What’s a cofactor?

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Cofactors, such as vitamins and minerals, activate enzymes in the body. Most vitamins become cofactors once in the body, while minerals are required in small amounts. Deficiencies in these cofactors can lead to medical conditions. Vegetarians and vegans may need to supplement vitamin B12.

A cofactor is a chemical compound that is required for certain enzymes, called enzyme conjugates, to become activated. Vitamins and minerals serve as cofactors required by the human body to function properly. These nutrients can be cofactors or can be chemically modified to become cofactors once in the body.

Vitamins are organic substances that are not produced by the body, but are necessary for it to function. Many, but not all, vitamins are converted to cofactors in the body. Coenzyme is another term often used to describe vitamins that function as cofactors. Most vitamins become cofactors once they are in the body; only vitamin C is used directly as a cofactor.

Both fat-soluble and water-soluble vitamins function as cofactors. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble; however, only K is used as a cofactor. The remaining vitamins (all B vitamins, vitamin C, niacin, biotin, folic acid, pantothenic acid, and lipoic acid) are water soluble, and all become cofactors once in the body, with the exception of vitamin C, which is used directly.

Most of the minerals required by the human body also function as cofactors. Potassium, chloride, sodium, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium are the main minerals required by the body. Iron, zinc, manganese, iodine, copper, selenium, and molybdenum are also required in small amounts.

Deficiency in any vitamin or mineral cofactor can lead to a number of medical conditions. In fact, enzyme cofactors were first discovered due to one of those diseases: beriberi. This condition, a vitamin B1 or thiamine deficiency, was caused by diets consisting primarily of white rice. It is less common in modern times than when it was first diagnosed in the early 20th century.

Anemia, which is a deficiency of iron, is one of the most common deficiencies. It can be caused by not getting enough iron in the diet or by the body’s inability to absorb it properly. While red meat is commonly thought to be the main source of iron in a diet, leafy greens and beans are also good sources.

Vitamin B12 is another common deficiency and is of particular concern for vegetarians and vegans. Vegetarians who eat enough eggs and dairy generally get enough B12, unless their bodies have a hard time absorbing vitamin B12. However, vegans may find it necessary to take a vitamin B12 supplement or eat fortified foods, since B12 is found primarily in animal products.

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