Women often come to me frustrated by symptoms like nausea, mood problems, dizziness, weakness, tingling in their hands or feet, rashes on their skin, and extreme fatigue. They’ve seen their health care provider multiple times, but feel rushed and misunderstood, and have never been given any answers. They feel like their doctor has given up on them, or simply doesn’t have the time to explore what might be going on.
The sad truth is that many conventional practitioners can’t take the time needed to explore all the possibilities. They pay attention only to the symptoms and treat those without considering the root cause of the problem. That’s why those treatments so often don’t work long term. Sure, things might get better for a little while, but if the real problem isn’t resolved, symptoms will continue, and probably worsen.
It can be really difficult to determine root causes, especially since these symptoms can be a sign of so many different conditions! But if we take the time to really listen to what our bodies are trying to tell us, we can discover what’s really going on. Something you may not consider right away is a deficiency in essential vitamins or minerals. Good nutrition is our best defense against disease and uncomfortable symptoms, but sometimes our bodies have a hard time absorbing certain vitamins. That means that even if we’re eating all the right things, we can have deficiencies!
B complex vitamins are important to an amazing range of body functions, in part because there are so many different B vitamins that impact body performance. When you don’t have enough of any one of these B vitamins, your health could suffer. Let’s take a closer look at the different B complex vitamins, how they impact health, and how you can be sure you’re getting enough.
What Are B Complex Vitamins?
With the exception of vitamin C, all known water-soluble vitamins are B vitamins. Water soluble means that your body can’t store these vitamins, so you have to replenish these vitamins through diet or supplements.
There are eight vitamins in the B complex family: B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 niacin, B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B7 (biotin), B9 (folate) and B12 (cobalamins). All have distinct functions, and all are important to good health.
You may be wondering about the missing numbers. Why skip numbers when labeling? Why don’t we hear about B4, B8, B10 and B11 vitamins? These four nutrients – adenine, inositol, para amino benzoic acid (PABA) and salicyclic acid – were once identified as B vitamins but no longer fit the official definition of “vitamin”. That doesn’t mean they aren’t important to a number of health issues, but for now, let’s focus on the eight B complex vitamins and how they impact your health.
Why Are B Vitamins Important?
I have no doubt that you’ve heard that B vitamins are essential for good health, but do you know why? Some are better understood and more often discussed, but all are important to the overall picture of your health. B vitamins impact metabolism by converting nutrients into energy your body can use, they act as antioxidants, are involved in hormone and cholesterol production, cell growth and division, and do so much more. B vitamins have also been shown to impact mood, including anxiety and depression. If you’re low in certain B vitamins, you may feel extreme fatigue, or have cognitive difficulties, including foggy thinking and short term memory loss.
Each B complex vitamin works a little differently, and impacts different aspects of health. Let’s talk about each one, to better understand the range of health issues impacted by B complex vitamins.
Thiamin aids in changing carbohydrates into energy in the body, and also has a hand in
muscle contraction and nervous system functioning. Thiamin deficiency can cause a whole range of symptoms, including weakness, fatigue, nerve damage, and sometimes even psychosis. People who abuse alcohol are at particular risk of being unable to absorb thiamin from food. Some good food sources for thiamin include spinach, kale, wheat germ, sunflower seeds, and pork.
Another essential B vitamin is riboflavin. Riboflavin works in conjunction with other B vitamins, and is important for growth and production of red blood cells, as well as helping to release energy from proteins in the body. Riboflavin also acts as an antioxidant. Though deficiency is uncommon due to the abundance of riboflavin available through food, a severe deficiency may cause mouth sores, skin disorders, sore throat and selling of mucus membranes. B2 is often used as a treatment for migraine headaches. Some good dietary sources of riboflavin include beef, organ meats, almonds, brussels sprouts, and mushrooms.
Niacin helps with functioning of your digestive system, skin and nerves and is important in converting food to energy. Links to cardiovascular disease have led to small daily doses of nicotinic acid being used to treat unbalanced cholesterol levels. A niacin deficiency can cause pellagra, which includes digestive issues, inflammation of skin, and mental impairments. But too much B3 is also a problem, and can cause such serious issues as liver damage, increased glucose levels, and peptic ulcers, so it’s important to talk with your health care professional before supplementing with B3. Good food sources include chicken, tuna, eggs, and green vegetables.
B5 (Pantothenic acid) and B7 (biotin)
These two B complex vitamins help the body metabolize your food, which makes them important to the growth process and in making fatty acids. B5 is also connected to the production of hormones and cholesterol. Though extremely rare, a B5 deficiency can cause a tingling in the feet called paresthesia. Good sources of B5 include fish, liver, yogurt and avocado.
Biotin also regulates gene expression. If you don’t have enough, you might experience muscle pain, dermatitis, or swelling of the tongue. Good sources of B7 include yeast, eggs, salmon and liver.
Vitamin B6 is one you hear about often. It helps create antibodies, maintain nerve functioning, metabolize amino acids, break down proteins, keep blood sugar within normal ranges, and red blood cell production, and creating neurotransmitters. Though deficiency is uncommon in the US, symptoms can include confusion, depression, irritability, and mouth and tongue sores. It’s important to be careful not to get too much B6, as large doses can cause movement difficulty, numbness and sensory changes. Best food sources of B6 include chickpeas, salmon and potatoes. Many women on birth control pills, the patch or ring, can become deficient in B6 in particular.
Folate is one of the most talked about B vitamins. It’s required for cell growth and amino acid metabolism, blood cell formation (both red and white), and cell division. Folate is particularly important before and during pregnancy, to help prevent birth defects in the baby’s brain or spine. A folate deficiency can cause fatigue, irritability, poor growth and anemia. In severe cases, it can also contribute to low white blood cells and platelets. The MTHFR genetic mutation can affect how your body metabolizes folate, leading to folate deficiency or other health problems. Folate is found in leafy greens, liver, and beans. This is becoming a much talked about topic, and will be discussed in a future article.
B12 is another often talked about B vitamin, particularly as we age. The older we get, the more difficult it is for our bodies to absorb vitamin B12 from food. Digestive disorders can also be a factor in being unable to absorb enough of this vitamin. This vitamin is vital to neurological functioning, as well as playing an important role in metabolizing proteins and forming red blood cells. B12 deficiency can cause anemia and pernicious anemia, balance issues, numbness in arms and legs, and general weakness. B12 is found in animal sources, such as meat, eggs, seafood and dairy products. We see B12 deficiencies in those that are vegetarians, thus making it so important to add this important vitamin.
Avoiding Vitamin B Complex Deficiencies
Vitamin B complex deficiencies are relatively rare. If you know what symptoms to look out for, and you understand the importance of maintaining a diet rich in the full range of B complex vitamins, you will be far less likely to develop deficiencies. There are many whole, unrefined food sources for B vitamins, including lean meats, especially organ meat like beef liver, dairy products, legumes, leafy green vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains and brewer’s yeast. Mushrooms, potatoes, brown rice and fish also contain some B vitamins.
Of course, as I’ve said before, getting all the vitamins we need from food can be tricky. The way things are grown today, along with our cultural leaning towards the convenience of fast foods and processed products, can sabotage our efforts. I encourage all of my patients to strive to change their eating habits and choose whole natural foods as often as they can. But changing habits takes time, and you might need a boost, especially if you have signs of B complex vitamin deficiencies. My Multi Essentials formula contains all of the B complex vitamins in large enough amounts to combat deficiencies.
“B” Aware So You Can “B” Healthy!
Symptoms can be difficult to interpret, and far too often health care providers give up before they find the answers you need. Knowing about these essential B complex vitamins, and how they can impact your health, can make all the difference!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD