Essential Vitamins 8 - Vitamin B

Essential Vitamins: Vitamin B
Vitamin B actually refers to eight different vitamins, all with some similar functions, but also with individual roles and characteristics. Taken together, they are referred to as a 'vitamin B complex'. This article looks at each of the B vitamins and lets you know how to get enough in your diet and also how to spot the signs that you might be deficient.

A helpful cheatsheet that highlights the nutritional benefits of calcium and the best food sources to achieve your daily quota

What they do

The eight vitamins that make up the vitamin B complex each have their own characteristics but also each have similarities that means they are often grouped together. B vitamins are ‘essential’, which means that our body does not produce them and so we must absorb them via external sources, i.e. our food (the exception to this is B7, which is created by bacteria in the bowel). They are also water-soluble, which means that any excess is expelled in the urine. Although B vitamins are water soluble and don't stay long in your body, large doses of certain of the B vitamins can cause serious toxicity:

Here is a quick outline of the role of each of the B vitamins:

  • B1 (thiamine) is important for metabolising food into energy. It also helps to maintain a healthy nervous system. In the U.K, men are advised to get 1 mg daily, while women should get 0.8 mg.
  • B2 (riboflavin) helps to maintain a constant energy supply as well as aiding the function of the nervous system. It also helps keep the skin and eyes healthy. In the U.K, men are advised to get 1.3 mg daily, while women should get 1.1 mg.
  • B3 (niacin) helps to maintain a constant energy supply as well as regulating the nervous system. In the U.K, men are advised to get 16.5 mg daily, while women should get 13.2 mg.
  • B4 (pantothenic acid) helps to release energy from food. In the U.K, men and women are advised to get 6mg daily.
  • B6 (pyrixodine) Converts proteins and carbohydrates into energy. It also creates haemoglobin, which is the substance that carries oxygen around the body. In the U.K, men are advised to get 1.45 mg daily, while women should get 1.2 mg.
  • B7 (biotin) helps the body to break down fat. B 7 is only needed in small amounts and because it is created in the bowel, it may be unecessary to seek any more through food.
  • B9 Folic acid is important for the healthy development of unborn babies. It also assists in the formation of red blood cells. In the U.K, men and women are advised to get 200 ug (micrograms) per day. Pregnant women are advised to get 400 ug and are advised to take this in supplement form for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
  • B12 helps to create red blood cells and aids a healthy nervous system. It also plays a role in the relsease of energy from food and helps in the use of folic acid. This is important to note, as an excess of folic acid can often mask the symtpoms of a B 12 deficiency In the U.K, men and women should try to get around 1.5 ug (micrograms) per day.

a tired woman with a vitamin deficiency

Signs that you may be deficient

While B vitamins are abundant in many food sources, many of us are nevertheless deficient. A deficiency in vitamin B complex can wreak havoc on our health, our cognition and our respiratory system. B vitamins even help us detoxify pollutants and chemicals. Certain groups are more at risk of B vitamin deficiency such as the elderly, individuals on proton pump medication for heartburn, those exposed to pesticides, those with an autoimmune disorder and those who drink large amounts of alcohol. B12 is the most common deficiency with an estimated 10% of people in the U.K. not getting enough of this important nutrient. Because B12 is not as readily available from plant sources, vegans need to be especially careful and may want to consider a supplement.

Below are some of the most common signs and symptoms of vitamin B deficiencies. If you think that you might be deficient please make an appointment with your doctor or a qualified nutritional therapist who will be able to accurately test your levels and advise you on how to meet your nutritional needs:

Signs and symptoms of deficiency
B1
(thiamine)
Beriberi is a condition caused by thiamine deficiency. It is characterised by irregular heartrate, joint pain, fatigue, irritability, weightloss due to loss of appetite, tingling sensation in arms and legs, muscle weakness, reduced reflexes, blurry vision and edema. Extreme cases can also lead to dementia, heart failure and even death.
B2
(riboflavin)
This B vitamin is important for protecting skin and eye health, boosting energy levels and maintaining heallthy blood cells. It regulates metabolism and acts as an antioxidant in the body. A deficiency of B2 is called ariboflavinosis and symptoms may include: cracked lips, light sensitivity, swollen tongue, sore throat, weakness or fatigue, dermatitis, Vitamin B related anaemia and certain mood changes.
B3
(niacin)
B3 is an important nutrient and every part of our body needs it to function properly. As a supplement it helps ease arthritis, lower cholesterol and boost brain function. In fact due to it's ability to regulate LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol and triglycerides, it has a big impact on heart health. A lack of B3 can cause pellagra, the symptoms of which include: weakness, brain fog, diarrhoea, sleep disturbance and dermatitis. B3 also plays an important role in brain health and memory retention. A deficiency has been found in patients with dementia, confusion and even Alzheimer's disease. Many people who take niacin experience a flushing described as a feeling of warmth, itching, redness or a tingling feeling. This is harmless but can take up to two hours to subside. Other symptoms include skin flushing/pain, liver toxicity and elevated blood sugar.
B5
(pantothenic acid)
B5, also known as pantothenic acid, is widely known to be beneficial in treating serious mental disorders like chronic stress and anxiety. A healthy diet should contain an appropriate amount of this vitamin to ensure good health and proper functioning of all the organ systems. It performs a wide variety of functions in our body, including the production of neurotransmitters in the brain, the fabrication of steroids, and the extraction of fats, proteins, and other vital nutrients from food. It helps boost immunity, reduce stress, stimulate hormones, boost skin and hair, increase stamina and energy and improve liver detoxification of toxic substances. A common symptom of Vitamin B deficiency is known as burning foot syndrome, in which a person lacks feeling in their feet, accompanied by intense inflammatory pain. Clinical trials have shown, however, that a deficiency may also lead to tiredness, apathy, depression, irritability, sleep disorders, stomach pains, nausea, vomiting, numbness, muscle cramps, hypoglycemia and upper respiratory infections. In summary, Vitamin B5 helps relieve the human body of a number of detrimental problems like asthma, autism, candidiasis, osteoarthritis, Parkinson’s disease, premenstrual syndrome, and many others. It is one of the most versatile and flexible vitamins, and cannot be left out of a healthy diet!
B6
(pyrixodine)
Deficient B6 can lead to dermatitis, pink eye and possibly even epilepsy, as well as nerve damage and skin lesions
B7
(biotin)
B7 deficiency in adults is often asymptomatic but can cause impaired growth and neurological disorders in infants.
B9
(folic acid)
B9 is an essential nutrient mainly present as folate and folic acid. Folate is the naturally occuring form of Vitamin B9 (leafy green vegetables). Folic acid is a synthetic form of B9 and the body does not convert it into the active vitamin B9 very well. B9 is important in the development of unborn babies and a deficiency can cause birth defects. It also plays a crucial role in cell growth and the formation of DNA. A deficiency is also associeted with an increased risk of elevated homocysteine (implicated in heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer's disease), cancer and kidney damage. It can also mask B12 deficiency and B12 Acne/rosacea a side effect in some people.
B12
(cobalamin)
B12 is the most common B vitamin deficiency and can cause such symptoms as: weakness, shortness of breath anaemia, consipation, diarrhoea and impaired vision.

How to meet your vitamin B quota

All eight of the B vitamins are present in many foods and so it should be perfectly possible to acheive your vitamin B quota with a well balanced diet. The best sources of B vitamins tend to come from animal products such as liver, kidneys and dairy, but vegans have various options available to them, so as long as a bit of planning care is used there shouldn't be any need for supplementing.
Expectant mothers require additional folic acid and so it is recommended that a folic acid supplement is taken during pregnancy. Please consult your doctor, midwife or qualified nutritional therapist for more information on this.

Below is a list of foods that are good sources of vitamin B:

Food sources of vitamin B
B1
(thiamine)
Nutritional yeast, peas, wholegrain bread, seaweed like spirulina, sunflower seeds, macadamia nuts, black beans, lentils, navy beans, mung beans, liver, white beans and pinto beans.
B2
(riboflavin)
Milk, liver, grass-fed beef, seaweed, feta cheese, almonds, tempeh, mackerel, fortified cereals, rice, eggs, sesame seeds and goat cheese. It is best to keep these foods out of sunlight as UV can destroy riboflavin.
B3
(niacin)
Liver, chicken, sunflower seeds, beef, salmon, green peas, turkey, tahini, mushrooms fish, eggs, wheatflour, milk.
B5
(pantothenic acid)
Chicken, beef, potatoes, beans and legumes, salmon, veal, certain nuts and seeds like sunflower seeds, avocado, porridge, tomatos, broccoli, wholegrains, portobello mushrooms, raw milk, and eggs.
B6
(pyrixodine)
Beans, pork, poultry and turkey, fish, grass-fed beef, nutritional yeast, pinto beans, soya beans, peanuts, milk, sunflower seeds, chickpeas, some vegetables and fruits, especially dark leafy greens, papayas, avocado, potatoes oranges, and cantaloupe.
B7
(biotin)
Meat, eggs, liver, whole grains, potatoes, beans and lentils, leafy greens, salmon, avocado, cauliflower, berries, and mushrooms.
B9
(folic acid)
Asparagus, broccoli, beans, peas and lentils, eggs, leafy green, beets, citrus fruits, Brussels sprouts, papaya, spinach and broccoli.
B12
(cobalamin)
Fish, organ meats like liver, poultry, meat, eggs, dairy products, and nutritional yeast. Vitamin B12 is mostly only found in animal products, which means those who avoid all animal foods (vegans) are at risk for deficiency.

vitamin b capsules

Supplementing vitamin B

As discussed throughout this article, B vitamins are common in many food sources and so most people who maintain a well-balanced diet should not need to consider taking a supplement. Having said this, vitamin B deficiency is alarmingly common. Most B supplements are available as a single capsule that contains the full B complex, however some people might prefer taking an isolated vitamin, especially B 12

. People who may want to consider supplementing include:

  • vegans
  • people over 50 (B 12 absorbtion begins to decrease around this age)
  • pregnant mothers (folic acid)
  • people with anaemia
  • anyone with a digestive disorder that can impair vitamin B absorption

Always consult your doctor or registered nutritional therapist before embarking on a programme of supplements, particularly in the case of vitamin B. Many people have a genetic mutation that can affect the way they metabolise vitamin B12 and folic acid. For such people, taking these vitamins in a form that their bodies can utilise (methylcobalamin) is crucial. Often high homocysteine levels can be an indicator of this genetic mutition.

As a nutritional therapist, I like to recommend food-derived B complex vitamins with the methylcobalamin form of B12. It is a little known fact that most synthetic B vitamins are derived from coal tar.

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