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Water Soluble Vitamins – Part 2: Vitamin B
In this part of our nutrient dense series, we are going to talk about B Vitamins, a family of nine different compounds that are important for cellular metabolism, methylation, energy, and immunity. It is important to consume and absorb all of the different B Vitamins because each of them is needed for a specific reason. Each of the B Vitamins comes from a different source. You might think you are getting enough Vitamin B2 from your leafy greens, but you might be lacking B12 if you don’t eat enough animal based foods (hint: there are no vegetarian sources of Vitamin B12, so if you are a vegetarian or vegan, you must deliberately supplement in order to get B12). B Vitamins, in general, are very sensitive to heat and they can be easily destroyed by cooking. Check out this great guide to cooking to see how to keep as many nutrients as possible in your meals with gentle cooking methods like steaming or sautéing. Now, let’s introduce all nine players of the B team!
Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)
Thiamine is in fact a co-enzyme (a substance that enhances the action of an enzyme) that helps our cells to produce the energy we need for basically every function, from breathing and blinking, to walking, running, and metabolizing food. Not having enough thiamine in the body basically results in low overall energy. Chronically low levels of thiamine lead to fatigue, brain fog, poor sleep, numbness, and loss of appetite. Without enough B1, you might also experience weak immunity, and as a result of this, you may be affected by colds and flus more frequently.
Thiamine deficiency can lead to a serious condition called beriberi, which affects the cardiovascular system (wet beriberi) and nervous system (dry beriberi). A lack of thiamine in our diet is also connected with diabetes and poor glucose tolerance. Excessive alcohol consumption impairs thiamine absorption, and consequently alcoholics tend to be highly deficient in this vitamin and often need to supplement. Proper absorption of Thiamine requires enough of vitamins B6, B12, and folate, so it is important to adjust your diet to get an adequate variety of nutrients.
One of the best sources of thiamine is pork meat. One hundred grams of pork covers your daily needs for thiamine (which is around 1.3 mg per day, and a little more for pregnant and breastfeeding women). It is also present in other lean cuts of meat, like beef or tuna. Sunflower seeds, sesame seeds (and tahini), spinach, cauliflower, and asparagus are good vegetarian sources of B1. The nutrients in garlic and onions help your body to absorb thiamine properly, so add them to your meals to add a boost of flavor and a dose of sulfur (unless you are sensitive to FODMAP foods). Thiamine is safe even in high doses; up to 300 mg per day has been used to improve fatigue in patients with multiple sclerosis or IBS.
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
Riboflavin works as an activator, helping other B vitamins to work, and it is very important for the metabolism of carbohydrates and the development of our connective tissues, including skin and hair sheaths (the inner coatings of hair follicles in the outer layer of our skin). Riboflavin also aids in the conversion of the amino acid tryptophan to niacin (Vitamin B3). Some patients with MTHFR mutations have an increased need for riboflavin. Vitamin B2 also helps with the absorption of iron, zinc, and folate (Vitamin B9) and helps to prevent anemia, migraines, rosacea, and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Symptoms of riboflavin deficiency include cracked lips, dry skin (especially around the nose and mouth), sore throat, swollen tongue, anemia, sensitivity to light, and preeclampsia in pregnant women. If you are exercising a lot (heavy lifters in particular), you might need up to 10 times more riboflavin in your diet than the generally recommended amount. Around 1.7 mg per day is a good starting range, and there is no reported upper limit for Vitamin B2. Excess riboflavin is excreted via urine, turning it yellow.
The best sources of B2 are grass-fed liver (beef, lamb, or even poultry). Making a liver paté or sautéing some liver with onions and sliced bell peppers is a delicious and healthy idea. The liver is jam packed with nutrients, and just 100 grams will provide you with over 250% of your daily need. Other great sources are eggs, pastured dairy (if you can tolerate it), nuts, and green vegetables. Riboflavin is pretty stable when heated, so you can cook your meals without fear of losing those precious nutrients. Just keep in mind that if you boil riboflavin rich foods, these vitamins stay in the water you used, so go ahead and use that water to make soup or broth.
Vitamin B3 (Niacin, Nicotinic acid)
Niacin is another energy generating nutrient, particularly important for converting glucose into usable energy. Niacin is also responsible for healthy digestive function, detoxification, and hormone creation. Ensuring that you are getting enough Vitamin B3 helps to reduce the chance of developing one of many autoimmune or inflammatory conditions – they include gout, headaches, IBD, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, depression, and diabetes. In 2004, researchers found that elderly patients who consumed the most niacin in their diet were 70% less likely to have Alzheimer’s disease compared to those who consumed the least.
A lack of niacin can cause digestive problems, skin infections, muscle weakness, and elevated blood lipids. Alcohol consumption can cause a deficiency in niacin, as can chronic stress and physical trauma. Chronic niacin deficiency causes pellagra, a fatal disease with symptoms like mental confusion, dementia, nerve damage, or diarrhea. This disease occurs mostly in areas like Africa, Indonesia, or China, and often develops in alcoholics, and people living in poverty or homelessness. Our body can manufacture niacin when needed, using tryptophan, one of the important amino acids present primarily in animal foods, but just as with beta-carotene and Vitamin A conversion, this production is not very efficient and can be energy demanding. Consuming niacin directly from our food is always a better option.
Tuna is the best source of niacin, followed by beef liver, pork meat, poultry, and pastured full-fat dairy. Vegetarian sources include mushrooms, nuts and seeds, and sweet potatoes. Niacin is very stable, and not greatly affected by light, heat, or air, so don’t worry about losing this vitamin during prolonged cooking. A safe dose of Vitamin B3 is around 15 mg per day – more is still safe, but can cause facial flushing that is temporary and not dangerous. In the past, niacin supplements included sustained release forms of niacin that eliminated the flushing but caused dangerous liver damage.
Vitamin B4 (Choline)
In the past, choline was considered a part of the Vitamin B family, but today you will most likely only find it as a standalone nutrient. Choline is extremely important for liver and brain health. It is a precursor to acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in the function of our memory. Our liver uses choline to process fats. Choline also impacts our levels of LDL cholesterol, and getting enough choline can help to prevent fatty liver. It was proven that choline deficiency is a major contributor to fatty liver disease.
Insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, brain fog, memory issues, and cardiovascular disease are other symptoms of Vitamin B4 deficiency. If you eat a high-fat diet, your choline needs are higher because your liver needs more to process all of the fat (which means you should consume more choline, not less dietary fat). During pregnancy and lactation, the female body can become more choline deficient, as a big part of her intake is used up by the developing fetus or breastfed baby. If you drink a lot of alcohol, your choline needs can also increase. Dr. Chris Masterjohn is a big choline fan and he put together this amazing post that goes into great detail about choline and is worth checking out if you enjoy digging into the hardcore science.
Where do you get your choline from? Liver (we told you liver is a nutrient powerhouse!) and egg yolks. Kidneys and brain are good sources as well, but I understand these might not be your favorite cuts of meat (they are not mine for sure). One pastured egg yolk contains around 120 mg of choline, or 100 grams of liver will perfectly cover your daily needs, which is 450 mg for women and 550 mg for men and pregnant or nursing women. Vegetable sources include brussel sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower, but compared to egg yolks and liver, they contain ten times less choline.
Many people who still fear dietary fat are scared of the fat in egg yolks. While a 100 gram serving of egg yolks contains over 680 mg of choline, the same amount of egg whites only contains a little over 1 mg. And we are not even talking about the other nutrients present in a sunny yellow yolk! The book Eat The Yolks by Liz Wolfe will teach you far more than just egg yolk facts. It is a particularly great resource if you want to recognize the lies we have been literally fed about food for decades, and replace these myths with scientifically backed-up evidence. If you choose to supplement with choline, look for a version that contains phosphatidylcholine, which is the type present in eggs – and also our cell membranes – as it is the most bioavailable form for our bodies to use. Choline is also richly present in Sunflower Lecithin.
Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic acid)
Pantothenic acid is present in many foods, so deficiencies in B5 are quite rare. But that doesn’t mean that we should overlook the importance of this vitamin. Pantothenic acid supports energy production in the body (using both carbohydrates and fats), it helps with chronic stress related inflammatory problems including chronic fatigue, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, and most importantly, it supports your adrenal glands to help you respond to stress more efficiently. Pantothenic acid also helps to clear the hormonal imbalance that may result in acne – some research even suggests that acne can be a sign of Vitamin B5 deficiency. This nutrient is also used in alcohol metabolism, so if you drink regularly, you might want to increase your Vitamin B5 intake to support your liver.
It is present in all animal and plant based foods (except for pure fats because B5 is water soluble). The best sources are sweet potatoes, avocados, mushrooms, all organ meats, eggs, and pastured dairy. Our gut flora also manufacture pantothenic acid we can later use, but as always, eating real food is a better option, especially if the health of your gut flora is less than excellent. One hundred grams of chicken liver will provide you with 83% of your daily needs. The recommended daily amount is 10 mg, and there is no known upper limit (though more than 2 grams per day can cause mild diarrhea).
Pantothenic acid is pretty unstable, especially when exposed to freezing. Frozen vegetables are a wonderful option out of season, but they are not the most efficient source of Vitamin B5. It’s a good thing that it is present in so many other foods we put on our plate! When supplementing, choose calcium pantothenate, because it is more stable than supplemental pantothenic acid.
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine)
If we had to choose the top three in the Vitamin B family, pyridoxine would be one of these superheroes. Along with B9 and B12, B6 is critical for methylation and immune health. Vitamin B6 is converted into a co-enzyme that is important for the metabolism of amino acids and also for a process called gluconeogenesis (converting amino acids or fatty acids into glucose). The co-enzyme made from pyridoxine is also involved in the synthesis of neurotransmitters and deficiency in this nutrient has been linked to type 1 diabetes.
Similar to pantothenic acid, pyridoxine is present in many foods. Deficiencies can happen when our nutrient absorption is compromised. Any gut issues, chronic alcoholism, or chronic diarrhea can lead to poor absorption of nutrients, but we already know that gut health is a stepping stone for healing other systems in the body. A lack of pyridoxine in the body is connected with asthma, kidney stones, PMS, depression, acne, eczema, morning sickness in pregnant women, or hypertension. In many cases pregnant women will need to increase their B6 intake, as well as people who take any medication for a long period of time, like hormonal birth control or NSAIDs, because long-term use of these drugs can disrupt the metabolism and distribution of B6.
It is recommended to eat at least 2 mg of Vitamin B6 per day. You should not be surprised by now that liver is one of the best sources. Other good options include tuna, zucchini (and other types of summer squash), bananas, blackstrap molasses, potatoes, and some nuts. Cooking with acidic components usually strips the meal of vitamin B6, so if you want to retain as much as possible, don’t add too many acidic ingredients and also avoid freezing and processing if possible (think fresh vegetables instead of canned).
Vitamin B9 (Folate)
Folate is another member of the Top Three B Vitamins. Don’t confuse natural folate with synthetic folic acid. Folate is converted into the co-enzyme tetrahydrofolate (THF) responsible for the proper metabolism of nucleic and amino acids. It basically means folate is required for proper gene expression, which is critically important. Healthy cell division and red cell production are also dependent on vitamin B9.
We often say that genetics load the gun, but the environment (epigenetics) pulls the trigger. Diet is one of these triggers for sure, and getting an adequate amount of folate is important for keeping some of those triggers at bay. If you have one or more MTHFR mutation, your folate needs might be higher, as your body is not able to convert folic acid to folate and THF as effectively as individuals not affected by this genetic mutation.
Because B9 directly affects cell division and DNA in our body, it is extremely important during pregnancy and the early stages of our growth. Unfortunately, deficiencies in folate are very common, particularly often in pregnant women (who probably need it the most), excessive alcohol consumers, and individuals with poor gut health (patients with leaky gut or ulcerative colitis, for example). Folate absorption is improved by Vitamin C; these two work in synergy and a lack of Vitamin C can also contribute to folate deficiency.
Both men and women should strive for at least 400 micrograms per day, and pregnant women will need 600-800 micrograms minimum. Folate is easily and quickly excreted from the body via urine, so meeting the body’s needs can be difficult. Eating enough liver, spinach (and other leafy greens), beets, papaya, avocados, and pastured eggs is the best option. Most supplements contain folic acid, which is not only useless, but potentially harmful for MTHFR patients, so make sure your supplement of choice always contains folate.
Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin)
Vitamin B12 tops our list, and this vitamin is one of the most important nutrients for our health. According to Chris Kresser, vitamin B12 deficiencies are very common, even for those who consume plenty of B12-rich animal foods. It might be because the official daily recommendations are set way lower than we really need to maintain our health, it might be because our digestive health is in an overall poor state and we are not able to absorb as many nutrients as people with a healthy gut, or it might be because our bodies can’t synthesize this vitamin.
Of course, we are too busy with everyday life to keep track of which nutrients we can synthesize and which ones we have to consume in food, but when we eat a real food based diet with enough variety, we don’t even have to think about it. Health problems associated with vitamin B12 deficiency include Depression, acne,andeven psychological problems like OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) can be closely related to low levels of cobalamin. DNA production, neurotransmitter production, and even production of the hormone serotonin are affected by how much or how little B12 we consume and absorb.
Vitamin B12 levels are often left unchecked, as symptoms like depression, anxiety, unexplained weight loss, fatigue/lethargy, or autism are commonly overlooked and not automatically linked with nutrient deficiency by many doctors (despite growing evidence). But this nutrient is so vital for every cell in our body, we should do our best to always make sure we have enough. If you suspect any deficiency, the best thing you can do is get tested for serum (blood) levels of that particular nutrient. Here is a great post about preventing vitamin B12 deficiency.
Many people who go vegan believe that because B12 can actually be stored in the liver, they have enough stored for later from those days when they still consumed animal products, but this is simply not true. It may work for a little while, but the reserves in the liver will eventually run out, and this is often when symptoms will emerge. There is no way you can get enough Vitamin B12 as a vegan unless you supplement with a good quality product that contains methylcobalamin. This is not to say that being vegan is a bad choice, but you have to keep in mind that you need B12 to stay alive and you can’t find it in plant foods. Along with liver (obviously), sardines and salmon are the best sources of vitamin B12. Scallops, tuna, and shrimp are also great. Grass-fed meat, especially lamb, is probably the best source outside the seafood group. Those with MTHFR mutations should be sure to select supplements in the form of methylcobalamin as this is the activated form that is easier for their bodies to work with. Absorption of vitamins, and especially B12 can be greatly reduced by the use of proton pump inhibitors – the famous Purple Pill that gives short-term relief for a high long-term price.
Vitamin B Complex
Many vitamin B supplements are made as a complex blend of all B Vitamins. If you suspect a deficiency, the best thing you can do is get tested first, add foods rich in a variety of different nutrients (because as we already know, vitamins and minerals work together, not in isolation, and often deficiency of one can be caused by not enough of the other). If you are pregnant, nursing, or struggling with mental health concerns or alcohol addiction, it is probably a good idea for you to consider a B-complex supplement that includes methylated B vitamins to support your energy levels, hormone and co-enzyme function, metabolic functions, and proper gene expression.
It is very unlikely that the premixed formula will match your individual needs – some people need more B5, others need B6, some need niacin, others should be on niacinamide. Real food is always a better choice. If you avoid animal products for any reason, please take note of your body’s B Vitamin needs and consider adding some eggs and occasional humanely raised grass-fed meat or wild seafood into your diet, or at least a good quality supplement. Your health should always come first, especially if you are already contending with any physical or mental health concerns. Check our guide to healthy fats, fat soluble, and water soluble vitamins, and stay tuned for more information about important nutrients. We have covered crucial vitamins and macro nutrients (sugars, fats, and proteins), but we still need to learn about the minerals our bodies need and crave. Until then, stay nourished!