions. Dopamine is necessary for regulating even the most basic physical rhythms like sleep, hunger, thirst, and emotional reactions. The oxytocin/dopamine pathways result in increased social interaction and even normal social behavior. Oxytocin only gets involved when we are physically close to each other. Therefore, to truly feel connected we must be present with each other. Closeness, physically, is essential to basic biological processes.

For me, a tribe or having friends was something I lost well before COVID hit. I don’t even speak on a regular basis to some of my best friends that I had in college. I don’t socialize much and having family and work priorities get in the way of just going out and meeting new people. So to get more vitamin T and F this year I killed two birds with one stone and joined the tap class. Not only do I get more Vitamin D but I get T and F as well. I get to meet new people and laugh and learn in a setting where I can get other Vitamin M’s like movement and music.

What is a vitamin

The discovery of vitamins was a major achievement in our understanding of health and disease. A Polish-American man named Casimir Funk originally coined the term “vitamine” in 1912. “Vita” means life and “amine” because vitamins were originally thought to contain amino acids. The reality of vitamin discovery was actually incredibly slow and took place during the early nineteenth century and ended during the mid-twentieth century. Research on vitamins began when the dominant theory of disease was centered around germs and microbes. Macronutrients and minerals were deemed the only nutrients essential for human functioning at this time and scientists were slow to even consider there may be more essential nutrients needed for the health and function of the human body. It took over 20 years to discover the disease pellagra was caused by a deficiency in niacin, also known as B3.

“Learn to acknowledge that creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe.” -Wendell Berry

While we do know some facts about vitamins, the individual human diet is incredibly complex and there is still so much uncertainty when it comes to large doses of vitamins and supplements. Our understanding of vitamins and now the thousands of compounds called phytonutrients and phytoncides continues to evolve. I would go so far as to say that science may never have the full picture of the exact compounds and all the synergistic interactions that allow humans to thrive. My hope for the future is that we maybe just stop trying so hard to find something concrete that we can study and replicate into a drug or supplement and that we start looking at the big picture of human health and development; that we look at the connection to the world, to each other, and to our souls and what it really means to be human and to thrive in this world.



Dr. Laura Roxann Alexander

Pharmacist.Personal Trainer.Lift heavy, skip the run.Let food by thy medicine and medicine be thy food.