Biotin (also known as vitamin B7 or vitamin H), is one of the water-soluble B-vitamins, necessary for a number of functions, including cell growth, keeping skin, hair and nails healthy, as well as maintaining a well-functioning neuromuscular system. It is also involved in the metabolism of amino acids, carbohydrates and fats so they can be converted into energy.
One of the greatest advantages of biotin is that it has been shown to increase glucose tolerance and reduce insulin resistance, which is helpful for those with Type 2 diabetes. In studies performed on adults with Type 2 diabetes, it was found that supplementation with biotin reduced their blood sugar levels by half.
Though biotin can’t be absorbed topically through either the hair or skin (making shampoos and cosmetics that contain it a waste of money), taking biotin supplements internally is often advised for those who are suffering from brittle nails and hair breakage.
Biotin is a vitamin produced naturally by your body’s own intestinal bacteria, so a deficiency is not common, apart from those who drink alcohol excessively or eat raw eggs on a regular basis. One of the best sources of biotin is egg yolks, however, it is important to note that the body may not be able to absorb the biotin in an egg yolk if it is eaten with the white of the egg. Raw egg whites contain the glycoprotein avidin, which binds to biotin, preventing absorption. The prolonged consumption of raw or undercooked egg whites can lead to a biotin deficiency, but by cooking egg whites thoroughly the avidin is deactivated, leaving the biotin intact. Other good dietary sources of biotin are Swiss chard, liver, tomatoes, carrots, yeast and soy.
Some symptoms of biotin deficiency are skin problems, such as seborrheic dermatitis or cradle cap in infants (a relatively common problem in which they develop a pale yellow or white crusty growth on the scalp), hair loss, brittle nails, depression, lethargy, lack of muscle tone and coordination, and muscle pain. Biotin has also been used to help treat peripheral neuropathy and Parkinson’s disease.
It is especially important that pregnant women get sufficient amounts of biotin, as it breaks down more quickly during pregnancy, and a deficiency in the first and third trimesters was found to be relatively common. Taking biotin supplements can alleviate this problem.
The recommended daily allowance for biotin in adults is 300 mcg per day, which will keep you from a deficiency and will provide you with healthy skin, hair and nails, in addition to helping prevent diabetes.
Folic acid is synthesized from folate (also called vitamin B9 or folacin), which plays a crucial role in a number of body functions, particularly in the proper development of the fetus from the first days of conception.
Physicians advise that all women of childbearing age take a regular folic acid supplement since 50% of pregnancies are unplanned, and as the neural tube, from which the infant’s nervous system will develop, is one of the first things to develop in a fetus. Often, by the time a woman realizes she is pregnant, much of that important development is already done. Women who are deficient in folate risk giving birth to infants who are low in birth weight or due to neural tube defects have a spinal malformation, such as spina bifida, or other neurological disorders.
Folic acid is so important that it is one of the vitamins that the FDA requires be added to fortified foods such as bread, flour, breakfast cereals, pasta and rice. Since this requirement was enacted in 1998, the rate of neural tube defects has decreased 26%.
Folate is also crucial to proper cell growth. DNA and RNA, the building blocks of all our cells, rely on folate to develop properly, and folate has been found to help prevent the changes in DNA that can lead to the development of cancerous cells. It also aids in the healthy formation of red blood cells, which is necessary in order to avoid anemia.
Folate helps keep homocysteine levels in the blood low, reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease, aids in the proper functioning of your nerves through the synthesis of neurotransmitters, and helps prevent dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and osteoporosis-related bone fractures.
Signs of folate deficiency include: insomnia, depression, irritability, muscle fatigue, sore tongue, diarrhea, gingivitis and mental fuzziness.
Some good natural sources of folate include: green leafy vegetables such as spinach and collard greens; beans and legumes such as lentils and peas; and fruit and fruit juices, particularly tomato juice and orange juice. Liver is also an excellent source, and cooking it does not easily destroy its folate, which can be the case when cooking vegetables. To maintain the greatest amount of folate in your vegetables, either eat them raw or cook them for as short a time as possible.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise that adults get 400 mcg of folic acid every day, either through their diet or by taking a dietary supplement. If pregnant, that amount should be raised to 600 mcg daily, and 500 mcg every day for women who are breastfeeding.
Like the other B-vitamins, riboflavin (also known as vitamin B2), plays a key role in the production of energy and the maintenance of metabolism. Its distinctive characteristic is its bright yellow fluorescent color, which can often be seen in the urine of those taking supplements of the vitamin, the excess of which is excreted through the kidneys. And because only small amounts of it are stored in the liver and kidneys, regular intake must be received through the diet.
Working together with an enzyme, riboflavin helps to break down homocysteine. Elevated levels of homocysteine in the blood are related to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and bone fractures. Vitamin B2 works with different enzymes to help in the creation of some of the other B-vitamins such as B3 (niacin), B6 (pyridoxine) and B1 (thiamine), and also aids the optimal utilization of iron and folic acid.
Riboflavin also works as an antioxidant by helping in the recycling of glutathione, a molecule that neutralizes the effects of dangerous free radicals that damage the body’s cells and DNA, accelerating the aging process and increasing your risk of cancer. It is also useful to our cells by helping them in the most efficient use of oxygen and in encouraging healthy cell growth.
Recent studies have found that supplementing with vitamin B2 may help those who suffer from migraines. According to a study published in the European Journal of Neurology, 23 migraine sufferers were given 400 mg. of riboflavin every day for three months and recorded the frequency, duration and intensity of their migraines during this period. The results showed the number of migraines to be reduced by half, from an average of four per month to two, and were shorter in duration, though their intensity was unchanged.
Deficiency in riboflavin is not common, but is more apt to be found in alcoholics, women taking birth control pills, the chronically ill and the elderly. Some signs of riboflavin deficiency are swollen tongue, skin cracks, particularly around the corners of the mouth, weakness, sore throat, hair loss, blurred vision, cataracts, and light sensitivity.
The best dietary sources of riboflavin are meat, dark green leafy vegetables, whole or fortified grains, mushrooms and dairy products. The recommended daily allowance is 1.3 mg per day for adults. Though not sensitive to heat, acid or oxidation, riboflavin is easily destroyed by exposure to light, so be sure to buy dairy products such as milk or yogurt in opaque containers.
Niacin (also known as vitamin B3 or nicotinic acid), is one of the water-soluble B-complex vitamins that provides a range of health benefits, including reducing your level of “bad” LDL cholesterol while raising your level of “good” HDL cholesterol. The body uses niacin, as it does the other B vitamins, to convert food into energy and maintain a healthy nervous system. Niacin also plays a key role in the metabolism of fats, including the synthesis of such fat-based hormones as androgens, estrogens, progestins and stress-related hormones.
The benefit of niacin to healthy brain function has been demonstrated by a study showing its effectiveness in helping protect against age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a study on nearly four thousand elderly residents of a Chicago community. Over a period of almost six years, the residents’ dietary data was collected and cognitive assessments were conducted. The results found a definite positive correlation between niacin intake and reduction in mental impairment.
A derivative of niacin, niacinamide, is often useful in the treatment of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Dr. William Kaufman has been studying the use of niacinamide in the treatment of arthritis since the 1950s and writes of its benefits, “It measurably improves joint mobility, muscle strength, decreases fatigability. It increases maximal muscle working capacity, reduces or completely eliminates arthritic joint pain.”
As the body is unable to absorb more than 250 mg of niacinamide at a time, it is more effective to take smaller does more often (perhaps every one to three hours) than one large dose per day. It is estimated that nearly 70 percent of arthritis patients will experience increased joint mobility after four weeks of treatment.
Though niacin deficiency is uncommon, it tends to occur most often in populations that suffer from poverty, malnourishment or chronic alcoholism. This deficiency can lead to a disease called pellagra, in which the patient suffers from dermatitis, diarrhea and dementia. A severe lack of niacin can be deadly, if left untreated. Populations who use corn products (such as cornmeal) as the main staple of their diet often suffer from pellagra, as the niacin in corn is not easily absorbed by the body. Interestingly, adding limestone during cooking (often just by cooking food in high calcium content water) helps to make the vitamin bio-available, and Native Americans have incorporated ash from their cooking fires into their corn-based dishes for generations.
The recommended daily intake of niacin is 14-16 mg per day for adults, which can be easily achieved from eating a balanced diet. The food sources highest in niacin are yeast, meat, poultry, tuna, salmon, whole grain cereals, legumes and seeds. Other good sources are green leafy vegetables, coffee, tea and milk.
The B group of vitamins is probably the most commonly misunderstood of the vitamins, simply because the B vitamins are several distinct vitamins lumped together. Additionally, the fact that the vitamins in this group are known by both letter, number and name is confusing to many people. Here is a quick list of the B vitamins found in the Vitamin B complex group.
B1 is also thiamin
B2 is also riboflavin
B3 is also niacin
B5 is also pantothenic acid
B6 is also pyridoxine
B7 is also biotin
B9 is also folic acid
B12 is also cobalamin
You should note that there are four additional substances in the B complex group, though they are not known as vitamins. They are choline, lipoic acid, PABA and inositol. When you purchase B complex vitamins, these four will not be included. Furthermore, one or two of the recognized B vitamins may also be omitted. B5 and B7 are so widely available in food that most people get plenty of these vitamins even if they aren’t eating a healthy diet.
There are gaps in the numbers of the B vitamins because our understanding of them has evolved over time. Initially there was only a single B vitamin. Later it was recognized that what had been referred to as a single vitamin, actually had many components. These component parts where numbered 1,2,3,4, etc… Even later it was determine that some of these components (such as B4) did not meet the criteria of being a vitamin and they were dropped. That’s how we ended up with 8 B-vitamins with non-sequential numbers.
One thing that all the B vitamins share is that they are water soluble. Any excess vitamin B is not stored, but rather is excreted in the urine. That means that all the B vitamins need to be constantly replenished from our diets.
B vitamins are found in whole unprocessed foods including grains, meats and vegetables. In general, the more processed that food is, the lower the content of all the B vitamins. A daily multi-vitamin is a great way to ensure that you are getting all the B complex Vitamins your body needs on a daily basis.
One of the most commonly recognized uses of the B vitamins is an energy booster. Many popular energy drinks that claim a natural boost of energy without sugar or caffeine are high in B vitamin complex.
There are too many components in the Vitamin B complex to discuss the health benefits, deficiencies and Recommended Daily Allowance for the whole group in a single article.
Thiamine (also known as vitamin B1) was the first of the B-vitamins to be discovered, and works synergistically with the other vitamins in the B-complex family. It helps to convert food into energy and supports healthy skin, hair and nails. It is also used to calm nerves, often referred to as the “anti-stress” vitamin.
Vitamin B1 interacts with enzymes to produce energy from the aerobic processing of sugar. Without B1, this processing would not be possible, which is why a deficiency causes feelings of weakness and lethargy.
The myelin sheath that covers our nerves and allows for proper transmission of nerve impulses relies on thiamine for its health and maintenance. If there is inadequate intake, the sheath may break down, causing a prickling sensation and deadening of the nerves, and some patients suffering from multiple sclerosis (a degeneration of the myelin sheath) have found it useful in treating their symptoms.
Another disease that can be caused by a thiamine deficiency is beriberi, which affects the peripheral nervous system. Its name stems from the Sinhalese word “beri”, which means “weakness,” and was a disease common in parts of Asia around the turn of the last century. It is now a rare disease in developed countries due to the fortification of breads and cereals, which is necessary because most of the thiamine in the flour used in these products is lost in converting whole grains to white flour. The B-vitamins are concentrated in the germ and bran, both of which are removed during processing.
Thiamine has also been found to be a useful treatment for reversing early stage kidney disease in those with Type 2 diabetes. A team of researchers from Warwick University in the UK studied 40 diabetic patients who were supplemented with thiamine. After three months of treatment with 300 mg of thiamine taken orally each day, one third of patients returned to normal protein excretion in their urine. It is estimated that between 70 and 90 percent of those suffering from diabetes are thiamine deficient, and oral supplementation is a simple and inexpensive way of helping to treat some symptoms.
Thiamine is found in a wide range of foods in small amounts, so consuming a varied diet will ensure you are getting sufficient amounts of the vitamin. It is found in greatest concentrations in yeast and pork, though it is also found in whole grains, green leafy vegetables, mushrooms and eggs. Unfortunately, thiamine is highly unstable, being easily damaged by heat, acidity, refrigeration and processing, so eating raw or minimally processed fresh foods is important in order to maintain a healthy supply of B1 in the body.
Vitamin B12 (also known as cobalamin) is vital to the body’s proper functioning. It helps build and maintain healthy red blood cells, is involved in the production of DNA and RNA and is instrumental in maintaining a healthy nervous system and cell metabolism.
Because vitamin B12 can be stored in the liver for a number of years and we need just a small amount of it to remain healthy, symptoms of a vitamin B12 deficiency may not show up for a long time. Vegans sometimes find themselves with this deficiency, as animal products are the only food source of vitamin B12 in a form that can be easily utilized by humans. The elderly can also be at risk of deficiency, as our digestive systems have an increasingly difficult time with absorption of the vitamin as we age.
A lack of vitamin B12 can cause a number of problems, including depression, fatigue and memory problems. A severe deficiency can lead to nerve damage or pernicious anemia, a disease that occurs when the stomach becomes unable to produce intrinsic factor, a substance secreted by cells in the stomach that allows the body to absorb B12.
Without B12 your bones can’t produce enough healthy red blood cells, instead producing large red blood cells in low numbers. Their large size makes it difficult for them to make their way out of the bones and into the bloodstream where they carry on the important work of getting oxygen to the rest of the body’s cells, causing fatigue and other problems.
Some symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency include:
Shortness of breath
Tingling in fingers or toes
Diarrhea or constipation
Supplementation with vitamin B12 can help reduce your risk of age-related macular degeneration, heart disease (due to its ability to lower homocysteine levels), breast cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and male infertility.
Interestingly, neither plants nor animals make vitamin B12. Rather, it is made by various microorganisms, such as bacteria, molds, yeast and algae, that are then consumed by animals and produce the vitamin in their digestive tract.
There are a number of good dietary sources of vitamin B12, among them eggs, dairy products, beef, pork, chicken, fish and shellfish. Organ meats, clams and oysters are particularly high in the vitamin. Vegetarians and vegans should look for vitamin B12 supplements in the form of fortified cereals, nutritional yeast or spirulina.
Vitamin B5 (also known as pantothenic acid), is used in the conversion of food into energy and in the maintenance of healthy skin, hair and eyes, nervous function and digestive health. Provitamin B5 (Panthenol) is commonly used in a number of health-related products, as it is converted into vitamin B5 by the body’s normal metabolic processes.
Panthenol is used as a humectant (attracts and retains water), a moisturizer and emollient, and is widely used in cosmetics as well as in skin and hair care products. It creates a skin barrier, reducing the amount of water lost through the skin. It also improves skin texture, making it softer and more elastic, so is useful in treating dry, rough, scaly skin problems.
The mitochondria in the body’s cells use a combination of B5 and coenzyme A to produce energy. The presence of vitamin B5 in the cells increases the production of ATP, the molecule that transports the energy that powers the body’s systems. Without adequate amounts of this vitamin, you may become tired, weak and listless.
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, lab and animal studies have shown that wounds heal more quickly, especially after surgery, with the use of vitamin B5, particularly when combined with vitamin C.
Vitamin B5 helps the body to utilize other vitamins as well, such as vitamin B2. It also allows the body to best utilize the cholesterol in the food you eat, reducing your level of “bad” LDL cholesterol and raising your “good” HDL cholesterol levels. Studies have also shown that vitamin B5 may help reduce dangerous triglycerides in the blood, which can lead to heart disease.
Vitamin B5 is found in the greatest abundance in organ meats, cauliflower, broccoli, yogurt, mushrooms, sunflower seeds, turnip greens and corn. However, in food sources it is a relatively unstable vitamin, and cooking, freezing or processing foods tends to destroy it. Processed grains, canned vegetables and frozen foods have shown a 21-70% loss in vitamin B5.
Though a vitamin B5 deficiency is rare, people with a poor diet or who have digestive problems are sometimes deficient. Supplementation has been shown to help in the treatment or prevention of a range of conditions, including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, adrenal insufficiency, burning foot syndrome and cataracts. Vitamin B5 supports the adrenal glands and can help to moderate stress hormones.
As of this writing, the recommended daily intake of vitamin B5 has been set at 5 mg for adults, and 5 to 7 mg for pregnant or breastfeeding women.
Vitamin B6 (also known as pyridoxine) is another of the water-soluble B-complex vitamins, involved in a number of important functions, including the body’s metabolic activity. It metabolizes sugars, fats and amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. Another important function is its role in the synthesis of neurotransmitters, and in the creation of DNA, heme (part of red blood cells) and the phospholipids that make up our cell membranes.
Without sufficient B6 we would not be able to process carbohydrates properly. Our bodies require that the glycogen in our muscle cells be broken down so as to provide us with energy, and vitamin B6 plays a key role in this breakdown. This can be especially important for athletes who require increased strength and endurance. It is also an essential vitamin for tissue repair. Another of the benefits of vitamin B6 is that it helps control excessive inflammation.
Because of its use in healthy brain and nerve function, it also helps to regulate mood. It is important for the development of serotonin and norepinephrine, hormones that help guard against depression, and has been used to treat both Alzheimer’s and general memory loss.
Vitamin B6 works in conjunction with folic acid and vitamin B12 to help keep homocysteine levels low. Elevated homocysteine is linked to a number of diseases, including heart disease, osteoporosis, and stroke. It has been successfully used in the treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome and premenstrual syndrome, and has been shown to help prevent attacks of asthma by lowering histamine levels in the blood.
The major dietary sources of B6 are meat, eggs, liver, fish, whole grains, legumes (peas and beans), potatoes, brewer’s yeast, avocados and dairy foods. Due to its water-solubility, it can’t be stored in the body’s fat cells, so we need to ingest it on a regular basis. And as B6 is necessary in order to break down proteins, the more protein you eat, the more B6 you need.
Although a deficiency in vitamin B6 is not common, it can lead to anemia, feelings of numbness or pins-and-needles in hands and feet, a sore red tongue, and confusion, depression and irritability. This deficiency is most often found in alcoholics and those with chronic fatigue syndrome or women who use oral contraceptives.
It is recommended that adults get 1.6 mg per day of vitamin B6 for optimal functioning. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding require more, about 2 mg per day. Because it naturally occurs in a wide range of foods it’s not likely you will need a supplement if you eat well. However, it may be useful if you suffer from one of the conditions noted above, for which a doctor can give you a recommended dosage.