B group vitamins are commonly known for giving us energy. But did you know that the energy doesn’t only come from the Bs? There are 8 vitamins that make up what is commonly called the ‘B Group Vitamins’. Some of them are essential in the production of energy from macro nutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrate). Without the B vitamins these macro nutrients could not be broken down and the energy contained within them couldn’t be used. This interaction of nutrients within the body highlights the importance of eating nutrient rich food and can be an indication of what may not occur without the right balance.
To help understand why it is so important, here is a brief explanation of what the B’s are doing for your body.
B1 – Thiamin
Lean meat, legumes and brewers yeast are considered some of the richest sources of B1. However over 50% of it is lost during cooking, and cooking in water (vegetables for example) will increase this. The absorption of B1 is inhibited by alcohol and coffee, requires magnesium for conversion and is enhanced by Vitamin C. Its main actions are in the breakdown of carbohydrates and amino acids to produce energy. It is needed to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP) which is the body’s main energy carrying molecule. B1 is used in the production of neurotransmitters which support heart function and is also used in the production of DNA.
B2 – Riboflavin
Found in animal products, wheatgerm and yeasts, B2 is water soluble which means it dissolves in water. This is good in the body but not so good for cooking. If water soluble nutrients are cooked in water they will come out of the food into the water. This is OK if you are making a soup because the water will be consumed, but is not good for boiled foods because the nutrients will be tipped down the sink. B2 is used by every single cell of the body and is required for the function of other B vitamins including B6 and folate, it assists in anti-oxidant levels and is also essential in the metabolism of macro nutrients. Riboflavin has been shown to be effective in the management of migraines and also supports the health of the eye.
B3 – Niacin
Found in chicken, fish, mushrooms and sunflower seeds amongst other foods, Niacin is a heat stable vitamin so most is retained during cooking. Niacin is important in maintaining a healthy cardiovascular system, brain function, skin integrity and can also be beneficial in the prevention and management of diabetes, cholesterol levels and erectile dysfunction. Deficiency is uncommon and excessive supplementation can cause a number of side effects, so speak to a professional when deciding if it is what you need.
B5 – Pantothenic acid
B5 is found in most plant and animal foods, but is sensitive to heating, cooking and freezing with up to 50% being lost. It is involved in a number of reactions in the body that support liver, adrenal gland, kidney, brain and heart health. It is essential in helping to control stress due to its involvement in neurotransmitter production. Taking the oral contraceptive pill (OCP) can deplete B5 levels. Excessive supplementation of B5 however can actually prevent the body from being able to absorb this nutrient, highlighting the fact that just taking a supplement may not be as clear as it seems.
B6 – Pyridoxine
B6 is widely found in animal and plant foods and can be lost during prolonged cooking. Its main actions are in the metabolism of protein and in the production of dopamine and serotonin, indicating B6 can influence smooth muscle function, mood, sleep patterns and even appetite. It is also required by the immune system and in the regulation of some hormones. Conditions which B6 has been used clinically include PMS, period pain, morning sickness and in the symptomatic treatment of stress. Antibiotics and the OCP can require B6 intake to be increased.
B7 – Biotin
Biotin is widely available in many food source including mushrooms, eggs, legumes and fish. Biotin is needed for the metabolism of fatty acids, amino acids and glucose, enabling our body to convert these nutrients into forms it can use. Prolonged use of some medications such as anti-seizure and antibiotics as well as a compromised digestive system can affect Biotin levels in the body. The brain, hair, skin and nails, muscles, the thyroid and adrenal system all rely on good levels of biotin for healthy function.
B9 – Folate
People have often heard of folate in relation to Neural Tube Defects (NTD) in newborn babies. Deficiency in the 1 month before conception and during the first trimester of pregnancy has been shown to be an dependent risk factor in the development of NTD. Because of this supplementation is strongly encouraged in preconception and pregnancy. Folate is available in 3 forms, dietary folate, folic acid and supplemental folinic acid. Folate in dietary forms is extremely sensitive to light and air, with up to 100% being destroyed in preparation and cooking. Folic acid is not so sensitive and as a result has been included in many supplements and in mandatory fortification of Australian flour products to help reduce deficiency and the incidence of NTD. Folic acid relies on further conversion by the body to be used. The safety of increased consumption of folic acid has come into question in recent times as it has been found to accumulate in the body in a form that would not naturally occur. Supplemental folinic acid is found less commonly in mainstream supplements but is in a form that does not require too much conversion and can be used more easily by the body, preventing any accumulation.
Other than being essential for helping to prevent NTD, folate is involved in a number of reactions including DNA and RNA production, production of the active form of B12, and the regulation of a number of hormones. Folate is required by every body, not just expecting mums. Again the OCP can cause folate deficiency.
B12 is only found in animal products. There is some argument that some algae and bacteria in our food chain provide Vitamin B12. While these organisms do synthesise B12 we do not absorb it to any considerable extent. With this in mind, it is crucial for vegetarians and vegans to supplement B12. Vitamin B12 is required by all cells and is involved in the metabolism of macro nutrients and the production of red blood cells in bone marrow. Signs of deficiency include neurological and psychological disturbances such as impaired memory, irritability and depression, gastrointestinal problems and haematological issues such as anaemia, lethargy, shortness of breath and pale appearance. B12 is available in a number of forms, with some forms needing extra conversion within the body to become active. Consulting with a professional is important to ensure you are getting the best form for you.
A way to identify a B vitamin deficiency can be found on the finger nails. Nails that have vertical ridges that run from the base to the tip of the nail can indicate a deficiency. Raised red spots (like the surface of a strawberry) on the tip of the tongue can also be an indication. Visible blood vessels in the whites of the eye can also be a sign.
Being water soluble not only means that B Vitamins can be lost through cooking, but also means that the nutrients are carried through the blood stream. These vitamins cannot be stored in the body like some other nutrients. Any unused or excess quantities are passed out through urine each day. Because of this mechanism it can be difficult to consume too much particularly through the diet alone, although it is possible through excessive supplementation. However it does highlight the fact that deficiency can occur due to the body’s inability to store the nutrient, especially if it is not consumed on a daily basis.