This month, our recipes are focussing on folate, the natural form of what most people will know as folic acid, but that is also vitamin B9. This crucial vitamin is important for so many different bodily functions including reducing levels of homocysteine and guarding against anaemia, fatigue and insomnia.
In this extract from our Foodies guide to vitamins and minerals e-book, James takes you through all the various B vitamins, what they are used for and what the best natural food sources are. To get the full, fully referenced e-book, click here.
Vitamin B1 (thiamine)
What does it do? If you’re ever in a pub quiz and are asked which was the first water-soluble vitamin discovered, you now know the answer is vitamin B1, also known as thiamine. Like all B vitamins, thiamine acts as what is called a co-enzyme – small compounds that help enzymes trigger reactions that otherwise would not happen. It’s useful for a number of different things in the body: it helps convert nutrients into energy and also plays a role in digestion, the working of the nervous system and good functioning of the immune system. Deficiency – often seen in diabetics and those with alcoholism – can result in diseases such as beriberi which affects the circulatory system and can result in heart failure. Thiamine supplementation has been shown to reduce blood pressure and help with blood sugar levels, as well as preventing HPV infection – the virus that leads to warts.
Food sources: yeast extract spread, watercress, squash, asparagus, mushrooms, peas, lettuce, peppers, cauliflower, cabbage, tomatoes, beans
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
What does it do? If your pee turns yellow after taking a multivitamin, it’s more than likely that B2 is the culprit – it’s the only water-soluble vitamin that is also used as a food colouring. Like B1, it functions as a co-enzyme and helps turn nutrients into energy. It’s also needed to help convert B6 in the diet into a more active form in the body and to convert the amino acid tryptophan into vitamin B3 (see below). While most people get adequate amounts from food, supplementation has been shown to potentially reduce blood pressure because it helps reduce high blood levels of a protein called homocysteine that is a risk factor for heart disease.
Food sources: yeast extract spread, liver, mushrooms, watercress, cabbage, asparagus, broccoli, pumpkin, beansprouts, mackerel, milk, meat
Vitamin B3 (Niacin)
What does it do? Looking for va-va-voom in the bedroom? Tuck into some B3-containing foods. Aside from helping produce sex hormones, it also improves blood flow and circulation, said to be key for more intense orgasms! On a, perhaps, more prosaic level, it is the only vitamin we can produce from another nutrient, tryptophan, an amino acid found in milk, turkey and tuna. Like other B vitamins it acts as a co-enzyme, helping cells do their job but also acts as an antioxidant. Another important role it plays is in glycolysis, helping the body get energy from glucose. Supplementation studies have shown it can help lower blood lipid (fat) levels and may help improve brain function.
Food sources: yeast extract spread, peanuts, turkey, mushrooms, tuna, chicken, salmon, asparagus, cabbage, lamb, mackerel, tomatoes, dairy, eggs
Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid)
What does it do? B5 is found in all foods to some degree, which is why there’s no evidence that we are ever deficient in it under normal circumstances. Like all B vitamins, it has a wide range of functions: red blood cell production, the production of sex and stress hormones and immune health to name but a few.
Food sources: liver, yeast extract spread, trout, shiitake mushrooms, caviar, kidneys, chicken, beef and egg yolks
Vitamin B6 (Pyroxidine)
What does it do? B6 consists of a group of nutrients that are required to make pyridoxal phosphate, a co-enzyme that is involved in more than 100 metabolic processes, including red blood cell production, energy, amino acid (protein) metabolism and the release of glucose from stored glycogen. It also reduces homocysteine (see also B2), and is needed to help with immune function and the absorption of B12. A (rare) lack of B6 can cause anaemia, skin rashes, convulsions, confusion and depression and has been associated with increased cancer risk.
Food sources: pistachios, beef and lamb liver, eggs, kale, watercress, soya beans, oily fish
Vitamin B7 (Biotin)
What does it do? Vitamin B7 was originally called vitamin H from the German word haut or skin, as many people supplement it to make sure they are silky smooth (though the evidence for this is sketchy). Again, it acts as a co-enzyme for a number of functions, including metabolism of nutrients such as carbs, fats and protein.
Food sources: organ meats, egg yolk, meat, legumes, cauliflower, mushrooms and nut
Vitamin B9 (Folate)
What does it do? Most people will know B9 in its manmade form: folic acid, most commonly associated with pregnancy to reduce the incidence of birth abnormalities such as neural tube defects. While folate (the food form) may be more bioavailable (the body uses it better), folic acid is more stable which is why it is often chosen to fortify foods and in supplements. Aside from birth defects it is thought to reduce homocysteine levels, which are associated with stroke and heart disease and have been linked to an increased risk of cancer. Reduced levels of B9 may also be associated with anaemia, fatigue and insomnia. Little wonder then that in some countries such as the USA and Canada, fortifying some foods with B9 is mandatory.
Food sources: liver, edamame, leafy greens, legumes, sunflower seeds and asparagus.
Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin)
What does it do? B12 is such an important vitamin. It is essential for healthy nerve cells, red blood cell production, iron function and DNA. Low levels can result in anaemia, fatigue, constipation, depression and poor memory. There are no plant sources of vitamin B12, which is why vegetarians and vegans need to supplement it. Absorption of it takes place in the stomach – and those taking acid suppressants may also be low in B12.
Food sources: clams and oysters, liver, sardines and other oily fish, turkey, chicken