Key vitamins for cell health and energy
B vitamins are often discussed as a single entity. But the complex of B vitamins actually comprises eight different vitamins, each with individual roles in our overall health. Here, we unravel the complex role of B vitamins by looking at each individually.
We know most of our bodies’ 13 essential vitamins by a single letter: vitamin A, vitamin C, and so on. But eight of these 13 essential vitamins begin with the letter B. Each of the eight Bs is a chemically distinct vitamin that has an inherently important role in our overall health—and together they’re essential to many aspects of our well-being.
B1, or thiamine, helps the body break down and release energy from carbohydrates in our food and also helps keep the nervous system healthy.
Not a common occurrence in North America, thiamine deficiency can be caused by excessive alcohol intake and/or a very poor diet; symptoms can include:
B2, or riboflavin, is important for skin, eye, and nervous system health. It’s involved in the process of energy production from fat, protein, and carbohydrates and helps in the production of vitamins B3 (niacin) and B6 (pyridoxine).
Riboflavin deficiency, also uncommon in Western countries, can be caused by excessive alcohol intake and/or a diet that doesn’t include milk or milk products; symptoms can include:
B3, or niacin, helps with nervous system and skin health, proper digestion, and healthy appetite. B3 helps in the process of energy production from fat, protein, and carbohydrates.
Niacin deficiency (called pellagra) is associated with heavy alcohol consumption or diets heavily based on corn; symptoms can include:
B vitamins may slow or prevent the mental decline in older people with memory problems. But researchers, studying 266 older people in Oxford, UK, with mild cognitive decline over a two-year period, found that supplementing with B vitamins was more effective in those with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. The researchers concluded that for some older people, a combination of fish oil supplements and B vitamins may help improve thinking and memory.
AKA: Pantothenic acid
B5, or pantothenic acid, metabolizes carbohydrates, proteins, and fats and produces red blood cells and steroid hormones.
Extremely rare, a deficiency of pantothenic acid might include symptoms such as:
B6, or pyridoxine, metabolizes carbohydrates and proteins and helps in the formation of red blood cells. B6 is involved in brain processes and development, immune function, and steroid hormone activity.
Again, unusual unless deficient in other B vitamins, a deficiency of B6 can occur with heavy alcohol consumption, women on the contraceptive pill, the elderly, and people with autoimmune disorders and thyroid disease; symptoms might include:
B vitamins play an important role in converting food into energy. In a study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, researchers found that physically active individuals with low levels of B vitamins perform worse during high-intensity exercise than those with adequate levels. The study also found that low levels of B vitamins contribute to a reduction in the body’s ability to repair muscles and build muscle mass.
B7, or biotin, works with other B vitamins to break down protein, fat, and carbohydrates from food. B7 may help promote hair, skin, and nail health.
Biotin deficiency is very rare, but may occur with chronic alcohol consumption; symptoms might include:
AKA: Folate (folic acid)
B9, or folate (folic acid in its supplement form), is essential in the body’s ability to make red blood cells and in the development of the fetal nervous system, DNA synthesis, and cell growth.
Folate deficiency is rare, but marginal deficiency can develop with chronic excess alcohol consumption and in pregnant women. Low folate in pregnant women has been associated with increased risk of low infant birth weight, neural tube defects (like spina bifida), preterm delivery, and fetal growth retardation.
Vitamin B12, or cobalamin, works with folate to help produce and maintain the myelin surrounding nerve cells, and helps with mental ability, red blood cell formation, and the breakdown of some fatty acids and amino acids to produce energy.
B12 has been found to be deficient in more than half of vegans assessed (not surprising since obtaining enough vitamin B12 from a vegan diet is almost impossible), while older adults may not absorb B12 well. Symptoms of deficiency might include:
The entire range of B vitamins is also known as B-complex. This combination of all eight B vitamins can be found in supplement form and can provide excellent insurance against deficits in one or more of these important vitamins. Many multivitamin/mineral preparations also include B-complex along with the other essential vitamins and minerals.
Of course, those at risk of deficiencies in an individual B vitamin should get advice from their health care team to address their particular needs.
Though small in scale, a recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports led researchers to believe there may be a role for B vitamins in countering the very dangerous effects of air pollution on cardiovascular and immune system functions.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that over 90 percent of the world’s population live in areas where air pollution exceeds WHO limits. According to WHO, about 6.5 million deaths each year are linked to exposure to air pollution; health impacts include cardiovascular diseases, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer.