David Goding takes a look at the important role B-vitamins play in keeping you energised!

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The B vitamins are a powerhouse of essential nutrients vital for our very survival. Together they form a truly dominant force, accounting for eight of the 13 vitamins and providing us with the basic ingredients for a wide range of important bodily functions.

We need B vitamins for healthy metabolic and nerve function and to provide us with the mental alertness and energy to simply get through the day. Deficiencies in even one of the B vitamins can lead to serious health consequences.

In theory, we should get enough B vitamins in our diet and with a healthy diet it is quite possible – and advisable – to do so. But in reality, many people have low levels of at least some of the B vitamins. This is because B vitamins, though abundant in foods, are delicate by nature and consequently are easily destroyed.

“B vitamins are destroyed easily because they are water soluble,” says Milena Katz, from the Dietitians Association of Australia.

“So they can easily be cooked out and lost in the water or, in the case of processed foods, a lot of the B vitamins are destroyed in the manufacturing process.”

Alcohol also destroys B vitamins, in particular thiamin (B1), which is essential for nerve health and memory.

Compounding the problem is the fact that, apart from B12 and folate, which are stored in the liver, most of the B vitamins are not stored in the body for long so need to be replenished – through diet or other means – on a daily basis.

 

Why they’re so important

The B vitamins are grouped together because of their similar characteristics as well as the fact many of them work together, collaborating on a variety of different roles that, directly and indirectly, affect the entire body.

They are particularly important for energy production, metabolism, hormone production, nerve function and red blood cell synthesis. They are also crucial for brain health, mental alertness, and the prevention of anxiety
and depression.

Take away a single B vitamin and the body ceases to function correctly.

 

B vitamins in our diet

B vitamins are found in abundance in wholegrain cereals, eggs, dairy foods, liver and nuts. Folate is found in green leafy vegetables, poultry and citrus fruit. B12 is predominantly found in animal foods, including red meat, fish, dairy and eggs.

Unfortunately, because B vitamins are so fragile, a good deal of these essential vitamins are lost in cooking, processing and the manufacturing of foods. White bread, for instance, is virtually stripped of its natural B vitamins.

For this reason – and due to the fact that many of us simply don’t eat well – many cereal-based foods, such as bread and breakfast cereals are now being fortified with B vitamins, in particular thiamin and folate.

To avoid losing valuable nutrients when cooking, steam instead of boiling grains and vegetables. Boiling only leaches out the goodness into the water, which is then discarded.

 

Why you may not be getting enough

The fortification of various foods is done for good reason – many of us just don’t get enough B vitamins.

“If people are under stress generally their diet is lacking,” says Katz. “Either they won’t eat well or they’ll skip meals. Office workers tend to eat out a lot and end up eating noodle dishes or fast food and don’t end up eating any wholegrains.”

High alcohol consumption only exacerbates the problem, causing B vitamins – particularly thiamin – to be leached from the body.

 

The dangers of deficiencies

A deficiency of one or more of the B vitamins can have serious ramifications for your health.

The B vitamins most commonly deficient are thiamine (B1), niacin (B3), pyridoxine (B6) and folic acid.

Thiamin and niacin deficiencies are generally caused by excessive alcohol consumption which is often combined with a poor diet. In the case of a thiamine deficiency this impairs nerve function and adversely effects coordination, muscle function, memory and concentration.

A deficiency of niacin can result in pellagra, a condition typified by diarrhoea, dermatitis, dementia, and if left untreated, death.

A deficiency of pyridoxine can be caused by high alcohol consumption. Women on the contraceptive pill, elderly people and people with thyroid disease are also at risk of pyridoxine deficiency. Symptoms of pyridoxine deficiency include muscle twitching, convulsions, irritability, depression and insomnia.

Folate deficiency is of greatest concern for women of child-bearing age as it increases the risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect, such as Spina Bifida.

Symptoms of this deficiency include fatigue and weakness, weight loss and folate-deficiency anaemia.

 

When to use a supplement

B complex capsules and soluble ‘Berocca-style’ tablets are some of the biggest-selling products in the nutrition industry. They are taken in the belief that they safeguard against any possible deficiency, provide increased energy or enhance overall health and wellbeing.

For many people this may well be the case, however it’s debatable whether there is a great benefit to people who have a rich and healthy diet.

Certainly, taken in recommended dosages, a B complex supplement is safe to take. You should, however, be careful not to take large amounts of an individual B vitamin, particularly without also taking a B complex and multivitamin to support its effectiveness and ensure a nutritional balance.

Some studies suggest that additional B6 may be of benefit in the treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome as well as alleviating symptoms of PMS. But too much B6 over a long period of time can result in nerve damage.

Folate supplementation is recommended for any woman planning a pregnancy.

For vegetarians, and in particular vegans, the greatest concern is getting enough B12, as besides a small amount found in yeast extract, it is only really found in animal-based products. Supplementation is often the best solution.

 

The B List

Thiamin (B1)

Why we need it:

B1 is necessary for the transmission of specific nerve signals between the brain and spinal cord and helps to convert glucose into energy.

Where to find it:

Oranges, peas, potatoes, wholegrain bread and pasta, eggs and fortified cereals.

 

Riboflavin (B2)

Why we need it:

B2 helps the body to convert calories in food into a form that cells can use for energy. It’s also important for skin health
and vision.

Where to find it:

Liver, cheese, eggs, beef, chicken, dairy foods, leafy green vegetables, wholegrain bread and fortified cereals.

 

Niacin (B3)

Why we need it:

B3 assists in maintaining a healthy digestive system and in the production of enzymes which help energy to be released from food.

Where to find it:

Wholemeal and fortified breads, red meat, fish, cheese, eggs, nuts and mushrooms.

 

Pantothenic acid (B5)

Why we need it:

B5 promotes supply of energy on a cellular level, helps the body fight infection and plays a role in the synthesis of anti-stress hormones.

Where to find it:

Peanuts, sesame seeds, avocado, dried fruit and liver.

 

Biotin

Why we need it:

Sometimes referred to as vitamin H, biotin works with other B vitamins to burn protein, carbohydrates and fats and convert them into energy. It also contributes towards the production of fatty acids which influence the health of skin and hair.

Where to find it:

Nuts, eggs, cauliflower and mushrooms.

 

Pyridoxine (B6)

Why we need it:

B6 assists in the metabolism of protein, the repair of muscles, the balancing of sex hormones and the maintenance of healthy skin.

Where to find it:

Red meat, fish, bananas, wheat, brussel sprouts and mangos.

 

Folate (folic acid)

Why we need it:

Folate is essential for the development of a baby’s spinal cord during gestation. Also needed for the formation of red blood cells.

Where to find it:

Fortified cereals and breads, peanuts, green leafy vegetables and chick peas.

 

B12 (cyanocobalamin)

Why we need it:

B12 is vital for the health of the nervous system, helps control appetite, contributes towards the production of red blood cells.

Where to find it:

Liver, pork, beef, eggs, fortified cereals and yeast extract*