Vitamin B

Vitamin B is made up of a whole host of vitamins. The following list illustrates what I mean:

  • Vitamin B1 - thiamin - For more on Thiamin click here
  • Vitamin B2 - riboflavin (E101) - For more on Riboflavin click here
  • Vitamin B3 - niacin (nicotinic acid) - For link to more on Niacin click here.
  • Vitamin B5 - pantothenic acid
  • Vitamin B6 - Pyridoxine
  • Vitamin B7 - Biotin
  • Vitamin B9 - Folic acid
  • Vitamin B12 - cyanocobalamin

Why did they all get called vitamin B?

That's a good question. Vitamins are generally considered to be compounds that are required by the body in small amounts, without which we'd eventually fall ill and die. They are named by their function and not their structure, so B vitamins all have a similar type of function, but at a molecular level are quite distinct.

It was around 100 years ago that B vitamins started to be isolated and named. For instance the discovery of vitamin B1 (thiamin) was in 1910. Thereafter, when a substance was found which was thought to have a similar function in the body it was also called vitamin B. So for instance riboflavin was found in 1920, it seemed to act in a similar way and so was called vitamin B2. Other vitamins such as vitamin B12 were found earlier (B12 was known as anti-pernicious anaemia factor) and not numbered as a B vitamin until a number of years later. So for instance B12 was discovered before B3. You'll also notice that gaps appear between numbers. These were taken up by chemicals that were once thought to be vitamins, but are now not considered to be. So vitamin B4 was once thought to be adenine, but this is now known to be made within the human body, and so we don't have an absolute need for it in our diet. So B4 has become a gap.

What are B vitamins good for?

They are very good for health in a number of ways. They are also synergistic, which means that having a good amount of one of them helps other ones to work better. One example is vitamin B2 which activates B3, B6 and Folic acid. Another example is that vitamin B6, B12 and Folic acid work together to improve the health of our heart. Here is a list of some of the main effects of B vitamins either acting together or singly.

  • Improving heart health. This is primarily due to the ability of vitamin B6, B12 and folic acid to work togerther to reduce levels of the harmful chemical, homocysteine. Homocysteine causes the degradation of the main building components of our arteiries, collagen, elastin and proteoglycans.
  • Improving our memory. The same vitamins mentioned above help preserve our memory as homocysteine damages our brains predisposing us to Alzheimer's disease.
  • Improving our mood. A number of B vitamins are involved in the production of the mood balancing neurotransmitter, dopamine. Without them we are prone to depressions and other mood disorders.
  • For pregnant women the B vitamins, in particular folic acid are important in reducing the risk of a baby developing spinal closure deformaties such as spina bifida.
  • For heavy drinkers. Alcohol inhibits the absorption of most B vitamins from our intestines. The more you drink the more B vitamins you are likely to need.

Does supplementing B vitamins make sense?

For many people it probably does. You may hear that vitamin B is water soluble and that it therefore gets flushed out of the system. However like most of the chemicals in the foods we eat, it does get absorbed into the body from the intestines. Once absorbed it persists for a while. In the case of water soluble substances they normally persist for less time than fat soluble chemicals, however they are available for uptake while present, and having the right amount of B vitamins present in the body is crucial for optimal health. Some B vitamins are stored in the body, in particular vitamin B12 in the liver. Despite this fact it is still possible to have too little B12, as stores can be depleted or not release enough B12 to enable the body to function correctly.

I would recommend that you consider B vitamin supplements if you are pregnant (folic acid), a heavy drinker (b-complex), diabetic (vitamin B1), vegan (vitamin B12) or suffering with heart or memory problems.

What foods can I eat that supply B vitamins?

B vitamins are found in quite a lot of foods. Meat, fish, eggs and nuts are all good sources. As with a lot of vitamins, liver is a particularly good source. For vegetarians nuts, lentils, whole grains and brewers yeast are all good sources of most of the B vitamins. Dairy and egg products are a good source of biotin.