To Your Health

What is 'vitamin U' and what are its benefits healthwise?

Q. Sometimes I crave raw cabbage and, despite its reputation for causing gas, it actually makes my gut feel better. Is this because it contains "vitamin U" or some other substance? Would taking vitamin U capsules provide even more benefit?

A. "Vitamin U" was the name given in 1952 to a substance found in cabbage juice by Dr. Garnett Cheney. Even though you will find pills confidently labeled vitamin U for sale, there is no consensus among nutritionists or biochemists on what it actually is.

There is no disagreement that drinking a quart of cabbage juice per day is an excellent remedy for peptic ulcers, but the identity of the "magic" ingredient remains unknown. Among the guesses are that it is allantoin, which is also found in comfrey root, long used in folk medicine both externally and internally. Other guesses are that it is a chemical relative of the amino acid L-methionine. The respected Merck Index lists vitamin U as methyl-methionine-sulfonium chloride. Russian research found that when a large amount is given an hour before an aspirin dose, it protects the stomach from the ulcer-promoting effects of aspirin. Wikipedia, the online dictionary, lists vitamin U as an even simpler form of methionine, S-methylmethionine.

Simply put, vitamin U is not acknowledged by mainstream nutrition as a vitamin, and so it joins about a dozen other obscure "vitamins" identified only by a letter. Some nutrients that started out as "unknown substances" with only a letter to identify them are now verified as an essential nutrient. For instance, what was originally termed "vitamin H" is now known to be the B-vitamin biotin, and "vitamin M" is folicin, a form of the B-vitamin folic acid. In some cases, because the active ingredient has been later found to actually be several different substances, it is easier just to keep the letter. For instance, bioflavonoids as a group are still called "vitamin P" because there are a great many of them with similar biological effects, and it would be difficult to single out one bioflavonoid and call only that one "vitamin P."

Although he did not use the term "vitamin U" to describe what he found, Dr. William Shive from the Clayton Foundation Biochemical Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, found that a high concentration of the amino acid L-glutamine was part of the reason that cabbage juice is capable of healing ulcers. It appears that a specific food may have more than one component with a beneficial nutritional effect, and that all these components would probably work better together to provide more benefits than might be expected from any single ingredient.

All these observations tend to confirm what Roger J. Williams termed the "teamwork concept" of nutrition. With antioxidant supplementation this concept has been repeatedly demonstrated to be valid. We find that three or more antioxidants used together perform better and with fewer side effects than supplementation with a single antioxidant. Likewise among the B-complex vitamins, vitamin B-2 is required to change vitamin B-6 into the form actually used by our body cells.

Whole foods will supply at least some of virtually all essential nutrients (there are exceptions, for example there is no vitamin B-12 in plant foods). Thus a variety of whole foods is the best assurance that you will receive the nutrients you need to maintain good heath.

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