B VITAMINS: The Blues BustersMichael Downey March 1, 2012
While herbal medicine has received considerable attention in regards to its important role in alleviating mood disorders and depression, few people realize that a single group of vitamins – the B family of vitamins – serves a similar purpose, generating energy and countering fatigue and depression.
B vitamins are water-soluble, which means they are not stored in fat and must be replaced every day. As a result, it’s easy for people to develop deficiencies that hamper the brain’s ability to fight off bad moods. While the body needs plenty of all eight B vitamins to function optimally, six of these deserve special attention, since they are more prone to deficiency. These are B1, B2, B3, B5, B6 and B12.
Because they dissolve in water, these nutrients are easily flushed away during periods of stress or dieting, or by alcohol, tea and coffee. It is important to restore B levels daily through food and supplements. The different B vitamins depend on each another for various chemical reactions, so if more of any single vitamin is needed, it’s best to take it along with a general B-complex formula. This will ensure the single supplement does not tip the balance and cause a deficiency of other B vitamins.
Vitamin B1 or thiamine is involved in the production of energy at the cellular level. The body stores a low level of B1, and a reduction in intake levels can result in a systemic deficiency within weeks. Even the smallest deficiency of this essential nutrient can cause anxiety and fatigue.
Thiamine is found in the brain, skeletal muscle, heart muscle and the liver. This vitamin supports brain function, growth, energy and learning capacity. Also, it is an antioxidant, protecting the body against the effects of smoking, aging and alcohol.
The signs of a B1 deficiency include depression, inability to concentrate, irritability, nervousness, poor appetite, intestinal disorders, constipation and sciatica. Tell-tale symptoms of this deficiency include tingling in the hands and feet and tenderness in the calf muscles. Severe deficiency is often the result of alcoholism and can lead to mental confusion and damage to short-term memory.
A number of factors often combine to lead to a thiamine deficiency, such as consuming too much coffee, tea, antibiotics, sulfa drugs or birth control pills. Higher levels of B1 are needed during periods of very high carbohydrate intake. Also, cooking processes destroy the B1 in food. Folate is required for its absorption; without it, a deficiency can arise even when intake levels of thiamine are adequate.
Where is this B vitamin found? The best sources include egg yolks, legumes, wheat germ, whole grains, liver and brown rice. Brussels sprouts, nuts, oatmeal, and prunes are good sources too.
To avoid mood disorders, take about 100 milligrams three times a day. This amount is sufficient and safe.
Vitamin B2 is an essential component in the enzymes involved in cellular respiration. Also known as riboflavin, this vitamin helps convert fatty acids into energy for the body. B2 helps the skin, nails and hair use oxygen efficiently, reduces eye fatigue, regulates thyroid function, and is needed for the absorption of both vitamin B6 and iron. In summary, it is crucial to the production and maintenance of sufficient energy levels.
Ever wondered what turns your urine bright yellow after you take a multivitamin or, especially, a B-complex? It’s riboflavin. A deficiency of B2 is signaled by cracked lips and a sore tongue; burning and itchy eyes; digestive disorders; hair loss; vaginal itching; and very low immunity. In serious deficiencies, the skin can become red, scaly, and greasy, especially at the sides of the nose.
Watch out for antibiotics, which can increase the need for riboflavin. Certain conditions and habits deplete B2 levels, including diarrhea, liver disease, alcohol consumption and eating foods cooked in salt water. Oral contraceptive pills and strenuous exercise should be paired with a higher intake of B2.
Food sources of this vitamin include spinach, egg yolks, legumes, meat, milk, whole grains, brewer’s yeast and yogurt. Intake requirements can vary, but to avoid the blues that come with low energy levels, try 100 mg three times a day. This will ensure you’re not deficient.
Vitamin B3, also known by the names niacin, niacinamide, and nicotinic acid, supports the nervous system, among other organs. It promotes functioning of the gastrointestinal tract and skin. B3 is part of the enzymes that help extract energy from carbohydrates and glucose, a process called glycolysis.
The uptake of insulin and the stabilization of blood sugar require the glucose tolerance factor (GTF), which is made up of chromium; the amino acids glycine, cysteine and glutamine acid; and vitamin B3.
Niacin helps regulate appetite, and is needed to make hydrochloric acid, which is necessary for efficient digestion. And its ability to lower fatigue and increase energy by improving the uptake of nutrients from food can reduce emotional irritability and anxiety. Vitamin B3 was found to be a cure for pellagra, a dietary deficiency disease characterized by dermatitis, diarrhea and dementia.
Watch for deficiency-caused changes to the tongue. It can become sore, painful, fissured and even resemble the tread of a car tire. This can signal changes that lead to mood problems such as depression, dizziness, anxiety, lassitude, loss of appetite, and in the extreme case, hysteria and psychotic episodes. Niacin has been the subject of studies aimed at finding a treatment for schizophrenia.
Fortunately, this important mood vitamin is much more stable than other B vitamins, and more resilient to the heat of cooking. However, grains lose about 80 per cent of their B3 potency during processing. Food sources for niacin include cheese, fish eggs, whole grains, brewer’s yeast, poultry, liver and beef.
Needs vary but intake should be about 100 to 300 mg a day. If you are taking it as a supplement, consider “non-flush niacin,” which limits the (harmless) hot facial flush often felt upon consumption of standard niacin supplements. Large doses should be avoided by pregnant women and anyone suffering from ulcers, diabetes, glaucoma, gallbladder disease or liver disease.
Although it supports general health, vitamin B5 or pantothenic acid has a powerful effect on the adrenal glands. Since hormones produced by the adrenals serve to counteract stress, pantothenic acid is a key anti-stress vitamin.
B5 also helps convert fats, carbohydrates and protein into energy and supports the immune system, helping to prevent infections. It is involved in the production of neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine which is important for nerves, and helps the functioning of the intestinal tract.
Are you feeling anxiety as well as fatigue? If so, you might have a pantothenic acid deficiency. Other symptoms include headache, nausea and tingling in the hands. Low B5 levels can diminish hydrochloric acid production, resulting in digestive problems such as gas, bloating, abdominal cramps and discomfort after meals. Low energy levels are common and can exacerbate mood issues. In animal studies, severe and long-term B5 deficiency caused hemorrhaging and destroyed the adrenal glands.
Cooking and food processing can destroy pantothenic acid. The processing of wheat destroys half of the grain’s B5 content, for instance.
You can boost your intake of this anti-stress vitamin by consuming more of the following foods: brewer’s yeast, eggs, whole wheat, rye, wheat germ, legumes and liver.
Shoot for a total intake from food and supplements of about 200 mg of vitamin B5, three times a day.
Vitamin B6 or pyridoxine has been associated with fatigue problems since at least the 1930s, when it was discovered and dubbed the “vitality vitamin.” B6 is crucial to so many body functions, even a mild deficiency can have serious health impacts. It is required for production of the antibodies of the immune system and the hormones of the adrenal glands. B6 also helps pull glycogen, which is a form of stored energy, from the liver and muscles. Without sufficient levels of this vitamin, energy levels dive. This can affect mood. Most important for fighting the blues, B6 is used in the body’s manufacture of neurotransmitters, including histamine and serotonin, which directly regulate mood.
Deficiencies of vitamin B6 can result in various symptoms: morning nausea, sleepiness, muscular weakness, headache, dizziness, limb pain and the mood symptoms of depression and irritability. Other symptoms include sore lips and tongue and dermatitis around the nose, ears and the corners of the eyes and mouth. B6 deficiency can also lead to the buildup of water, especially prior to menstrual periods.
High-protein diets should be supplemented with extra B6. Although meat contains B6, the amounts are still below what is needed to metabolize the protein in the meat. Additional B6 must be pulled from other food sources or supplements. Other factors increase the need for B6, including antidepressants, estrogen replacement therapy, birth control pills, smoking and some food additives.
The absorption of B6 can be inhibited by diuretics as well as cortisone drugs such as prednisone. B6 can also be wiped out by various drugs, such as some blood pressure medications and drugs commonly used to treat Parkinson’s disease. Cooking can destroy B6, while exercise can help convert it to a more active form.
Among the foods that contain vitamin B6 are spinach, wheat germ, blackstrap molasses, brewer’s yeast, whole grains and fish. Most people should take approximately 100 mg twice or three times a day.
Vitamin B12 or cobalamin (cyanocobalamin in supplements) is often considered the most vital of the B complex. It is known as the energy vitamin because, along with other vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C and iron, it helps form red blood cells. It is used to treat pernicious anemia, with doctors sometimes injecting into a patient’s muscle several times a week until B12 stores are replenished.
Vitamin B12’s effect on mood has to do with its relationship to the nervous system and its involvement in virtually every aspect of the body’s metabolic system. B12 is needed to produce acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that supports learning and memory. It also helps the body absorb nutrients and break down fats and carbohydrates, and is involved in the important work of synthesizing DNA. It provides nutrition to the myelin covering of nerves, helping to maintain electrical conductivity through the nerves. Although we need very small amounts of vitamin B12, it may well be the most potent of all vitamins.
When B12 levels are deficient, it can be difficult to detect, but general symptoms include irritability, reduced attention span, loss of libido, drowsiness, fatigue, weakness in the arms and legs, poor reflexes, limb jerkiness, trouble walking or speaking and breathlessness on exertion.
A B12 deficiency can result in a condition called megaloblastic anemia, which involves enlarged but fewer red blood cells. This starves the body cells of oxygen, resulting in anemic fatigue. This fatigue is not related to iron deficiency. It can, however, lead to serious deterioration of the spinal cord, brain and peripheral nerves. B12 deficiency is accompanied by definite mood symptoms: depression, mental slowness, loss of memory, confusion, mood changes and poor concentration.
A type of megaloblastic anemia known as pernicious anemia produces symptoms such as heart palpitations and a tongue that is red, sensitive, cracked, and sometimes ulcerated. The long-term result of this condition can be brain and spinal degeneration causing numbness, weakness, tingling, shooting pains, paranoia and hallucinations.
Aging, stress and stomach problems can interfere with the body’s ability to produce an enzyme called intrinsic factor, which is needed to transport vitamin B12 through the intestines so that it can be properly absorbed. This reduced production of intrinsic factor blocks B12 and causes deficiency.
About a fifth of the population fails to produce enough hydrochloric acid to properly absorb vitamin B12. This means that even someone who takes lots of B12 can be deficient. Some elderly people produce less stomach acid as they age, decreasing their absorption of B12. A simple way to boost hydrochloric acid is to sip a glass of water containing a teaspoon of unpasteurized apple cider vinegar before each meal.
Vitamin B12 levels can be depleted by laxatives, overuse of antacids or alcohol, and proton pump inhibitor drugs. The anti-diabetic drug Metformin can also reduce levels of B12 in the blood, resulting in high levels of homocysteine, which can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease among diabetics. The absorption of vitamin B12 can be blocked by gout medications, blood thinner drugs and potassium supplements.
Those who avoid intake of animal products altogether, such as vegans, should know that B12 is essential to human health and survival, and that B12 is not available from any non-animal sources. Some point to plant sources such as kelp, but the original source of the B12 in kelp, and the source of all B12, is bacteria. Lacto-ovo vegetarians can get a sufficient supply of this key nutrient if they consume enough dairy. However, those vegans who are very strict – vegans who eat no animal products of any kind, and who do not supplement with B12, which is produced from bacterial animal sources – will have a vitamin B12 deficiency. Even the minute traces of B12 that can be found in plant sources such as tempeh come originally from the bacteria used in the fermentation process, which of course constitutes an animal source.
The greatest food sources of vitamin B12 are egg yolks, dairy products, oily fish and meat. The traces of this vitamin found in non-animal sources – tempeh and other fermented soy products, sprouts, mushrooms, alfalfa, hops and sea vegetables such as kelp, kombu, and nori – are far too small to meet the human body’s need for B12. For these reasons, vegans definitely need to take B12 supplements.
Cobalamin (B12) can only be manufactured naturally by bacteria, because they alone have the enzymes required to make it. If the B12 we derive from animal-sourced food is actually produced by bacteria, where do we get the B12 for supplements from? A synthetic form of vitamin B12 called cyanocobalamin is manufactured for use in supplements. Made from B12 produced during fermentation processes, cyanocobalamin cannot be used directly by the body, which must convert it into other physiologically active forms of B12.
The best vitamin B12 supplements are timed-release or sublingual, meaning you place them under your tongue. Doses should be in the range of 500 to 1000 micrograms per day. Very large supplemental doses should be avoided, because side effects of excess intake can include hives, swelling of lips and face and difficulty breathing.
OTHER B VITAMINS
Vitamins B7 (biotin or vitamin H) and B9 (folate, folic acid, or folacin) are essential to the body, although deficiencies are virtually nonexistent.
Vitamin B7 can support blood sugar control and is strongly associated with mood, since a serious deficiency can result in depression, lethargy, hallucination and, in extreme cases, hair loss, conjunctivitis and dermatitis. But deficiency of B7 is very rare and usually mild. Swiss chard, peanuts and egg yolks contain B7. Intake requirements are not recommended because bacteria in the human intestinal tract produce more than the body requires.
Vitamin B9 deficiency can lead to depression and mental confusion. De-ficiency is rare, but pregnant women should take supplements to help prevent neural tube defects and congenital abnormalities in newborns. Taking large amounts of this vitamin can mask the usual symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency, making it difficult to catch. Foods that contain B9 include leafy vegetables such as spinach, asparagus and turnip greens; legumes; egg yolks; baker’s yeast; sunflower seeds; liver and kidney; certain fruits including cantaloupe, banana, raspberry and grapefruit; and certain vegetables, including romaine, broccoli, bok choy, beets and Brussels sprouts.
THE B VITAMIN “GAPS”
You may wonder why there are gaps between the B vitamins, why they jump from B3 to B5, for instance. What happened to vitamin B4? This is because several compounds (B4, B8 and B11) were believed to be vitamins, but were later discovered not to be vitamins at all. B4, for example, is not an actual vitamin, although the B4 compound (adenine) is synthesized in the human body. Some of these former “B vitamins” do not support human health, but are essential to the survival of other organisms. Others have no nutritive value to any life form, and some may be toxic under certain conditions. When these “B vitamins” were removed from the list of actual B vitamins needed by humans, it created these gaps in the numbering system.
Most people get a sufficient intake of the eight B vitamins. But if you show signs of deficiency, adding B-rich foods or supplements to your daily routine could help banish your blues. Any excess intake of this water-soluble complex of vitamins is easily flushed out of the system.
Alpert JE, Mischoulon D, Nierenberg A, Fava M. Nutrition and depression: focus on folate. Nutrition. 2000;16:544-81.
Bottiglieri T, Laundy M, Crellin R, Toone BK, Carney MW, Reynolds EH. Homocysteine, folate, methylation, and monoamine metabolism in depression. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 2000;69:228-32.
Coppen A, Bolander-Gouaille C. Treatment of depression: time to consider folic acid and vitamin B12. J Psychopharmacol. 2005;19:59-65.
Hanna S, Lachover L, Rajarethinam RP. Vitamin B12 deficiency and depression in the elderly: review and case report. Prim Care Companion: J Clin Psychiatry. 2009;11(5):269-70.
Hintikka J, Tolmunen T, Tanskanen A, Viinamaki H. High vitamin B12 level and good treatment outcome may be associated in major depressive disorder. BMC Psychiatry. 2003;3:17.
Huang HY, Caballero B, Chang S, et al. Multivitamin/mineral supplements and prevention of chronic disease. Evid Rep Technol Assess (Full Rep). 2006 May;(139):1-117.
Kim J-M, Stewart R, Kim S-W, Yang S-J, Shin I-S, Yoon J-S. Predictive value of folate, vitamin B-12 and homocysteine levels in late-life depression. Br J Psychiatry. 2008;192:268-74.
Morris MS, Fava M, Jacques P, Selhub J, Rosenberg I. Depression and folate status in the US population. Psychother Psychosom. 2003;72:80-7.
National Academy of Sciences. Institute of Medicine. Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Vitamin B12, Pantothenic Acid, Biotin, and Choline (1998).
National Academy of Sciences. Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs): Recommended Intakes for Individuals, Vitamins. Accessed Nov. 1, 2011.
Ng T, Feng L, Niti M, Kua E, Yap K. Folate, vitamin B12, homocysteine, and depressive symptoms in a population sample of older Chinese adults. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2009;57:871-6.
Penninx BWJH, Guralnik JM, Ferrucci L, Fried LP, Allen RH, Stabler SP. Vitamin B12 deficiency and depression in physically disabled older women: epidemiologic evidence from the Women’s Health and Aging Study. Am J Psychiatry 2000;157:715-21.
Skarupski KA, Tangney C, Li H, Ouyang B, Evans DA, Morris MC. Longitudinal association of vitamin B-6, folate, and vitamin B-12 with depressive symptoms among older adults over time. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;92:330-5.
Tiemeier H, Ruud van Tuijl H, Hofman A, Meijer J, Kiliaan A, Breteler M. Vitamin B12, folate, and homocysteine in depression: The Rotterdam Study. Am J Psychiatry. 2002;159:2099-101.