Vitamin B can be one of the most confusing vitamins, mainly because there isn’t just one Vitamin B. That’s why it’s often called the Vitamin B Complex.
Vitamin B was first discovered when scientists were trying to figure out why people who ate a diet of mostly rice were becoming ill with a disease called beriberi. Beriberi causes sufferers to start “shaking” and develop body wastage.
It turned out that the cause of the problem was that brown rice (rice after the outer husk was removed) was being “polished” to remove the brown outer coating (so that it could be stored for longer).
It’s this further processing that makes it into white rice.
This polishing not only removes an important source of dietary fiber, it also removes important biological chemicals that are important for healthy functioning of the body.
When the “polishings” that had been removed from the brown rice were used to prepare extracts, these extracts could be used as a dietary supplement to prevent people developing beriberi.
And what was it that was removed from the brown rice, and added back in the extracts? It was what is now known as Vitamin B (Vitamin B1, as it turned out).
What are Vitamins?
Vitamins are complex chemicals that are needed to help with biochemical metabolic reactions in the body. They are essential in the diet since your body is incapable of making them.
The various vitamins are involved in a variety of metabolic reactions in the body. Vitamins usually combine with important enzymes to help the enzymes process chemical reactions properly.
Vitamins are often defined by what happens to your body if you have a deficiency of one or more of them.
Here we’re going to have a look at the B vitamins to get an overview of why they are needed in the diet.
B Complex Vitamins
Vitamins are sometimes categorised depending on whether they are water-soluble or fat-soluble (that is, not water soluble). The B vitamins are in the water-soluble category.
Although the various B vitamins are distinct chemicals, they are often found in the the same food types. One of the problems relating to “processed foods” is that the B vitamins can be removed by the processing.
This is similar to the situation described above, where rice was being polished, which resulted in the essential B vitamins being removed.
What makes B vitamins B vitamins?
Something I’ve often wondered about is why there are so many different B vitamins? Why not give them one of the other letters?
After all, there are plenty left in the alphabet.
B vitamins are individual chemicals, and usually have a number added, e.g., B1, B3, B12, and so on.
If the B vitamins are all distinct chemicals, with different functions, then why do they all have the letter B?
It seems that scientists originally thought that there was only one type of Vitamin B. But then as research progressed it turned out that it was actually a mixture of different chemicals – the Vitamin B Complex
In addition to the Vitamin B letter and number naming system, many of them have other names too. For example, B1 is thiamine and B2 is riboflavin.
The Vitamin B Complex
Vitamin B1 – Thiamine
Cells in the body need to be able to release energy from carbohydrates like glucose. Vitamin B1 is important for this process, helping enzymes that control the process.
A lack of Thiamine results in body cells not being able to produce enough energy, which can lead to health problems.
Nerve cells are particularly badly affected by a Thiamine deficiency because they mostly rely on glucose as their main fuel source, whereas other cells in the body can use fats as an alternative source of energy.
This is lack of energy production in nerve cells is responsible for the shaking seen in beriberi sufferers. In addition to being caused by a diet of polished rice, alcohol misuse can lead to Thiamine deficiency and beriberi symptoms, causing shaking and memory loss.
Vitamin B2 – Riboflavin
Riboflavin is involved in a variety of metabolic processes. This means that a Riboflavin deficiency can lead to a number of health problems. These problems include inflammation of the mouth and lips, and irritation and oversensitivity of the eyes.
Riboflavin is also involved in dietary iron absorption from the digestive system, so a deficiency can also lead to anaemia.
Vitamin B3 – Niacin
Niacin is also involved in a number of metabolic processes.
The best known condition resulting from Niacin deficiency is pellagra. Pellagra symptoms include skin inflammation, with a darkening in colour, stiffening and bleeding. This condition can also lead to the development of dementia and be a cause of death.
Niacin has been linked with reduction of blood cholesterol and management of depression.
Vitamin B5 – Pantothenic acid
Pantothenic acid is required for energy production in cells. It is used to make a key molecule (CoEnzyme A) which is sometimes referred to as the “crossroads molecule” because of its central involvement in energy metabolism in cells.
Pantothenic acid deficiency is rare, but it has been linked with acne and “pins and needles” in limbs.
Vitamin B6 – Pyridoxine
Pyridoxine is needed for the production of amino acids, carbohydrates and fats. It’s also involved in the production of neurotransmitters, the chemical signals in the nervous system.
Pyridoxine deficiency can result in skin rashes, sometimes quite serious, and problems with the nervous system.
Vitamin B7 – Biotin
Biotin is important for the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Biotin deficiency doesn’t normally cause problems for adults but it can cause problems in small children, with impaired growth and issues with development the nervous system.
Vitamin B9 – Folate
Folate is one of the few vitamins that is commonly referred to by its name rather than it’s B-number. It’s commonly called Folic acid, which is the synthetic version of folate.
Folate is important in the production of DNA, which is essential for cell division. For this reason it’s particularly important for normal development of the foetus during pregnancy.
In addition to its importance during pregnancy, folate deficiency can cause certain types of anaemia.
Vitamin B12 – Cobalbamin
like some of the other B Vitamins, Cobalbamin is needed for the cellular metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. It’s also needed for red blood cell production in the bone marrow.
Cobalbamin deficiency can cause anaemia and problems associated with neurological functions, such as loss of feeling in the hands and feet.
Wait! What happened to Vitamins B4, B8, B10 and B11?
There used to be more B Vitamins, but some of them were demoted, and they are no longer considered vitamins. There actually used to be Vitamins B13 to B20 (plus others with letters instead of numbers) too.
To qualify as a vitamin it would need to be something that is vital in the diet (that’s the “vit” part) and the body is not capable of making it.
It became clear over time that these non-vitamins were not essential for the health of humans, so they’re not considered vitamins any more.