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October 22, 2012 at 8:00 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Should I Take a B-Complex Vitamin?

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

The other day, I saw an elderly patient with his daughter who was concerned about his memory. She told me her dad was forgetful and just not himself at times. Of course, he, a tough member of "The Greatest Generation," denied that anything was wrong. A thorough work-up revealed a severely low vitamin B-12 level. Score! With some supplementation, he will be back to baseline, memory improved.

No doubt, B-12 and the other B vitamins are important, but should YOU be supplementing B vitamins? Will they really help with stress?

This blog will examine what we should expect from a B vitamin supplement.

Types of B Vitamins

There are actually a number of B vitamins. Most B complex vitamins include:

  • B-1 (thiamine),
  • B-2 (riboflavin),
  • B-3 (niacin),
  • B-5 (pantothenic acid),
  • B-6 (pyridoxine),
  • B-7 (biotin),
  • B-9 (folic acid), and
  • B-12 (cobalamin).

Together with vitamin C, these vitamins are water soluble and not typically stored in the body. In other words, we need to get them on a regular basis. While most B complex vitamins contain the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of each, there are some formulations geared toward the elderly or touted to help with stress which favor some B vitamins over the others.

Following are some documented benefits from various B vitamins, either in excess of the RDA or in replacement of deficiency states.

B-9 Prevents Birth Defects

Deficiencies in vitamin B-9, or folic acid, have been shown to increase risk of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida in offspring. The problem is, though folic acid is typically included in women's prenatal vitamins, the defect caused by deficiency is often in place well within the first month of pregnancy - before most women even know that they are pregnant. For this reason, supplementing with folic acid and folate supplementation is important for women even considering becoming pregnant.

Good food sources of folic acid for your diet include peas, long grain rice, spinach, asparagus and great northern beans, and fortified grain products such as bread.

B-3 Helps Lowers Cholesterol

In fact, among all the different pharmaceutical cholesterol medications, B-3 (or niacin) is the only substance to date that has been shown to shrink away plaque from the walls of arteries - important in the prevention of stroke and heart attacks. However, despite this potential benefit, the amount needed to regress plaque and lower cholesterol is around 10-20 times the amount contained in a typical B complex vitamin. At these doses, supplementation causes a burning, flushing sensation almost as a rule and though not harmful, it is annoying.

To combat this, pharmaceutical companies have formulated extended release niacin tablets at the necessary high doses. Flushing is still problematic despite this formulation, however. Taking the niacin at night with an aspirin or an antihistamine has been shown to help with the flushing problem.

B-12 Helps Repair Stress-Related Damage

In regards to the supplementation of B vitamins, the term "stress" has confused many people. Supplementing B vitamins will not help you cope emotionally with stress. B vitamins help to combat the effects of physical stress that cause wear and tear. Many are essential in the repair of cells and production of neurotransmitters which can become damaged or deficient as a response to environmental stressors.

However, while the B complex vitamins are not helping to repair emotional stress in our lives, the cellular benefits should not be discounted. Significant deficiency in B-12 can cause memory problems, fatigue, anemia, depression, and anxiety, but addressing it with supplementation can provide a marked positive improvement in these areas.

Causes of B-12 Deficiency

While a poor diet can lead to B-12 deficiency, the most common cause is poor absorption in the small intestine. Years of excess stomach acid (also usually symptomatic as heartburn) can cause damage to this area of the digestive system. Besides, small intestine damage, surgery such as gastric bypass can cause B-12 malabsorption. In these cases, the problem of B-12 absorption cannot be solved by a pill supplement and instead periodic B-12 injections will be required.

A blood test can used both to diagnose B-12 deficiency and monitor B-12 levels.

Should I Take a B Vitamin Supplement?

B vitamins are instrumental in our immunity and in the prevention of defects that can spiral into cancer. For this reason, and the fact that we need the B vitamins on a regular basis, a supplement is not a bad idea for anyone. In doing so, any bodily vitamin B needs will be filled and the excess will leave the body in the urine. (Incidentally, this is why a B vitamin supplement often causes a particular odor and color in the urine.)

In Conclusion...

Supplementing B vitamins is not a bad idea. Be leery of claims that such supplements will help you fight emotional stress or significantly lower your cholesterol. On a cellular level, however, B vitamins do support important processes to keep the body functioning properly. If pregnancy is a consideration or a posiblility in the near future, make sure you are getting enough folic acid in your diet or take a supplement. If you feel that you may be deficient in B-12, see your healthcare provider for appropriate testing as supplementing in a pill form may not help.

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