The B-Vitamins: What are they and Why are they important?

April 4, 2013 | by

We hear about B-vitamins all the time. We hear about them as B-12 shots, as B-complex vitamins, as energy drinks with B-vitamins. Most people know that the B-vitamins are very important for energy. But they are also important for almost every function in the body. In fact, because so many body systems are involved, many vague complaints can be related to low levels of some or all of the B-vitamins.

So what are the B-vitamins, anyway? Once thought to be a single vitamin, the B-vitamins are actually a group of water soluble molecules that are found together in the same foods. They function at such an important, basic, cellular level that deficiencies in any of them can have an impact on many biochemical and physiological processes. And while the levels may not be low enough to cause the classics signs of true deficiency, low levels can make it so that your body just doesn’t work as good as it should. Patients can experience fatigue, irritability, depression, muscle weakness, skin issues, memory issues, nervous system issues… the list goes on and on.

The B-vitamins are important in the metabolism of sugars, lipids, cholesterol, hormones, nervous system function, and many other important processes.

Because B-vitamins are water soluble, your body doesn’t store much of them. They are excreted into the urine. Thus, it is important to get B-vitamins from food and supplements regularly.

Food rich in the B-vitamins are: green and colored veggies, meat, fish, poultry, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, legumes (there are some reasons to avoid whole grains and beans, however). While mineral and nutrient deficiencies can lower the efficacy of the B-vitamins, alcohol is the largest culprit in reducing the absorption of these critical vitamins.

 

Your Friendly Neighborhood B-Vitamins

 

The major group of 8 B-vitamins are listed below, along with their commonly known names. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be going over them in detail. For now, some basic information about each on is provided.

 

Vitamin B1 / thiamine

Vitamin B1 is extremely important for the functioning of the central nervous system. Deficiency can cause fatigue, memory loss, muscle weakness, confusion, and more. Thiamine can be found in brewer’s yeast, various nuts, and some meats.

Vitamin B2 / riboflavin

Vitamin B2 is important in energy creation, lipid metabolism, detoxification, and anti-oxidation. It is important for the functioning of other important biochemical pathways. Deficiency can lead to increased inflammation from lipids, oral inflammation, fatigue, glossitis (swollen, smooth tongue with changed color), cheilosis  (scales and fissuring of lips and mouth), and more. Riboflavin can be found in organ meats, torula yeast, almonds, milk, and some mushrooms. It is very light sensitive, so levels can be reduced in food found in clear containers.

Vitamin B3 / niacin or niacinamide

Niacin is one of the most important B-vitamins and has been studied for the reduction of heart disease and stroke. Unfortunately, the studies haven’t shown that to be the case. Nonetheless, it is so important in the body’s chemical reactions that having the right amount in the body is extremely important. Among many important functions, it is needed for lipid regulation (LDL / HDL), lowering inflammation, and managing blood sugar. It’s important to have enough. However, doses that are too high can cause liver damage. This is one where you want to take just the right amount.

Vitamin B5 / pantothenic acid

Pantothenic acid’s name is derived from the Greek word “pantos”, meaning everywhere. Vitamin B5 is found everywhere in nature which gives us some idea of what it means to the body. It’s particularly important for the formation of amino acids, steroid hormones, Vitamin D, energy production and red blood cell production. Deficiencies are rare, but it’s possible that less than optimal levels can cause symptoms of fatigue, low energy, hormone deficiency, lipid abnormalities, and other common findings. Vitamin B5 is found in many foods, such as meats and organ meats, grains, and nuts.

Vitamin B6 / pyridoxine

Like niacin, Vitamin B6 is involved in very important, fundamental biochemical pathways in the human body. Amino acid abnormalities can develop from B6 deficiency, leading to cheilosis, glossitis, mood disorders, nervous system dysfunction, sleepiness, and other systemic and vague dysfunction. Also like niacin, there is a sweet spot for pyridoxine. Too much can be toxic, damaging the peripheral nerves and affecting muscle function and sensation. Vitamin B6 is found in torula yeast, organ meats, fish, grains, greens, and nuts.

Vitamin B7 / biotin

Biotin is commonly thought of as useful for the hair and nails, with good reason. Deficiencies cause hair loss and brittle nails, as well as nausea, depression, hallucinations, and pain. It’s also important for fatty acid metabolism. While biotin can be found in many foods, the absorption is extremely variable. Some foods offer no absorption of biotin at all. Some good sources are brewer’s yeast, liver, peanuts, and egg yolk.

Vitamin B9 / folic acid or folate

Folic acid is well known to most people, especially women of child-bearing age. Folate deficiencies can lead to neural tube defects in infants. Other signs and symptoms of folate deficiency include fatigue, shortness of breath, diarrhea, decreased appetite, elevated homocysteine levels, and depression. Like niacin and pyridoxine, too much folate can cause neurological damage, but only when there isn’t enough B12 present. If you’re taking a supplement with folate, and/or eating lots of folate rich foods, you’ll want to make sure you’re getting enough B12. Folate is widely found in leafy greens. In fact, it’s name comes from the Latin word “folium”, which means foliage. Because heat destroys folate, it’s important to eat your veggies as close to raw as possible.

Vitamin B12 / cobalamine

B12… it seems like it’s everywhere you look nowadays. Why are so many products promoting it? Cobalamin is another one of the B-vitamins that is so important in the body’s metabolism that it affects many different functions. Low levels affect your red blood cells, energy levels, nervous system, homocysteine levels, and neurotransmitter production. Fortunately, it is found in many foods such as beef, poultry, fish, eggs. Unfortunately, it is not found in good active forms in plant based foods. And even more unfortunately, the body has a harder time absorbing it the older we get, making B12 deficiency fairly common. You should definitely have your doctor check your folate and B12 levels, and get on supplements if you are low.