The importance of B vitamins for energy and overall health

There are 8 forms of B vitamins which each play essential roles in keeping us alive and well. These B vitamins are known to work together as a group (particularly in the conversion of carbohydrates to usable energy), but also have their own unique independent jobs.

At a glance, these are some of the essential roles the B vitamins have in the body (although there are many more not listed).

B1 (Thiamine): Used for the conversion of carbohydrates into energy, plays a part in muscle contractions and conduction of nerve signals to the brain throughout the body.

B2 (Riboflavin): Used for red blood cell production as well as conversion of carbohydrates to ATP (ATP is the main source of energy for all cells).

B3 (Niacin): Is crucial for the production of ATP and is also needed for the production of glucose tolerance factor (GTF) which helps to balance blood sugar levels.

B5 (Pantothenic Acid): Supports healthy skin and hair and proper functioning of the nervous system and liver. It also works as part of a coenzyme used for energy production.

B6 (Pyridoxine): Works as a cofactor for the release of glucose from glycogen – helping to maintain blood sugar levels and also works to convert tryptophan (an amino acid) to B3

B7 (Biotin): Involved in promoting healthy hair (through stimulation of keratin), strengthening nails and enables skin to keep looking healthy through its role in fatty acid metabolism and synthesis.

B9 (Folic acid/folate): Involved in DNA replication and the production of red and white blood cells. Maintaining healthy levels of folic acid during pregnancy reduces the risk of certain birth defects (particularly spina bifida) and also reduces the risk of preterm delivery and miscarriage.  

B12 (Cobalamin): Helps to reduce levels of tiredness through its ability to turn food into glucose. It also promotes a healthy functioning immune system as well as red blood cell formation. B1 also plays a role in the cell division process. 

Where do we get B vitamins?

B vitamins must be consumed through the diet or synthesised by our intestinal microbiome. They are water-soluble meaning they are not stored in the body and excess will be excreted in the urine. To be able to maintain optimal levels, it is important to consume a diet which is plentiful in B vitamins. It is also important to make sure our guts microbiome is healthy and balanced to be able to absorb the B vitamins we consume and synthesis more.

Vitamin deficiency is a common result of an unbalanced diet and an imbalance in gut microbiome.

Dietary consumed B vitamins are generally absorbed through the small intestines however, B vitamins produced and absorbed by our guts bacteria generally takes place in the colon.

Studies have shown that those with an imbalanced gut microbiome (such as inflammatory bowel disease, SIBO, coeliac disease and general dysbiosis) can experience decreased vitamin absorption. Another leading cause of B-vitamin malabsorption is chronic alcohol use. Frequent alcohol consumption impairs absorption of all water-soluble vitamins as well as causing damage to the guts balance of healthy bacteria.

How does decreased absorption of vitamin B affect us?

If we are unable to absorb B vitamins due to intestinal imbalances, we may experience symptoms widely related to our energy levels. B vitamin malabsorption/deficiency is associated with different forms of anaemia such as pernicious (B-12) and megaloblastic (B9/folate, B-12). All forms of anaemia are associated with a lack of healthy red blood cells meaning there is inadequate oxygen delivered around the body. This in turn leaves us feeling weak and tired all the time.  

If we are unable to absorb dietary B vitamins due to an imbalance in our guts, then there will be a lack of conversion from the food we eat into an energy source for our body to use (ATP). This in turn leaves us feeling weak and fatigued throughout the day.

Other symptoms can include brittle nails, hair loss, constipation, confusion, balance problems, tingling and numbness in the hands and feet, increases susceptibility to infections, depression, heart palpitations and red scaly rashes. 

If our guts microbiome is out of balance, it can result in impaired synthesis of B-vitamins in the colon. B vitamins produced in the colon perform many important functions throughout the body. They act as nutrients to be used by the body’s cells and support survival of the friendly bacteria in our guts. They also help to keep the immune system functioning efficiently, manage levels of inflammation within the colon and prevent overgrowth of bad bacteria throughout the gut. 

Overall, there are multiple health benefits we receive from having optimal amounts of vitamin B in our diets. Therefore, it is important that we make sure our guts are healthy enough to be able to absorb them otherwise we may start to experience signs and symptoms related to deficiency.