The B Team
Given all the hazards to your well-being out there (sagging skin, cardiovascular
crises, DNA damage) it’s good to know that you have your own personal protection posse—
the overall health team known as the B vitamins.
Why is the sky blue? What is the definition of irony? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a tootsie-pop? Ask passers-by on the street, and they will find these questions to be “stumpers,” concepts that we understand vaguely, but struggle to define. How about this one? What is a vitamin? We know they are good for us (and we’ve got stacks of vitamin bottles to prove it), but how many of us can actually define what a vitamin is?
Simply put, vitamins are organic substances that enable our bodies to grow and function normally. This may sound unimpressive, but the bottom line is that vitamins are essential for life. There are thousands of different functions taking place in our bodies that only happen because of vitamins. And the B vitamins are a perfect example of this vital role—enabling a myriad of important internal functions while delivering health benefits that we are just beginning to understand.
To grasp the role of Bs and other vitamins, we must view the body as a sophisticated laboratory, producing myriad chemical reactions. Our immune system, for example, is a chemical reaction network so complex it makes the most advanced pharmaceutical laboratory look like a seventh grader’s baking soda volcano for a science fair. Functions we often take for granted—digesting food, walking up stairs, even the act of thinking—are all facilitated by chemical reactions within the body.
Thousands of these internal chemical reactions depend on enzymes, which accelerate the reactions to completion. Many enzymes only work with a little help from their friends—molecular buddies called coenzymes. This is where the B vitamins come in. Most B vitamins are coenzymes, helping enzymes carry out chemical reactions in the body. This coenzyme capacity partly explains why there are many different kinds of B vitamins.
How come there’s one vitamin C, but several B vitamins, you ask? (You might also ask why vitamins skip from vitamin E to vitamin K, leaving out vitamins F, G, H and I…but we digress.) The answer has to do with vitamin discoveries and the evolution of their classification.
“Historically, it was once thought that vitamin B was a single vitamin, similar to vitamin C,” explains Victoria Drake, PhD, Research Associate at the Linus Pauling Institute’s Micronutrient Research for Optimum Health in Corvallis, Oregon. “But many B vitamins were discovered, each having distinct biochemical functions. Because the various B vitamins were often found in the same foods, and were involved in similar end functions within the body, such as energy metabolism...they were grouped under the ‘B vitamins’ umbrella.”
As a result of this re-ordered vitamin classification system, there are eight B vitamins (give or take a few, depending on expert interpretations), with impressive individual and collective health benefits. Think of these B vitamins as a team: Each member is unique and distinct, but they also share certain characteristics and work well together.
B Vitamins: Break It Down
The B team as a whole is known for breaking down the carbohydrates, fats and proteins that we eat. B vitamins are famously called “energy vitamins” because they help convert carbohydrates into glucose that is burned for energy. “If you have diminished B vitamin levels, you will feel it,” says Drake. “You will experience fatigue and general tiredness.”
But energy is just one of the many benefits B vitamins offer. Each B vitamin team member offers health benefits that are far deeper than any overarching B vitamins statement can convey—including boons for heart health, mood, hair, nails, muscle tone and much more. So let’s meet the B team.
Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)
Thiamine helps the body produce acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that enables communication between nerves and muscles. If you’re playing tennis, for example, B1 is working double duty—helping release energy from carbohydrates and helping synthesize neurotransmitters that make muscles respond to your thoughts.
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
Riboflavin is an antioxidant, helping to prevent oxidative damage in the body. Riboflavin is also important for healthy glandular function, red blood cell production and cell growth. Riboflavin has been used to treat acne and various stress-related disorders, and to prevent migraine headaches and cataracts. Supplementation with riboflavin and thiamine (along with vitamin E) has been linked to slowed cataract progression (Archives of Ophthalmology 4/05).
Vitamin B3 (Niacin)
Niacin enables the body to create fatty structures, such as cell membranes. It is also required for DNA production and maintenance. Niacin deficiency has been linked to DNA damage that precedes cancer, suggesting that this critical B vitamin may play an anti-cancer role. Niacin also reduces bad LDL cholesterol and elevates good HDL cholesterol. For dieters, niacin holds value as a blood-sugar stabilizer that reduces cravings for sweets. The latest news on niacin: Lab studies suggest that it may protect brain cells from the ravages of multiple sclerosis (Journal of Neuroscience 9/20/06).
Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid)
B5 contributes to healthy digestive function, and in true synergistic B vitamin fashion, helps the body absorb and use other vitamins. Pantothenic acid also helps the body adapt to environmental, mental, and post-operative stress.
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine)
B6 is incredibly versatile, facilitating no less than 80 different chemical reactions in the body—among them creation of neurotransmitters, fatty acids, amino acids (building blocks of protein) and nucleic acids (building blocks of DNA). B6 is needed for the creation of practically all new cells in the body. B6 is also involved in the production of serotonin, the “feel good” neurotransmitter, and may play a part in maintaining positive mood. B6 has been used successfully to treat PMS and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Vitamin B7 (Biotin)
Formerly known as vitamin H, biotin is distinguished from its teammates as a “beautifying” vitamin that helps improve hair, skin and nail problems. B7 has been shown to help improve the symptoms of nerve damage and candida infections and is also an important nutrient for good muscle tone and healthy nerve function.
Vitamin B9 (Folic Acid)
Folic acid is best known as a critically important nutrient for mothers-to-be. That’s because folic acid supports the health of the fetus, greatly reducing neural tube birth defects like spina bifida, cleft palate and low birth weight. Folic acid helps the developing fetus grow healthy new cells. After the fetus is born, folic acid continues to meet demands for new cells by replacing blood cells, digestive tract cells and other cells throughout the body. Folic acid also teams with vitamins B6 and B12 to control homocysteine, an amino acid that has been linked to cardiovascular disease.
Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin)
B12 is much more than its energizing “Shot of B12” catchphrase conveys. B12 is needed for proper formation of red blood cells, and as such has been used to effectively treat pernicious anemia. B12 is also critical for healthy nerve cells, especially the myelin sheath, which is a protective fatty coating that keeps nerve cells nice and snug. As a result, B12 has been noted for possibly helping multiple sclerosis, a disease that attacks the myelin sheaths, and other pain syndromes caused by poorly formed or damaged myelin.
Be Smart: Supplement
While there may be a lot of Bs, they don’t stick around long in the body. Because B vitamins are water soluble, they are quickly absorbed, circulated and excreted. We need to constantly replenish them or run the risk of deficiency. Why is that a problem? B vitamin deficiency can lead to unpleasant symptoms including fatigue, weakness, anemia, depression, irritability, apathy, insomnia, achy muscles and poor digestion. Pellagra, a disease marked by dermatitis, dementia and diarrhea, occurs when there is a niacin (B3) deficiency. Biotin (B7) deficiency can lead to hair loss, skin problems and brittle nails.
Some people run a greater risk of deficiency for certain B vitamins than others. For example, because B12 is mostly found in animal foods, vegans—vegetarians who consume no animal products whatsoever—may find it hard to get all the cobalamin they need without supplementation. In addition, research suggests that older people may be especially at risk for B deficiency; in one study, a third of the women participating had inadequate reserves of vitamins B1, B6 and B12 (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 10/03). If you suspect that you might be B vitamin deficient, see your health care practitioner for a suitable supplementation regimen.
“It’s most important that people consume B vitamins daily, because they aren’t stored,” says Drake. “If you eat five to seven servings of fruits and vegetables today, you would be getting enough B vitamins...but how many people do that?” The Linus Pauling Institute recommends taking a multivitamin supplement that contains most of the nutrients, including the B vitamins.
When choosing a B vitamin supplement, look for B-complex, which is a combination of the different B vitamins in precise ratios. B vitamins employ synergy: Like a good team the Bs work together, helping each other out and lending support to each other. This is why B-complex supplements are preferable; this form best takes advantage of B vitamins’ synergistic activity and best unlocks their combined benefits.
When we trace our day-to-day activities to a cellular level, we find B vitamins hard at work, contributing to chemical reactions that, at their very core, allow us to live. Vitamins are life-sustaining and therapeutic. The Bs—the quintessential essential vitamins—best exemplify the amazing power of these organic substances by enabling a staggering diversity of important body functions. Energy vitamins, stress vitamins, complex vitamins—whatever the name, B vitamins’ role remains the same: helping us to not only exist, but exist in good health.