Although the family of B vitamins, also known as the full B-Vitamin Complex, are often talked about, not everyone is aware of their positive health benefits especially on the brain and nervous system.
Clinical nutritionist Suzie Sawyer looks at why this family of vitamins plays such an important role in our health.
The B vitamin family includes thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, biotin, folic acid, and cobalamin (vitamin B12). Water-soluble, they are easily destroyed by food preparation, cooking, food processing and exposure to ultra-violet light, so we need to include them in our diet every day.
And the good news is they’re widely available in foods, including eggs, fish, chicken and turkey, dairy produce, whole grains, red meat and green leafy vegetables.
What do they do?
The B vitamins are probably best known for their role in energy production – they help the body release energy from food. However, they all have an important role in mental health and a deficiency of any one of them can affect how you think and feel: the brain uses a large amount of these vitamins so they need to be topped up regularly. Vitamin B1 (thiamine), for example, helps turn the brain’s main fuel, glucose, into brain energy. It follows, therefore, that one of the first signs of deficiency is mental and physical tiredness.
As another example, vitamin B3 (niacin) was first discovered because deficiency was found to cause pellagra, a serious mental illness also triggering diarrhoea and dermatitis. Thankfully, pellagra has now been eradicated but it just shows the power and importance of this vitamin.
What is methylation?
In chemical terms, this involves the addition of a single carbon and three hydrogen atoms (a methyl group) to start essential reactions and maintain chemical equilibrium, including balancing your mood.
The process of methylation takes place millions of times a day and affects the whole body but especially brain function. One example of this process is that it is required to turn something called homocysteine into beneficial nutrients rather than toxic substances. It’s now thought, after many years of research, that homocysteine is implicated in many of our degenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease.
What about the other B Vitamins?
The B vitamins certainly don’t shirk any responsibilities when it comes to keeping the body healthy. For example, vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) is another potent memory booster. It is needed to make our stress hormones, including cortisol as well as our key memory neurotransmitter, acetylcholine.
Biotin is generally known as the beauty vitamin but it is also involved in energy production: it is needed for cell growth and replication, which explains its affinity with the skin. Indeed, one of the tell-tale signs of biotin deficiency can be dry, scaly skin.
Just like all good families, B-vitamins are united and hardworking, but most of all they help to keep a spring in your step and a smile on your face!