Health Benefits of Vitamin B Complex
The vitamin B complex is a family of 8 essential nutrients. These are: thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7), folate (B9) and cobalamin (B12).
These compounds are also water soluble, meaning the body does not have the capacity to store them. As a result, a healthy intake of the B vitamins is required every day to maintain optimal health status. Unfortunately, no single natural food contains all 8 of the B vitamins, so eating a balanced and varied diet is of high importance.
What Roles Does the Vitamin B Complex Have in the Body?
Although the B vitamins individually have roles, they also work in synergy to complete some very important actions in the body.
Firstly, the B vitamin family work together to support healthy energy-yielding metabolism.
This means that the body efficiently digests, absorbs and utilises the macronutrients; carbohydrates, fats and proteins to provide our cells with the energy required to keep up with day-to-day activities. This is the reason why these essential nutrients are such potent contributors to the reduction of tiredness and fatigue.
Although the B vitamins contribute to metabolism collectively, they all have specific roles in this highly complex process:
Thiamine: This nutrient is very important for the metabolism of sugary carbohydrates into glucose and thus energy. Our brains, central nervous system and our muscles (during high intensity exercise) almost exclusively use glucose for fuel, so having adequate amounts of thiamine is of fundamental importance.
Riboflavin: Vitamin B2 is also needed for metabolism. This vitamin is found in high concentrations in both cardiac and muscle cells to help these important organs stay energised.
Niacin: Niacin is involved in more than 200 biochemical reactions in the body to help metabolise the macronutrients into adenosine triphosphate (ATP) which is the energy currency for every cell in the human body.
Pantothenic Acid: Vitamin B5 is not only crucial for energy production, but is also needed for the synthesis and metabolism of our steroid hormones and vitamin D to help keep our bodies in hormonal equilibrium.
Pyridoxine: Vitamin B6 is essential for the storage and breakdown of glycogen, which is the name given to stored glucose. Glycogen is exclusively stored within muscle cells and the liver.
Biotin: Alongside being used for the breakdown of food energy, Vitamin B7 is also influential in the process of lipogenesis – the creation of fatty acids. These fats help to maintain the health of cells including hair and skin.
Folate and B12: The last two vitamins in the B family are not as important as the others for metabolism but still play a role in providing our bodies with energy.
Certain members of the B vitamin complex are needed for the normal functioning of the heart and vascular system:
Thiamine has been shown in numerous scientific investigations that thiamine supplementation has the ability to improve left ventricle function. The left ventricle is the power house of the heart which pumps oxygen rich blood around the body.
Riboflavin, pyridoxine, folate and cobalamin all work in synergy with other important nutrients such as the essential mineral iron to form red blood cells. These special cells contain a substance called haemoglobin, which binds to oxygen to help deliver this oxygen to all the cells of the body.
Pyridoxine, folate and cobalamin are also needed for the normal regulation of blood homocysteine levels. Homocysteine is an amino acid produced by the body. Although healthy when found in normal amounts, elevated levels due to alcoholism, poor diet and genetic conditions can cause cardiovascular pathologies such as atherosclerosis – the narrowing and hardening of arteries.
The Nervous System
The vitamin B complex is needed for the normal function of the nervous system. The nervous system is a highly sophisticated network of neurons that transmit signals throughout the various compartments of the body, from the brain, to the spinal cord, to the extremities.
Thiamine, Riboflavin & Niacin: The first three B vitamins are very important for cognitive ability, as all play a role in the formation of nerve cells within the brain. This helps the neurotransmission of signals that are integral to memory, movement and conscious thought.
Pantothenic Acid, Pyridoxine & Biotin: Vitamins B5, B6 and B7 also have a plethora of roles regarding neurotransmission and biochemistry in the body. Firstly, B5 aids the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep. Similarly, B6 is needed to convert the amino acid tryptophan into serotonin, a chemical that is influential in mood and appetite management. The majority of the body’s serotonin is found in the gastrointestinal tract, with small amounts found in the nervous system. Vitamin B7 is important for the neurotransmission of signals responsible for balance, mood and control of the limbs.
Folate and Cobalamin: It is very important that pregnant women have an adequate intake of vitamin B9 to help decrease the risk of neural tube birth defects such as spina bifida. For this reason, it is currently recommended that pregnant women or women intending to conceive supplement with 400 micrograms of vitamin B9 per day. Vitamin B12 is needed for the creation of nerve cells and the optimal function of these nerves. Cobalamin also helps to facilitate the formation of the sheaths that cover the nerves to provide protection and help the transmission of signals.
Research continues to show that certain B vitamins are needed to maintain good mental health.
Traditionally, it has been known that vitamins B9 & B12 are very important for psychological well-being. In a large study conducted in Finland, it was found that high blood levels of vitamin B12 were associated with more positive outcomes in individuals who were being treated for depression.
Although the researchers are not certain why, they proposed numerous potential reasons. As elucidated earlier, vitamin B12 is needed for carbohydrate metabolism. As the brain is fuelled almost exclusively by glucose, this is one likely reason.
Secondly, B12 helps to regulate homocysteine levels; the Finnish researchers found that high levels exacerbated symptoms of depression. Furthermore, as B12 is vital for the neurotransmission of dopamine, serotonin and melatonin, this helps to balance brain chemistry. It comes as no surprise then that other vitamins in the B family such as B1, B3 and B6 have been shown to alleviate symptoms of depression and other conditions such as dementia and schizophrenia.
The B vitamins are integral to a robust immune system to help fight off infections and illnesses.
This happens at various stages of the bodies defence system. Firstly, vitamins B2, B3 & B7 all contribute to the maintenance of mucous membranes. These protective sheets of tissue line areas of the body which come into contact with air, such as the mouth, respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts. Various glands in these areas secrete mucus which subsequently protects the tissues from pathogens and harmful bacteria entering the body.
The B vitamins also help immune function through other actions. As stated earlier, the B vitamin complex helps to metabolise carbohydrates. As carbohydrates fuel the production of enzymes and antibodies, this helps to uphold immunity.
Similarly, pantothenic acid helps to regulate the production of melatonin which ensures quality sleep. Sleep is very important for supporting the immune system and research has shown that people who sleep for 7 hours or less per night are almost 3 times more likely to develop the common cold than people who sleep for 8 or more.
B vitamin complex supplements are popularly taken to uphold or improve the aesthetic appearance of skin, hair and nails. Specifically, vitamins B2, B3, and B7 are the nutrients that have at this time been scientifically proven to help skin health.
Riboflavin helps the body to absorb and utilise the essential mineral zinc, which is well-known to provide support to hair, skin and nails. Riboflavin is also a powerful antioxidant nutrient that helps to protect cells such as hair follicles and skin from oxidative damage. This can help skin to look young and soft. Niacin is also thought to help the skin retain moisture, reducing dryness and flakiness.
Biotin, which is commonly referred to as the ‘beauty’ vitamin, has also been scientifically shown to support healthy skin and hair growth.
How Much of the B Vitamins Do We Need per Day?
To achieve optimal health status, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has set the nutrient reference value (NRV) for the B vitamins as:
Thiamine – 1.1mg per day for adults
Riboflavin – 1.4mg per day for adults
Niacin – 16mg per day for adults
Pantothenic Acid – 6mg per day for adults
Pyridoxine – 1.4mg per day for adults
Biotin – 50mcg per day for adults
Folate – 200mcg per day for adults
Cobalamin – 2.5mcg per day for adults.
What Foods Are Rich in B Vitamins?
As long as an individual has a varied and balanced diet, it is possible to obtain the correct amount of B vitamins daily for optimal health. This list below indicates the best food sources of the individual B vitamins:
Thiamine: fish, pork, nuts, seeds, bread, peas, beans and asparagus.
Riboflavin: beef liver, lamb, milk, yoghurt, mushrooms, spinach, almonds, eggs and salmon.
Niacin: turkey breast, chicken breast, peanuts, mushrooms, tuna and peas.
Pantothenic Acid: chicken liver, sunflower seeds, salmon, avocado, corn, broccoli and mushrooms.
Pyridoxine: turkey breast, beef, chicken breast, tuna, pistachios, pinto beans, avocado and sunflower seeds.
Biotin: eggs, almonds, fish, meats, cheese, cauliflower and avocado.
Folate: dark leafy greens, asparagus, broccoli, citrus fruits, avocado, nuts, seeds and legumes.
Cobalamin: eggs, milk, cheese, dairy, fish, and meat.
Although most individuals can obtain all the B vitamins they need from the diet, certain situations may mean that supplementation is required. As mentioned earlier, pregnant women require a significantly higher amount of folate to reduce the risks of neural birth defects. Similarly, achieving adequate vitamin B12 status will not be possible for vegans as B12 is found exclusively in meat and animal products.
Supplementation is also popular with older adults. As we age, our body becomes less efficient at digesting and absorbing nutrients, so a supplement can ensure that dietary recommendations are met. A benefit of supplementation is that because they cannot be stored, any excess of the B vitamins are simply excreted from the body.
What Happens When There Is a Deficiency?
As the B vitamins are of high importance for good health, it is not surprising that deficiencies can cause numerous symptoms. A lack of B vitamins can lead to a low presence of red blood cells (anaemia). As the body then has a reduced capacity to transport oxygen, this often leads to tiredness and fatigue, headaches, dizziness, breathlessness, muscle weakness, loss of appetite and weight loss to name just a few.
Also, a deficiency of the B vitamin complex (B12 in particular) can cause mouth ulcers, irritability and depression. It is very important that pregnant women intake adequate B12 as well as folate because it has been shown scientifically that children have a lower birth weight and slower cognitive development when the mother has low levels of B12.
In addition to heightening the risk of birth defects, low levels of folate can lead to gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhoea. A deficiency in pyridoxine and biotin can lead to skin issues and irritation, alterations to mood and a suppressed immune system.
Take home points:
• The B vitamin complex is a family of 8, which are: thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7), folate (B9) and cobalamin (B12).
• The B vitamin complex is essential for good health. The B vitamins work to help support metabolism, neurological function, cardiovascular health, the immune system, psychological function and physical appearance.
• The B vitamins cannot be stored, so must be obtained every day in the right amount for optimal health. Any excess of the B vitamins are excreted.
• Although the B vitamins are widely available in common food items, many people choose to supplement. This is most commonly the case for pregnant women, vegans and older adults.
• There is a wide array of symptoms associated with a B vitamin complex deficiency. The most common are: anaemia, irritability, depression, skin conditions and immunosuppression.