What is Vitamin B?
There are eight B vitamins that have similar properties and functions, so they are grouped together as a B-complex. They include: thiamine, or vitamin B-1; riboflavin, or vitamin B-2; niacin, or vitamin B-3; pantothenic acid, or vitamin B-5; pyridoxine hydrochloride or vitamin B-6; folate, or folic acid; biotin; and cyanocobalamin or vitamin B-12. The B complex vitamins are water-soluble. This means that, unlike many vitamins which can be stored in the body for future use, your body is unable to store most B vitamins, with vitamin B-12 being the exception to the rule. Any additional B vitamin, i.e. B vitamin that isn’t used the same day, is excreted from your body through the urine. As such, you need a regular daily supply of B vitamins.1 The B vitamins are delicate and easily destroyed, especially by alcohol and cooking. Food processing can also reduce the B vitamins in foods, which is the reason wholegrains are generally much more nutritious than their processed counterparts such as white flour, bread and rice.2
Why your body needs B vitamins
Although they have similar properties and functions, each B vitamin from the B complex family has its own role within your body, as well as working together with each other to maintain your health and wellbeing. Some of the reasons why your body needs B vitamins include;
- Support metabolism and production of energy – the B-complex vitamins help to convert nutrients from your food into energy. They act as coenzymes in the body, assisting with many metabolic processes. They help the conversion of carbohydrates to glucose, which the body then “burns” to make energy. They are also vital for the metabolism of fats and protein.1
- Nervous system function – the B-complex vitamins help your brain and nerves to function properly. Neurotransmitters are a type of chemical in your brain which transmit information, if they cannot “fire” your brain cannot work properly. Your brain requires vitamin B5, B6 and B12 to make neurotransmitters. Niacin is also required to support nerve health as well as memory and mood. Vitamin B12 has many functions within the body and is an important component of healthy nerve cells, specifically myelin, which covers and protects every nerve cell.1
- Red blood cell function – the body needs healthy red blood cells to transport oxygen around the body. Haemoglobin are important proteins in the body which bind to the oxygen you inhale and transport it around the body. They are made up of haeme which your body depends on B-12 and B-6 to produce. Thiamine, riboflavin and folic acid also play a role in red blood cell development.1
- Other important functions – niacin and Vitamin B-12 control gene activity in your cells, helping cells to multiply and make new DNA.2 Vitamin B-5 assists in making hormones.
Health benefits of Vitamin B
The B-complex vitamins have a wide range of health benefits to your body. They are particularly beneficial for the production of energy and to support the nervous system.
Additional health benefits include:
- Vitamin B1 is required for enzymes involved in glucose metabolism that provides energy to the brain. It plays a role in the maintenance of mood in healthy adults and facilitates the production of acetylcholine, which plays a role in memory.
- Vitamin B2 facilitates energy production and plays an important role in protein metabolism.
- Vitamin B3 is involved in antioxidant mechanisms and detoxification reactions. It helps the body to metabolise carbohydrate, fat and protein metabolism and is required for the release of energy from food.
- Vitamin B5 helps support a healthy nervous system as it is required for the production of some neurotransmitters. It also assists normal adrenal gland function which is important for the body’s ability to react to stress.
- Vitamin B6 – may help to relieve PMS symptoms including irritability and mood changes. It may also help to relieve the intensity of nausea during pregnancy.
- Vitamin B12 – helps support the healthy functioning of the nervous system, which may be beneficial during times of stress. It facilitates energy production and helps to form red blood cells.
- Biotin may help to strengthen soft brittle nails and reduce breaking and splitting. It is also involved in glucose metabolism.
- Folic acid is known to help reduce the risk of neural tube defects in babies when taken daily for one month before conception and during pregnancy.
Dietary sources of Vitamin B
Brewers yeast is the richest natural source of many of the B-complex vitamin group. Whole grain cereal and liver are also rich in B vitamins. Good sources of B12 are from animal origins and include liver, meat, milk, cheese and eggs.2 Good sources of folate are green leafy vegetables, legumes, seeds, liver, chicken, eggs, cereals and citrus fruits. All flour used in bread in Australia is fortified with folic acid and thiamine, with the exception of ‘organic’ bread. Other good sources of thiamine include nuts and seeds, meats, legumes and whole grains. Good sources of B6, B3 and B5 are similar. Riboflavin is found in milk, yoghurt, cottage cheese, eggs, wholegrain breads and cereals, leafy green vegetables, meat, liver and kidney.2
Signs you may need more Vitamin B
Signs that you may need more of the B-complex vitamins are often related to the nervous system or energy production. You may notice symptoms such as tiredness, fatigue, apathy, sleep disturbances, irritability and low mood.2 A vitamin B5 deficiency can result in cracked corners of the mouth and a swollen tongue. Folate deficiency during pregnancy can result in an increased risk of neural tube defects in the baby.2
Certain groups are more at risk of deficiencies in these vitamins. For example, vegetarians are commonly deficient in Vitamin B12 as it is only found from animal sources. The elderly may also be more likely to be deficient in some B vitamins. Those who drink alcohol, coffee or tea excessively may also have additional requirements for B vitamins.2 People undertaking strenuous exercise may also have additional requirements for some B vitamins.