5 Reasons to Up Your Intake of B Vitamins
I started taking a B complex supplement years ago, when I was in college. I’d read about how extra B vitamins were helpful for stress, and I knew that women taking birth control pills needed extra B6.
Later, I switched to a multivitamin that had all eight of the B vitamins in good amounts, and I still take extra B vitamins every day. That’s because, as a nutritionist, I know the Bs are involved in many basic biochemical reactions in the body, and that they often work together. That means that if I’m low in even one B vitamin, my body won’t function as well as it could. I won’t have the energy I need, I might feel depressed, and I could be at higher risk for heart disease, stroke or cancer. I also know that I don’t eat all that much of the richest foods sources of Bs: liver, beans, eggs, leafy greens and brewer’s yeast. I don’t count on getting enough of every B I need from even my better-than-average diet.
Here are just some of the many things Bs can do:
1. B vitamins prevent brain shrinkage.
One study found that older people with lower-than-average B12 levels were six times more likely to show signs of brain shrinkage, an early sign of impaired cognitive function and Alzheimer’s disease. Even B12 levels that are above the traditional cutoff for B12 deficiency — and seemingly adequate — may impair cognition in older people. B12 is needed to maintain the fatty myelin sheath that wraps around and protects nerves, including nerve cells in the brain.
2. B vitamins improve nerve function.
Supplementing with B vitamins can have a direct effect on important neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, acetylcholine and GABA. Two Bs, pantothenic acid and folic acid, also play a role in adrenal gland function. B deficiencies can cause depression, anxiety and irritability, tiredness, mental confusion and neuropathy (tingling and numbness in the feet and/or hands).
3. B vitamins can save your eyes and ears as you age.
Supplementing with folic acid, B6 and B12 can reduce your risk for age-related macular degeneration by about one-third. And getting plenty of folic acid reduced the risk for hearing loss by 20% in men age 60 or older. In both cases, the B vitamins may work by protecting tiny blood vessels in the retina of the eye and the inner ear. They do that by lowering levels of homocysteine, a byproduct of incomplete protein metabolism that is harmful to blood vessels.
4. B vitamins promote energy production and offer diabetes protection.
Most of the Bs are involved in the breakdown of carbohydrates and fats into the fuel our bodies use for energy. So it’s no wonder that people with type 2 diabetes often seem to benefit from getting extra Bs. One study found that getting extra thiamine reduced sugar-related damage to cells by an impressive 80%.
5. B vitamins prevent birth defects.
Women who are deficient in folic acid during the first month of their pregnancy — when they might not even know they are pregnant — are more likely to have a child with neural tube defects such as spina bifida. B vitamins such as folic acid and B6 are involved in DNA synthesis and repair, and cell replication, which is why they play such an important role in fetal development. Folic acid and B6 deficiencies have also been linked with DNA changes that can lead to cancer.