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The importance of B vitamins

Anyone that knows me knows that I am very passionate about B vitamins. I actually think that they are quite likely the most important nutrients required. If you consider the very basics of mental and emotional health, each cascade, each process and each neurotransmitter relies heavily on B vitamins.

The B Complex vitamins include Thiamin (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Niacin (B3), Panthothenic acid (B5), Pyridoxine (B6), Folate (B9), Cyanocobalamin (B12), and Biotin. Each of these vitamins has very specific roles in the body, however when these vitamins are viewed as a group it is seen that many of them have similar functions including:

  • An involvement with carbohydrate, protein and lipid metabolism and in their conversion into energy.
  • Act as coenzymes in many chemical reactions. This means that they are necessary for these reactions to take place.
  • Needed for digestive system function, such as hydrochloric acid production and gut motility.
  • Red blood cell production and iron metabolism
  • Immune system function.
  • The manufacture of hormones, and neurotransmitters.
  • The metabolism of other vitamins.

B vitamins and their functions

B vitaminFunctionMain food sources
Thiamin (B1)Emotional stability, energy production, digestive regulationBrewer’s yeast, sunflower seeds, pine nuts, peanuts
Riboflavin (B2)Iron metabolism, hormone production, cell division and growth, energy production, B vitamin metabolismBrewer’s yeast, liver, kidneys, giblets, heart, almonds, wheat germ, wild rice
Niacin (B3)Energy production, hormone synthesis, circulation, gastrointestinal function, skin integrity, cholesterol metabolism, blood sugar regulationBrewer’s yeast, rice, wheat bran, peanuts, liver, turkey, chicken, trout, halibut, mackerel
Panthothenic acid (B5)Lipid synthesis, amino acid metabolism, energy production, hormone production, nervous system repair, stress management, immune response, gastrointestinal functionBrewer’s yeast, liver, kidneys, peanuts, mushrooms, split peas, perch, blue cheese, lobster
Pyridoxine (B6)Protein, amino acid, carbohydrate, and lipid metabolism; brain and neuronal function; synthesis of important substances in the body such as hydrochloric acid, hormones and othersBrewer’s yeast, sunflower seeds, tuna, soybeans, walnuts, salmon, trout, mackerel, lentils, lima beans
Folate (B9)Synthesis of DNA and RNA, protein and amino acid metabolism, formation of red and white blood cells, support for nervous, reproductive and gastrointestinal systemsBrewer’s yeast, black-eyed peas, rice, soy, wheat, liver, kidney beans, mung beams, lima beans, navy beans, lentils
Cyanocobalamin (B12)Synthesis of DNA and RNA, carbohydrate, lipid and protein metabolism, formation of red blood cells, folic acid metabolism, as part of coenzymesLiver, kidneys, oysters, sardines, heart, egg yolks, trout, brains, salmon, tuna, lamb, sweetbreads,
BiotinCarbohydrate, lipid and protein metabolism, energy productionBrewer’s yeast, liver, soybeans, rice, egg yolk, peanuts

NB: You will note that a number of organ meats are listed above. Please note that this is as they are the highest foods sources but are not necessarily the best recommendation. Organic forms are always essential, but you may want to consider other dietary food sources of nutrients as indicated.

B vitamins are technically water-soluble vitamins. When you try to classify a vitamin, the first categorisation is to determine if it is fat-soluble or water-soluble. It should be noted that the compounds in each group vary considerably in terms of their structures and functions, but due to their solubility they have some general characteristics in common. The use of solubility as a means of classification is practical and provides general information as to how that vitamin would be handled by the body.

Knowing the solubility of a vitamin gives an indication of the types of foods the vitamin will be found in and the best ways of handling these foods, and also provides information on the way the body will absorb, transport, distribute, store and excrete the vitamin.

When we consider B vitamins, it is crucial to note that we hardly store any of them in the body. This means that we need to replenish them on a daily basis in our diets. As a general rule good food sources include whole grains, legumes, eggs, organ meats (liver and kidneys), meats, yeast extracts, nuts and seeds. In addition to this folic acid is found in the highest amounts in vegetables (particular green leafy ones) and a range of fruits, whilst vitamin B12 is exclusively found in animal foods (although some plant foods are fortified with this vitamin, for example breakfast cereals). Unfortunately as B vitamins are water soluble, they are easily destroyed or removed from foods from incorrect cooking methods such as boiling, overcooking or charring.

It is interesting to note that B vitamins are also easily lost when we process and digest excessive carbohydrates. Each and every time you eat a piece of bread, drink a soft drink, snack on a lolly or chew on a piece of chewing gum you are using B vitamins to literally digest and assimilate these carbohydrates. When you think about how much carbohydrate we all naturally consume (both the good and the not so good forms) it is easy to understand why so many people are simply completely deficient in these wonder nutrients.

B vitamin deficiencies typically present as fatigue, poor stress coping abilities and the classic ‘beefy red tongue’ or mouth ulcers. Poor protein digestion due to inadequate hydrochloric acid or reflux; lowered mood, anaemia or insomnia can also be a classic signs.

High stress levels are a classic B vitamin depletion strategy from our body. When we get stressed, we use up more B vitamins to process and manufacture stress hormones. This is turn depletes our waning reserves which means we generally don’t have enough to produce some of our positive mood chemicals such as serotonin or GABA – both which support and stabilise mood which would help us get through the stress more easily. Another depletion strategy that compounds the issue is that during stress, you use up more of B vitamins in reserve which depletes the B6 you would ordinarily use to produce hydrochloric acid. This causes you to reduce how effective your digestion of protein is which depletes your dietary source of B vitamins, which makes you even more stressed, and the cycle continues!

Essentially, it is beneficial to consume any of the foods listed above to consistently replenish B vitamin stores, however, it may be more realistic to consider supplementation especially to restore the B vitamin deficiencies and replenish some of your (limited) storage. If relying on dietary sources, remember to monitor cooking styles and freshness of foods to ensure that the nutrients have not been damaged and are at optimal levels.