Since the discovery of the first B-vitamin, known as Thiamine (or simply Vitamin B-1) by Casimir Funk, in 1912, a number of other molecules sharing similar characteristics in chemistry and essentiality for proper health have been isolated and discovered over the following half century. These molecules have been classified as B-vitamins. How many B-vitamins are there? The answer to that question will vary from source to source, as there are eight definitive B-vitamins and a number of other nutrients (such as carnitine, choline, inositol, lipoic acid and para-aminobenzoic acid) which perform similar functions in the body and may be considered part of the B-vitamin family as well.
What do B-Vitamins do for us? In a nutshell, they do a lot. In a broad sense, B-vitamins are essential for a multitude of physiological functions within our body. They serve as co-factors to hundreds of enzymes throughout the body which are necessary for the metabolism of our carbohydrates, amino acids and fats. They are essential for the proper functioning of the citric acid cycle and oxidative phosphorylation, which is needed to produce adequate energy for the trillions of cells in the body. Most B-vitamins (such as B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B9, B12, choline and inositol) are necessary for the production and/or breakdown of certain neurotransmitters and therefore can help balance and improve mood when mood is affected by an imbalance or reduced levels of certain neurotransmitters. Most B-vitamins also play a role in the healthy production and maturation of the body’s red blood cells. Some B-vitamins (such as B1, B9 and B12) have a direct role in the development and maintenance of healthy nerve tissue. Some B-vitamins are even crucial for the methylation of DNA (helping certain genes to become expressed) and preventing against the build-up of harmful metabolites, such as homocysteine. B-Vitamins are literally necessary for thousands of important reactions in the body which are needed to support the healthy functioning of the body’s digestive system, endocrine system, excretory system, cardiovascular system, immune system, musculoskeletal system, nervous system, lymphatic system, respiratory system and even the integumentary system (i.e. your body’s hair, skin and nails).
B-vitamins are found in a variety of foods. Many are also synthesized by beneficial bacteria which reside in the gastrointestinal tract. Thiamine (B1) for example, can be found in sunflower seeds, nuts and certain whole grains. Riboflavin (B2) can be found in nutritional yeast, almonds, organ meats, and leafy green vegetables. Vitamin B6 can be found in whole grains, bananas, legumes, nuts, seed, cauliflower and some sprouts. One important thing to remember is that while there may be a number of foods which offer different levels of different B-vitamins, some B-vitamins are sensitive to and easily destroyed by the exposure to heat (cooking), air, light and even acidic or alkaline environments. Therefore, while the risk to a full blown deficiency of a particular B-vitamin may more likely be limited to a particular group of people, sub-optimal levels may be more common among the public than we think. Everybody is unique when it comes to their own individual needs for particular nutrients.
Depending on an individual’s lifestyle and dietary habits there may be a greater need to eat particular foods richer in B-vitamins or to simply supplement B-vitamins in order to obtain optimal levels needed to maintain or restore health. In some cases, due to the complex nature how B-vitamins and other nutrients within the body interact with each other, many nutritionists and practitioners may feel that the best way to supplement B-vitamins is to use a complete B-complex, which consists of the entire family of B-vitamins, as opposed to supplementing with an individual B-vitamin. In other cases, certain individuals make have a deficiency or sub-optimal levels of an individual B-vitamin or a select few B-vitamins and therefore may benefit from supplementing with only those particular nutrients.