Reap the Health Benefits of B Vitamins
Good nutrition is tied to good health, as well as to the prevention and treatment of many conditions. Getting the recommended amounts of vitamins each day is an important part of the nutrition equation, and B vitamins are essential for preventive care. Abundant in green vegetables, whole or enriched grains, dairy, and meats, B vitamins help promote a healthy metabolism and are also linked to a reduced risk of stroke, research shows.
Take vitamin B12, for example. According to the Mayo Clinic, vitamin B12, a water-soluble vitamin, plays a significant role in nerve function, the formation of red blood cells, and the production of DNA. While most people get plenty of vitamin B12 benefits in a varied, balanced diet, if you are on a vegan or vegetarian diet, you are at risk for vitamin B12 deficiency. Also, elderly adults and people with GI disorders lack adequate B12.
Signs of vitamin B12 deficiency include:
- Difficulty maintaining balance
- Intestinal problems
- Mood disturbances
- Muscle weakness
- Numbness and tingling in the hands and feet
- Poor memory
- Soreness of the mouth or tongue
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) is vital for normal brain development and for keeping the immune system and nervous system working properly. Most people who eat poultry, fish, potatoes, chickpeas, and bananas have enough vitamin B6. But certain illnesses, such as kidney disease and malabsorption syndromes, can lead to vitamin B6 deficiency. Lack of B6 can result in a reduction of red blood cells, which take oxygen to tissues throughout the body. People with vitamin B6 deficiency may experience symptoms such as:
- Weakened immune system
It’s been known that some people with B vitamin deficiencies experience depression, anxiety, and mood swings. Folate (vitamin B9) is in the forefront of mood management. Findings show that many people with depression have lower levels of folate in the blood. Folate is found in green leafy vegetables, beans, peas, peanuts, and other legumes, and citrus fruits. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began requiring manufacturers to add folic acid to enriched breads, cereals, flours, cornmeal, pasta, rice, and other grain products in 1998.
Additionally, folic acid (the synthetic form of folate in supplements and fortified food) is essential during early pregnancy to prevent serious birth defects of the brain and spine such as spina bifida. Taking a prenatal vitamin with folic acid three months before conception and eating folic-acid fortified foods can help women get plenty of this essential B vitamin.
Your doctor can determine if you are deficient in one of the B vitamins and may prescribe a vitamin B complex supplement. Even if you’re taking a supplement, a varied and balanced diet is essential to avoiding a B vitamin deficiency and reaping the health benefits of these important vitamins.
Read on to learn about the daily doses of different B vitamins you need, natural sources to include in your diet, and the health benefits you can expect to reap.
B Vitamins Are Tied to Lower Stroke Risk
In addition to their role in metabolism and in maintaining healthy skin and hair, B vitamins have been linked to a lower incidence of stroke, a condition in which a blood clot blocks blood flow to the brain, or a blood vessel bursts in the brain. A review of randomized clinical trials that lasted six months or longer revealed that vitamin B supplements lowered risk of stroke by 7 percent for a large group of more than 50,000 participants. The study was authored by Xu Yuming and colleagues from Zhengzhou, China, and published in the September 2013 issue of the clinical journal Neurology. But before you begin taking vitamin B complex or any B vitamin supplement, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider.
Vitamin B1 Is Important for Preventing Beriberi
The recommended daily intake of vitamin B1, also called thiamine, is 1.1 milligram (mg) for women over age 18, up to 1.4 mg for those who are pregnant, and 1.5 mg for those who are breast-feeding. For men age 14 and older, 1.2 mg per day is recommended, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Vitamin B1 plays a major role in metabolizing food into energy. B1 is found in whole-grain cereals, yeast, beans, nuts, and meats. Too little vitamin B1 causes beriberi, a disease affecting the heart, digestive system, and the nervous system. Beriberi is found in patients who are malnourished, and in those who are heavy drinkers of alcohol. Symptoms of beriberi include difficulty walking, loss of sensation in the hands and feet, and paralysis of the lower legs — and it may even lead to congestive heart failure. People who consume large amounts of alcohol should take a vitamin B complex supplement to be sure they get enough B1. Also, taking any one of the B vitamins for a long period of time can result in an imbalance of other important B vitamins. For this reason, you may want to take a B-complex vitamin, which includes all the B vitamins.
Riboflavin (Vitamin B2) Boosts the Immune System
A diet rich in vitamin B2, also known as riboflavin, is needed to avoid riboflavin deficiency. Recommended daily allowances of B2 are 1.3 mg a day for men and 1.1 mg a day for women. Pregnant women need 1.4 mg daily, and breast-feeding mothers should have 1.6 mg each day. You can get this B vitamin from natural sources such as nuts, green vegetables, meat, and dairy products.
Riboflavin helps your body break down and use the carbohydrates, fats, and proteins in your diet and helps metabolize food into energy. This type of B vitamin also functions to keep your skin, the lining of your gut, and your blood cells healthy. Getting enough riboflavin may be preventive for migraine headaches and cataracts, according to the National Institutes of Health. Riboflavin may also increase energy levels, boost the immune system, and treat acne, muscle cramps, and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Vitamin B3 (Niacin) Breaks Down Food Into Energy
We need vitamin B3, also called nicotinic acid or niacin, in our diets every day to break down food we eat into energy we can use. Females who are 14 and older need 14 mg a day; males in this age group need 16 mg daily. Legumes, nuts, enriched breads, dairy, fish, and lean meats are all good sources of this type of vitamin B.
Not getting enough niacin in your diet causes the disorder known as pellagra. Symptoms of pellagra include both physical and mental difficulties, diarrhea, inflamed mucus membranes, and dementia. Pellagra can also result when the body is not able to absorb enough niacin because of alcoholism. Health benefits of niacin include its use as a treatment to help control high blood levels of cholesterol. Doses of niacin high enough to lower cholesterol are associated with several side effects and should only be taken with a physician’s supervision.
Take Vitamin B5 for Healthy Hormones
All people age 14 and older should get 5 mg of vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) each day, according to the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine. You can find vitamin B5 in vegetables of the cabbage family, such as broccoli and kale, as well as in avocado. In addition, whole-grain cereals, potatoes, dairy, and organ meats are good sources. This type of B vitamin is needed for many of the biochemical reactions that go on in our cells each day, including the breakdown of carbohydrates and lipids for energy. Because it’s a water-soluble vitamin, you need vitamin B5 in your diet every day. Pantothenic acid is necessary for our bodies to produce hormones, and it’s also needed for growth.
Vitamin B6 May Help Reduce Heart Disease Risk
The recommended daily amount of vitamin B6, also called pyridoxine, is 1.3 mg for adults up to the age of 50, according to the National Institutes of Health. Pregnant or breast-feeding teens and women need even more vitamin B6 daily — about 2 mg. You can find vitamin B6 in the following foods:
- Beef liver
- Brown rice
- Fortified ready-to-eat cereal
- Sunflower seeds
- Wheat germ
- Whole-grain flour
Vitamin B6 is important because it’s involved in more than 100 enzyme reactions in the body’s cells, helping us metabolize amino acids from our food and build new red blood cells. There is intriguing research that B6 may help reduce the risk of heart disease, but this benefit has not yet been definitely established. The health benefits of vitamin B6 uncovered by clinical research include reduction in heart disease risk. Although deficiency in this vitamin is rare in the United States, it can lead to muscle weakness, depression, irritability, short term memory loss, nervousness, and difficulty concentrating.
Avoid Anemia With Vitamin B12
Adults need only 2.4 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin B12, also called cyanocobalamin, each day. Pregnant or breastfeeding teens and women need more: 2.6 to 2.8 mcg daily. Vitamin B12 is not naturally occurring in plant foods, so vegetarians and vegans may not get enough in their diets and may need to take a B supplement. Natural sources rich in vitamin B12 are dairy products, fish, meat, and — in particular — beef liver and clams. This type of vitamin B can also be found in fortified items like breakfast cereals and nutritional yeast.
Vitamin B12 is essential for building blood cells and maintaining healthy nerve cells in the body. As many as 15 percent of people in the United States have a vitamin B12 deficiency, which can lead to anemia. Symptoms of B12 deficiency include weakness, fatigue, constipation, weight loss, and loss of appetite. Deficiency is also damaging to the nervous system and can cause depression, confusion, and dementia.
Folic Acid Is Essential for a Healthy Baby
Vitamin B9, also called folic acid or folate, is a nutrient that’s necessary for the body’s growth and development. The National Institutes of Health recommends that adults get 400 micrograms (mcg) daily, while breast-feeding mothers need 500 mcg a day, and pregnant teens and women should get 600 mcg a day. Naturally occurring folate is found in many sources, including dark-green leafy vegetables, asparagus, brussels sprouts, oranges, nuts, beans, and peas. In addition, folic acid is added to many fortified foods such as cereals and breads.
Teens and women who are pregnant or planning to get pregnant may find it difficult to get enough folate, but this B vitamin is vital to a baby’s health and development. Getting enough folate prevents neural tube (brain and spine) birth defects in babies and promotes healthy growth.
The Office of Dietary Supplements of the National Institutes of Health recommends talking with your healthcare providers about any dietary supplements you take.
By Jennifer J. Brown, PhD
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