B vitamins are essential for health and they perform a variety of functions in the body. But what are the different B vitamins and what do they do? Read on to find out more.
The B vitamins are actually a group of eight vitamins – thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B50, pyridoxine (B6), cyanocobalamin (B12), folic acid, and biotin. The B-complex vitamins are essential for the breakdown of carbohydrates into glucose, thus providing energy for the body. They also help with the breakdown of fats and proteins, aiding the normal functioning of the nervous system. They are also essential for muscle tone in the stomach and intestinal tract, skin, hair, eyes, mouth, and liver. The B vitamins can be taken as a supplement or part of a supplement but as with most vitamins, it is best to get them through natural food sources.
Thiamine is an important co-enzyme that helps the body to convert food into energy. It also helps with manufacturing fat and metabolising protein. It is necessary to maintain normal nervous system function. Thiamine plays a part in the chain of reactions that provide energy to the body, and is thought to be useful for people that suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and older adults with mental impairment. It can also help to improve the mental function of epilepsy sufferers that take phenytoin. Most foods only contain small amounts of thiamine but it can be found in fortified foods such as bread and cereals. It occurs naturally in pork, oysters, green peas and lima beans. A thiamine deficiency leads to beriberi, a debilitating and potentially fatal disease.
Riboflavin works together with other B vitamins to provide the body with energy by metabolising carbohydrates, fats and proteins. It also helps in the regeneration of glutathione, an enzyme that rids the body of free radicals. Riboflavin may help to decrease the number of migraine headaches and may also help to prevent cataracts. Riboflavin has helped to increase iron levels for those that suffer anaemia due to iron deficiency. Sources of riboflavin include dairy products, some meats, leafy green vegetables, and fortified breads and cereals. Riboflavin deficiency may lead to the skin feeling greasy, scaly, and dry, as well as causing hypersensitivity to light. A deficiency may also contribute to cataracts.
Niacin works with the other B vitamins to metabolise food and provide energy to the body. It is very effective at correcting high cholesterol levels and preventing or reversing heart disease. Niacin can also be used to treat insulin-dependent diabetes. It may also be helpful for treating arthritis and migraine. Niacin is found in foods that are high in protein such as meat, eggs, and peanuts, but is also found in milk, mushrooms, and greens. It is also found in fortified breads and cereals. Deficiency in niacin causes a disease called pellagra which is characterised by red, rough skin, weakness, loss of appetite, and digestive disturbances. However, too much niacin can cause liver problems.
Pantothenic acid, like the other B vitamins, helps the body to extract energy from carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. It also helps to metabolise fats and produce red blood cells and hormones from the adrenal glands. It is necessary for maintaining good health. Pantothenic acid may be helpful for treating rheumatoid arthritis and may also have a use in lowering blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Pantothenic acid is commonly found in anti-stress formulas as it works with the adrenal gland to produce stress hormones. It is extremely rare to be deficient in pantothenic acid as normal diets almost always provide enough of the vitamin.
Pyridoxine is used for more than 100 health conditions – as serious as heart disease, and as everyday as premenstrual syndrome and MSG sensitivities. It can even help to prevent kidney stones forming. All foods contain pyridoxine, pyridoxamine, or pyridoxal in some amount. Meats, wholegrains, and some fruits are plentiful in this vitamin but a large serving of vegetables can provide a good source. Although pyridoxine is plentiful in food, many people do not get enough in their diet. However, if you choose to take a supplement, ensure that it is no higher than 50-100 micrograms a day as it can start to become toxic in higher amounts.
Vitamin B12 must be present for new cells to form, and it can only be made by bacteria, which is why some animal foods have a lot of it. It is used to treat asthma and has shown promise against HIV. In the elderly, it can help to reverse a slowdown in mental function and can even slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease if the disease is caught early enough. Most people get plenty of vitamin B12 from animal sources, but people at risk of deficiency include vegans and people whose stomachs produce less acid as they age. A lack of vitamin B12 usually results from the body being unable to absorb it rather than a dietary deficiency. In this case, people must take large amounts of supplements – more than they actually need – so that enough of the vitamin will enter the body.
Folic acid, folacin, or folate, is actually the same vitamin and occurs in foods in all three forms. The term folate covers all three, and folic acid is the simplest form of the vitamin. Vegetables are high in folate. Folate has many benefits that are specific to women. As well as helping to create healthy fetuses, it can prevent cervical cancer and reduce osteoporosis. It also helps to combat heart disease, and releases serotonin, which acts as a mild anti-depressant. Folate deficiency is unhealthy for anyone but in unborn children it can cause serious brain disorders. This is why pregnant women and women planning to conceive should take a supplement.
Biotin acts as a coenzyme in the metabolisation of fats and carbohydrates, the breakdown of proteins to urea and in the conversion of amino acids from protein into blood sugar for energy. As well as its metabolic properties, it also has health benefits. When the normal intake of biotin through the diet is supplemented, it strengthens the fingernails, improves hair health, relieves a scalp condition in newborns, and is very effective at controlling blood sugar levels in diabetics.