What You Need to Know About B Vitamins

B vitamins is the term used to describe a family of water-soluble vitamins that play a crucial role in countless reactions in the body. Many are critical for the processing of carbohydrates and protein for the production of energy, while others play a role in the development and formation of healthy red blood cells, aid in the maintaining of the nervous system, and contribute to the healthy division and growth of cells at the level of our DNA.

Because they're water-soluble, B vitamins don't accumulate in the body. This means that we need to ensure a regular intake of foods or supplements to ensure adequate levels (unlike vitamins A, D, E and K, which are fat-soluble and accumulate in our fatty tissue).

B vitamins are so important for our health that a number of common foods, such as cereals and dairy alternatives, are fortified with these nutrients to ensure that we obtain enough to support our body functions.

You can also find B vitamins in supplement form, either individually or grouped together in something called a "B-complex." These products provide a balance of the eight essential B vitamins that we need to obtain from our diet. Many of them that we'll be talking about today are known by their common names — read on to explore the specific roles each play in the body.


Vitamin B2: Riboflavin

Riboflavin is part of an enzyme essential for a wide range of reactions in the body, including energy production, cell function and breaking down fats for energy. It’s also an important player in the body’s reactions in activating two other B-vitamins — niacin and vitamin B6.

Without riboflavin, our body cannot produce energy through conventional processes, and deficiency results in painful sores on the face and body, as well as anemia. Our gut bacteria produce some of the riboflavin our bodies need but our body doesn't store very much of it, and this is why it’s an ongoing need from our diet. Riboflavin is quickly broken down by UV light, which is why milk is rarely stored in clear containers or glass bottles, and it can also be found in eggs and meats and some green vegetables.


Vitamin B3: Niacin

Like riboflavin, niacin is a critical component in the most foundational energy production system in the body: it helps make stress-related hormones in the adrenal glands and plays a role in inflammation and circulation.

Niacin is widely available in meats, as well as vegetables, including potatoes, seeds, peppers and mushrooms. Many breakfast cereals and flours are also fortified with niacin.

Niacin deficiency in Canada can easily be avoided today, largely due to the fortification of these common foods — this came about after widespread deficiency occurred in the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century. Niacin’s role in our body’s function is so crucial that deficiency manifests as three connected symptoms of dermatitis, diarrhea and dementia, affecting most of the body’s systems.

If you're supplementing with niacin, increase the dose slowly, as it can cause mild flushing of the skin, particularly in the face and neck. Niacin can also modulate our blood lipids, so speak with your health care practitioner about your needs.


Vitamin B7: Biotin

In the past, biotin has gone by a number of names, such as “Vitamin H” and “co-enzyme R.”

Often touted for its role in strengthening hair and nails, biotin’s benefits go beyond just helping us look great. It helps facilitate normal cell growth, producing crucial fatty acids and, like many B vitamins, break down carbohydrates, fats and protein down for energy. Biotin is widely available in our food and our gut bacteria are rather adept at making this vitamin. Common food sources include soybeans (and other) legumes, meats, eggs and nuts.


Vitamin B9: Folate

Folate is one of the better-known B vitamins because of its role in the early days of pregnancy. This vitamin helps our cells to divide and grow properly. In the first four weeks of pregnancy, specifically, folate is essential for the proper growth of the spinal cord. Folate deficiency early in pregnancy is thought to cause neural tube defects, where the spinal cord does not form fully, resulting in a number of long-term health complications, including spina bifida or anencephaly

This is the reason for mandatory fortification of flour with folate, which is sometimes referred to as folic acid. Adult women are encouraged to supplement specifically with folate or have a high-quality prenatal multivitamin with at least 0.4 mg of folic acid even if they don’t plan on getting pregnant. Folate is also found in dark green vegetables, leafy greens and legumes.

Folate’s role in cell growth also means that deficiency can cause a particular type of anemia due to an inability to form red blood cells properly. Although rates of deficiency in Canada are low thanks to fortification, speak with your health care practitioner to ensure you’re getting enough folic acid. This is particularly something to be cautious of if you follow a gluten-free diet and consume products that aren’t fortified.


Vitamin B12: Cobalamin

Vitamin B12 is a bit of a misfit in the B-vitamin family. Although it's involved in the metabolism of fats, carbohydrates and proteins for energy, its most crucial role is in the maintaining of the normal functioning of the brain and nervous systems. This complex molecule helps to create the protective coating around our neurons, called myelin.

Some recently published research found that elderly adults with a low status of vitamin B12 (as well as vitamin B6 and folate) were linked to elevated rates of depression, drawing a connection between the role this essential nutrient plays in our neural structure and chemistry. The precise mechanism is not exactly clear, and more research is required to explore the exact connection between low intakes of vitamin B12 and mental health.

It's also rare in that it's not produced by any plants or animals; only bacteria can create vitamin B12 from scratch. Dietary sources include meats, some dairy products, and some fish and shellfish. As a result, vegans are encouraged to supplement with vitamin B12.

The B vitamins are a wide-ranging family of essential nutrients that play a number of critical roles in the body. They primarily facilitate the production of energy, taking the carbohydrates, fats and protein we consume and turning it into the energy currency that our cells can use. Some are critical for the normal development of the nervous system in the early stages of development, while others are essential for neural health into our later years.

To find a high-quality B-vitamin supplement, visit your local CHFA Member health food store.