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Ask the dietician: How important are B vitamins?

September 26, 2018

Ally Gottfried

Question: I heard you can’t take too many B vitamins for energy as we can’t store them. How important are they?

Answer: Eight essential micronutrients, the B vitamins function as catalysts in cellular energy production in the body. They don’t actually produce energy themselves but help convert carbohydrates, protein and fat into energy, a bit like a spark plug. These vitamins are not made in the body so we need to consume them from our food, and minerals involved in this conversion process are equally important.

The B’s are ‘water-soluble’ meaning we cannot store them in our tissue so regular consumption is necessary. A severe deficiency producing a disease state may take several months to develop, and complete vitamin B deficiency diseases are rare, but inadequacies can develop.

People who follow restricted diets that eliminate food groups, or take medication can be at risk for vitamin B deficiency and in particular vitamin B12. We actually make this vitamin in our colon by bacterial action, but unfortunately absorption happens ‘higher up stream’ in the small intestine, so if your plumbing is working correctly those B12’s are heading south!

B12 comes from animal foods like milk, eggs and meat. Medication can affect absorption, and it is estimated that 30% of people taking the diabetes drug Metformin have a B12 deficiency. Drugs that lower stomach acid can decrease B12 absorption, as can old age. Deficiency can lead to depression and mimic dementia. B vitamins have a specific impact on brain function and brain concentrations are high, making sense because the brain is the most metabolically active organ in the body requiring a lot of energy.

Folate another B vitamin, is important in pregnancy, and deficiency of this vitamin can lead to birth defects. Folate is the name of the natural plant form and Folic Acid is the synthetic form, and you will find this added to breakfast cereals and other foods in an attempt to reduce birth defects. However, there is some evidence that consuming very high amounts of Folic Acid could be detrimental to other population groups. Similarly high amounts of vitamin B6 have been known to cause neuropathy or numbness in finger tips.

Niacin is a B vitamin often taken with cholesterol lowering medication to boost the efficacy of the drug. Natural sources of niacin include tuna, chicken, turkey, pork, peanuts, avocado, sweet potato and peas. Of interest synthetic niacin found in dietary supplements, is often made from a waste product of nylon fiber production used in commercial carpets, conveyor belts and zip ties, yum.

Of note, taking a single B vitamin instead of a Vitamin B complex should be avoided unless you have a specific deficiency or risk. A high dose of a single B vitamin may cause an increase in the breakdown of other B vitamins not supplemented, causing a ‘conditioned deficiency.’ However, people who drink alcohol excessively should consider taking a thiamin supplement, as deficiency often seen in drinkers can lead to psychosis and nerve damage.

Lastly a word about Biotin, another B vitamin often found in ‘hair and nails’ supplements or in super multi-vitamins. A 2017 FDA warning cautions that people taking high amounts of this vitamin, and having their blood drawn for evaluation, should inform the lab and their physician. Biotin can falsely increase or decrease results that lead to a misdiagnosis or mistreatment. Tests include troponin (if a heart attack is suspected) and thyroid hormone tests and possibly others. Biotin may also be called Coenzyme R, or vitamin B7 or vitamin H on a label.

Bottom line: B vitamins convert carbohydrates, protein and fat to energy, and taking more does not make more energy unless you are deficient. So, eat a balanced diet and keep a check on any medications that may interfere with B vitamin absorption.

If taking biotin let the person ordering your blood tests know and let’s not be chewing on zip ties.

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