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Nutrient - The extraordinary B vitamins

By Dr Pieris Nicola PhD BSc (Hons) DipION

Although they have had much less hype than other vitamins, the B-complex vitamins are certainly just as important to your health. They all help a variety of enzymes do their jobs, ranging from releasing energy from the foods we eat to breaking down amino acids and transporting oxygen- and energy-containing nutrients around the body. It is, therefore, not surprising that an inadequate intake of certain B vitamins can lead to poor health.

What are B-complex vitamins?

The B vitamins were once thought to be a single vitamin, referred to as vitamin B. However, later research showed that vitamin B is actually eight different water-soluble vitamins that are collectively termed ‘vitamin B complex’. The individual members were identified as thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, biotin, folic acid and cobalamin.

B vitamins in focus

Vitamin B1 (thiamine)

What is it and how does it work?

Thiamine is used by the body to break down and release energy from food. It is also essential for the functioning of the muscles, nerves, and heart, and the production of red blood cells.

Deficiency

Deficiency symptoms can include fatigue, sleep disturbances, depression, poor digestion and appetite.

Severe vitamin B1 deficiency, known as beriberi, can result in poor memory, weakness, loss of feeling in hands and feet and impaired heart function.

Good food sources

·         Lean pork

·         Legumes

·         Nuts

·         Wholegrains

·         Yeast

 

Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)

What is it and how does it work?

Riboflavin is important for body growth and the production of steroid hormones and red blood cells, as well as helping to keep the skin, lining of the digestive tract, eyes and nervous system healthy.

Deficiency

Riboflavin deficiency can cause sore mouth, oily skin, eczema of the face and genitals, swollen tongue and eye irritation.

Good food sources

·         Meat

·         Liver

·         Dairy products

·         Legumes

·         Wholegrains

·         Fortified cereals

·         Dark-green vegetables

 

Vitamin B3 (niacin)

What is it and how does it work?

Niacin plays an important role in energy production. It also helps keep the skin, nervous system and digestive system healthy, helps blood vessels to dilate, and works as an antioxidant.

Deficiency

Niacin deficiency can cause a condition called pellagra, which causes depression, dementia, diarrhoea and skin irritation.

Good food sources

·         Meat

·         Poultry

·         Fish

·         Legumes

·         Seeds

·         Fortified cereals

 

Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)

What is it and how does it work?

Pantothenic acid is essential for normal growth and development. It plays a role in the metabolism of carbohydrates, protein, alcohol and fat, as well as the production of hormones and cholesterol.

Deficiency

Deficiency symptoms include abdominal distress, burning sensation in the heels and sleep problems.

Good food sources

·         Beef

·         Liver

·         Chicken

·         Egg yolk

·         Wholegrains

·         Sweet potatoes

·         Broccoli

 

Vitamin B6 

What is it and how does it work?

This vitamin is really a group of six related compounds, mostly involved with making and breaking down amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Vitamin B6 also helps in forming chemical messengers in the brain, haemoglobin (the substance that carries oxygen in your blood), and antibodies, which help the body fight infection.

Vitamin B6 works in conjuction with folic acid and B12 to lower levels of homocysteine, an amino acid found in blood that has been associated with heart disease, birth defects and possibly Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

Deficiency

Vitamin B6 deficiency can cause impaired immunity, skin problems, depression, mental confusion and elevated homocysteine.

Good food sources

·         Poultry

·         Fish

·         Beans

·         Nuts

·         Fortified cereals

·         Dark leafy greens

Biotin

What is it and how does it work?

Biotin helps break down protein and carbohydrates, helps produce hormones and is involved in the production of amino acids and fatty acids.

Deficiency

Biotin deficiency causes skin disease and hair loss.

Good food sources

·         Liver

·         Egg yolk

·         Yeast

Folic acid (or folate)

What is it and how does it work?

Folic acid, also known as folate, is a B vitamin that plays a key role in building DNA. In this way, folate is essential for cell division and the production and maintenance of new cells (particularly red blood cells).

Deficiency

Deficiency symptoms include diarrhoea, fatigue, hair loss, mouth ulcers, insomnia, swollen tongue, elevated homocysteine and a type of anaemia called megaloblastic anaemia. Women who get too little folic acid during pregnancy increase the chances that their baby will be born with spina bifida.

Good food sources

·         Legumes

·         Fortified cereals

·         Citrus fruit juices

·         Dark green leafy vegetables


Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)

What is it and how does it work?

Vitamin B12 is necessary for the production of red blood cells, manufacture of genetic material, maintenance of the nervous system, growth and development in children, and releasing energy from the food we eat.

Deficiency

Deficiency symptoms include loss of appetite, memory loss, instability, disorientation and decreased reflexes. As with vitamin B6 and folic acid, deficiencies also elevate homocysteine. Vitamin B12 deficiency can also result in pernicious anemia, a condition in which the body cannot make enough healthy red blood cells.

Good food sources

·         Meat

·         Poultry

·         Fish/shellfish

·         Eggs

·         Dairy products

A daily B-complex is a great nutrition insurance policy

While a daily vitamin B-complex cannot in any way replace healthy eating, it can fill in the nutrient holes that can plague even the most careful eaters. For example, adding more wholegrains to your diet is great, but will not give you much vitamin B6. Elderly people and those with digestive problems may not be able to absorb enough vitamin B12 from food. Regular alcohol drinkers need extra folic acid to compensate for alcohol’s ability to block the absorption of folate and inactivate folate in the blood and tissues.

The bottom line is this – taking a daily vitamin B complex is an inexpensive nutrition insurance policy to make sure you are getting all the B vitamins you need to support your health and wellbeing. 


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