Guest post from local Nutritional Therapist Sarah Gale
Are you finding yourself feeling extra tired at the moment? It's a struggle to get out of bed, the days can feel long and you feel like you need an all round pick me up? B vitamins could be your answer. Yes, that's right vitamins - plural! It turns out there's not just one vitamin B, but lots of them... and we need them all to work together to feel the full benefit and give us back our get up and go.
So let's hand over to Sarah, who can explain a bit about each of the individual B vitamins, and tell us where to find them.
B vitamins are a special type of vitamin, so special that they are B vitamins’, plural, not singular. B vitamins refer collectively to 8 essential nutrients that play a vital role in the body and are thought as the vitality-giving nutrients required most dominantly in the body for energy production.
They all work synergistically together which is why they share the same letter classification and typically are supplemented as a ‘complex’. They function in many thousands of different enzyme processes throughout the body, important for mood, energy, detoxification, hormone transport, brain function, development of red blood cells, appetite and digestion, nervous system, and muscle development just to name a few.
All B vitamins, except vitamin B12, are water-soluble meaning they are not stored in the body so they must be acquired daily in order to maintain optimal levels. They are found in rich supply in whole, unprocessed foods and are generally lacking in foods that have been refined and processed.
As they all work together, giving each other a helping hand, we require optimal levels of all 8 to get the full benefit.
To make sure you hit all 8, here is what each B vitamin is good for, where to find them naturally and what the best form is to supplement with.
Vitamin B1, also known as thiamine, was the first B vitamin to be discovered, hence the labelling ‘B1’. Thiamine helps to look after our nervous system and is also heavily involved in helping the body use carbohydrates to produce energy.
Interestingly, thiamine may also be useful for the prevention of mosquito bites, as the insects are thought to be repelled by the smell which thiamine emits through the skin.
You'll find thiamine in: peas, lentils, brown rice, oats, nuts, asparagus, beef, pork and organ meats.
Best supplement form: thiamin mononitrate or thiamin hydrochloride
Vitamin B2 helps the body to use fats for energy. Whilst the body prefers to use glucose (from carbohydrate food sources) for energy, fats are also an important energy source and are the most energy-efficient form of food.
Another important task riboflavin has in the body is to regenerate glutathione, the master antioxidant. Antioxidants are molecules that help to protect the cells from damage and reduce our risk for disease. Glutathione is colloquially known as the ‘master’ antioxidant as it is the most potent and hard-working naturally occurring antioxidant, found in almost all the cells of the body. It is this powerful regeneration of glutathione that is thought as one factor as to why riboflavin can be supportive for migraine headaches.
Riboflavin can be found most highly in green leafy vegetables, chicken, fish, eggs, natural yoghurt, eggs, almonds and sundried tomatoes.
Best supplement form: riboflavin or riboflavin-5-phosphate
Whilst niacin is important for energy production, it is also a power house in other areas too. It is important for maintaining healthy skin, supporting digestion and is required for the production of sex hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone, and stress hormones including cortisol.
Chow down on turkey, chicken, tuna, liver, brown rice, peanuts, almonds and mushrooms to increase your niacin intake.
Best supplement form: opt for nicotinamide. Supplementing with niacin can cause flushing, however this only occurs with high doses and does not occur with the form nicotinamide.
Being part of the B vitamin family, you guessed it, vitamin B5 is also required for energy production and is involved in both carbohydrate and fat utilisation in the body. It is sometimes also known as the anti-stress vitamins due to its involvement in brain and nervous system health.
You are unlikely to be deficient in pantothenic acid if you eat a reasonably healthy diet as it is found in many foods in small amounts. However, to focus on upping your intake include avocados, mushrooms, bananas, cabbage, kale and sweet potatoes.
Best supplement form: calcium pantothenate
Vitamin B6 might be the hardest working B vitamin of all of them. Not only is it involved in energy production, supporting the nervous system and helping to stimulate the sleep inducing hormone melatonin, it plays a very important role in keeping the female hormones in check.
Vitamin B6, often together with magnesium, has been used successfully to reduce and lessen the severity of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). It is thought this is due to two reasons. One, vitamin B6 helps to make the happy and feel good neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine, which help to lift our moods and regulate motivation and pleasure. And the second, it is thought that vitamin B6 can promote the production of a particular type of prostaglandin. Prostaglandins are compounds that can have hormone-like effects in the body, some promote inflammation and others reduce it. Vitamin B6 is important for the body to produce good levels of PgE1, a type of prostaglandin which has been associated with a reduction in inflammation and period pain.
You’ll find vitamin B6 in walnuts, spinach, eggs, beans, potatoes, avocados, bananas and chickpeas so make sure to up these food sources the week before your period if you suffer from PMS.
Best supplement form: pyridoxal-5-phosphate (P-5-P) or pyridoxine HCl
Biotin, whilst important for energy production (it is a B vitamin after all), it is most well known for its benefits for hair and nail health. As it is involved in cell growth and replication it has been used to strengthen brittle nails and improve nail quality successfully, however there is little research to support its use for improving hair quality and strength at present.
Up your intake of yeast, organ meats, soybeans, lentils and oats for vitamin B7 rich sources.
Best supplement form: biotin
Now you might be wondering what the difference is between folic acid and folate? Quite simply, folic acid is the synthetic form of folate. Folate is found naturally in foods whereas folic acid is used in supplements and added to fortified foods. Folic acid is more heat stable than naturally found folate which makes it more suited for manufacturing.
Folate (or folic acid) is vital for detoxification pathways, breaking down a substance called homocysteine which can cause inflammation in the body. It is also important for the production of genetic material such as RNA and DNA, especially around periods of rapid growth such as infancy, adolescence and pregnancy. It is recommended that all pregnant women take 400mcg of folic acid before they’re pregnant and especially throughout the first 12 weeks of pregnancy when the baby’s spine is developing.
Add more dark leafy greens, bananas, beans, peas, peanuts, asparagus and citrus fruits to your diet to reap the benefits of folate.
Best supplement form: 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF). Folic acid has to be converted into the biologically active form 5-MTHF before it can be used by the body. Many people struggle with this conversion which increases their risk of deficiency so it is best to bypass the middleman and supplement with the active form 5-MTHF instead.
Important for nerve and brain function, vitamin B12 is also critical for energy production with almost every cell in the body requiring it to convert fat and carbohydrates into energy. Vitamin B12 is also required for the production of healthy red blood cells. Low vitamin B12 status can cause the production of irregular shaped red blood cells which means they can’t move freely from the bone marrow into the bloodstream causing anaemia, which is associated with symptoms of fatigue and weakness.
Vitamin B12 is also important for mood regulation and deficiency is implicated in depression. Whilst its effect on mood and brain health isn't fully understood yet, it is thought that vitamin B12 is required for the production of serotonin, our happy neurotransmitter which helps to elevate mood.
Vegetarians and vegans need to be vigilant about vitamin B12 as it is almost entirely found in animal-sourced foods so if you are following a plant-based diet, make sure to get your blood levels tested regularly.
Best supplement form: methylcobalamin.
So considering the B vitamin clan were named in the order that they were discovered you might ask what happened to vitamin B4, B8, B10 and B11? These B vitamins were once a thing, however as research and science have moved on, they no longer meet the definition of what counts as a vitamin i.e. essential for normal growth and required to be obtained through diet as the body cannot manufacture them.
Whilst they have been removed from the B vitamin family they are still important for health, just the body can produce them from other compounds and doesn’t have to rely on dietary sources alone. You might see inositol (vitamin B8) or para-aminobenzoic acid, shortened to PABA (vitamin B10) commonly included in vitamin B complex supplements. These historic B vitamins still work synergistically with the current family of 8, for example, PABA supports the production of folic acid by stimulating gut bacteria to produce it.
For the especially eagle-eyed among you, you might have also noticed choline tagging along in vitamin B complex supplements. It has never made vitamin B status as it isn’t a vitamin, but it still works incredibly closely with the other B vitamins which is why it is often included as an honorary member. Choline is essential for the manufacture of acetylcholine which is an important neurotransmitter required for many brain processes including memory, and works together with vitamin B9 and B12 for DNA synthesis. The liver can produce small amounts of choline, but the majority should come from food such as liver, eggs, salmon, cod, cauliflower and broccoli.
Whilst individual foods may be higher or lower in some particular B vitamins, we need good levels of them all to get their synergistic action. The best way to ensure you have good vitamin B levels is to get in the kitchen and eat wholesome, home-cooked and unprocessed foods. This is the best way to generally ensure your vitamin B status is topped up (and other nutrients for that matter).
Sarah Gale is a Registered Nutritional Therapist, Clinical Nutritionist DipION mBANT and hormone expert and helps women who just can’t lose weight break free of the diet cycle, rebalance their hormones and feel confident in their own skin again.
After a lifetime a hating her body and chronic yo-yo dieting, Sarah realised that yo-yo diets didn’t have the answers and by balancing her hormones, fixing her metabolism and working on her mindset she could finally lose the weight and get her self-confidence back.
Get in touch with Sarah if you would like to discuss your Vitamin B levels in more detail.