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One of the most famous proponents of vitamin B therapy was Dr Abram Hoffer, a Canadian biochemist, medical doctor and psychiatrist who specialised in schizo-affective disorders during the 1950s.
He was an addiction specialist and expert in niacin (vitamin B3) and together with Bill W, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, cured many people of alcoholism, drug addiction and mental health disorders such as schizophrenia and depression simply through administering high doses of B vitamins. He also worked alongside Nobel laureate, Linus Pauling, on orthomolecular medicine for cancer and treated thousands of patients using vitamin therapy.
Fast forward to the 21st century and B vitamins are now becoming more widely recognised in the scientific community as vital for brain function and the treatment of depression. Researchers at Kuopio University Hospital in Finland published a study in BMC Psychiatry which showed that people suffering from depression responded better to treatment if they had higher levels of vitamin B12 in their blood. Other studies have linked vitamin B12 deficiency with depression, anxiety and lethargy. Research published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry by a team of scientists from Oxford University found that daily supplements of folic acid, B6 and B12 were associated with a 30 per cent reduction in levels of homocysteine and improvements in a range of mental tests, including cognitive function and memory. Homocysteine is an amino acid which is produced as a waste by-product when we digest protein. If our homocysteine levels get too high it is associated with cerebrovascular disease (problems in blood supply to the brain), a drop in serotonin levels (the happy hormone) and increased instances of depression. Today, a growing number of scientists believe in the ‘homocysteine depression hypothesis’, which means they blame high levels of this amino acid waste product for causing depression in the first place. Needless to say it’s incredibly important to keep this waste product in check by consuming enough folic acid, B6 and B12 – as these vitamins are the only way to remove this ‘waste’ from our bodies.
When I first learned of this it became abundantly clear to me why I felt so much sharper and the sky seemed bluer when I was pregnant and taking B vitamins as part of my prenatal routine. If I had only realised the connection back then I would have continued taking the B vitamins and could have saved myself years of misery after my son was born.
All of the B group vitamins affect brain function, mental sharpness and mood, and this is why B vitamins are part of the ‘Big 4’ – essential nutrients we must all take every day. Although it is possible to take each vitamin separately, you can also combine them all into what is known as a vitamin B complex supplement which includes:
- Thiamine (B1),
- Riboflavin (B2),
- Niacin (B3),
- Choline (B4),
- Pantothenic acid (B5),
- Pyridoxine (B6),
- Biotin (B7),
- Folic acid (B9) and
- Cobalamin (B12).
In order to hopefully prompt you into taking a vitamin B complex supplement every day, it may be useful to understand why these nutrients are so important and the impact they have on our brains. They are absolutely essential if you want to heal yourself and bid farewell to depression for good!
Thiamine is essential for proper brain energetics. If we are deficient our brain can’t utilise glucose properly, leading to damaged DNA and degenerating neurons (dying nerve cells). It also plays a role in the body’s absorption of foods containing carbohydrates. A thiamine deficiency can cause weakness, fatigue, psychosis and nerve damage in our brains. People who drink alcohol are more likely to be deficient in B1 so bear that in mind girls – the next time you pour a glass to wine consider whether you’ve had enough B1.
Foods rich in B1 include: sunflower seeds (this does not include sunflower oil as the vitamins are stripped out in processing), black beans, barley, dried peas, green peas, lentils, pork, fish and oats. Interestingly tea impairs B1 absorption – another thing to bear in mind as the average British person drinks 876 cups of tea each year!
Riboflavin assists the body with growth and the development of red blood cells and like B1 helps the body convert energy from carbohydrates. Studies show 27 per cent of adults are deficient in this vitamin.
Signs of deficiency include fatigue, cracked lips, sore throat and bloodshot eyes. How many of us have suffered from those symptoms, often putting it down to the weather or lack of sleep, and pop down to the chemist for lip balm?
Dietary sources include: dairy, meat, fish, eggs, mushrooms, almonds, leafy green vegetables and legumes such as peas, beans, lentils and peanuts.
Niacin helps the body convert carbohydrates into glucose – the main source of fuel for our brain. It also helps the body use fats and proteins and is essential for a healthy liver, skin, hair, eyes and for optimal function of our immune system. Niacin improves circulation and has been shown to reduce inflammation (remember inflammation is a catalyst for most diseases so natural anti-inflammatories are very good for us!).
Interestingly niacin also helps the body make various sex hormones, such as oestrogen and testosterone, and has been successfully used to naturally lower cholesterol levels for decades – long before statin drugs were created.
If you are deficient in niacin, symptoms include: indigestion, fatigue, mouth ulcers and depression. Even a slight deficiency can lead to these symptoms. Unfortunately they are such common symptoms that many of us take them for granted and simply treat them with antacids and pharmaceutical gels. Most people suffer from mouth ulcers, with one in five people getting them regularly. Like everyone else I used to get them – but I don’t any more because my body now gets enough niacin!
Foods containing niacin include: tuna, turkey, pork, liver, beef, portobello mushrooms, green peas, sunflower seeds and avocado.
Choline is really important for metabolism and the synthesis of molecules that are essential structural components of our cell membranes – allowing nutrients to enter and waste products to leave the cell. Like some of the other B vitamins it also regulates homocysteine (remember that waste by-product produced when our cells metabolise protein). When we are deficient in choline symptoms include: muscle damage and abnormal deposits of fat in the liver causing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Around 80 per cent of obese people suffer from NAFLD, so if you are carrying more than a few extra pounds there is a good chance you have NAFLD and this could be partly due to a choline deficiency in your diet. Studies show that 90 per cent of us do not consume enough choline, so if you are mad, fat or both it is essential to top up on this vital nutrient.
As well as eggs, good sources of choline include: fish, meat, poultry and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. Unfortunately these vegetables have massively fallen out of fashion. When I was a child my granny would regularly make cauliflower and cheese sauce or cabbage soup, but trying to get a child to eat cabbage or broccoli today is no easy task! However, studies show that high intakes of cruciferous vegetables reduce our risk of lung cancer – probably another reason why my granddad lived so long despite his prolific smoking.
Pantothenic acid (B5)
Vitamin B5 is widely known to be beneficial in treating serious mental disorders, like chronic stress and anxiety. It has also been shown to alleviate symptoms of conditions like asthma, allergies, heart problems, respiratory disorders and hair loss. It performs a wide variety of functions including the production of neurotransmitters in our brain and the extraction of fats, proteins and other vital nutrients from our food. It reduces stress and anxiety by regulating the hormones which cause these conditions. Studies show that vitamin B5 reduces excessive production of cortisol – the stress hormone – that affects so many of us. Chronic stress from too much cortisol pumping through our veins causes an increased risk of anxiety and depression – so keeping this hormone at bay with regular doses of B5 is essential. Symptoms of a B5 deficiency include: insomnia, anaemia, muscle cramps and burning foot syndrome (lack of feeling in your feet).
Foods high in B5 include: shiitake mushrooms, oily fish, eggs and gjetost cheese (a brown Norwegian cheese – perhaps another reason why folks from Norway don’t get depressed as much as other nationalities).
Pyridoxine contains more than 100 enzymes needed for healthy protein metabolism. It recharges glutathione in our brains – a master antioxidant that gobbles up free radicals, heavy metals and other nasties. B6 is also important for red blood cell production, the nervous system and immune system, neurotransmitters in the brain and blood sugar regulation. When we are deficient in this nutrient it causes a lower immune system response, migraine headaches, chronic pain, depression and dermatitis (eczema). Considering that 35 million Americans suffer from eczema and 20 per cent of British children are now afflicted with this skin disorder, it really is about time we made sure we have enough B6.
As I mentioned in Mad Diet, my son’s private medical tests came back showing a whole bunch of micronutrient deficiencies and vitamin B6 was one of them. The lack of pyridoxine in his diet, as well as other important nutrients, were the root cause of his eczema and caused horrible sores and scabs on his skin. Thankfully, once we knew what was going on it was incredibly easy to fix and he’s never suffered from skin problems since.
Foods high in B6 include salmon, steak, whole grains, bananas, potatoes and beans.
Biotin (B7) (also known as vitamin H)
You may have seen biotin advertised on skincare ranges, shampoos and hair products, as it improves the keratin infrastructure of proteins which make up hair, skin and nails. Like some of the other B vitamins, it helps our body to process energy and transport carbon dioxide from our cells.
Biotin can also help us with weight loss as it is involved in the metabolism of both sugar and fat, and makes it less likely to be stored as excess body fat. It aids the functioning of neurotransmitters in the brain that deal with cognitive function and our emotional well-being. And it also helps reduce blood homocysteine levels – that cell waste by-product again. Symptoms of biotin deficiency include: hair loss, nausea, muscle pains, anaemia, fatigue and depression.
Foods high in biotin include: liver, carrots, Swiss chard (one of the most popular vegetables in Mediterranean countries), almonds, walnuts, strawberries, raspberries, halibut, eggs, onions, cucumber and cauliflower.
Folic acid (B9)
Those of us with children will probably be aware of the benefits of taking folic acid during pregnancy to prevent miscarriage or birth defects such as spina bifida. Research also shows it is a useful nutrient for preventing colon and cervical cancer.
Mental health studies show that up to 50 per cent of people suffering from depression are deficient in vitamin B9. Even if you are just suffering from the fat side of the mad fat epidemic, 16 per cent of ‘healthy’ adults are also deficient in this nutrient as well as 19 per cent of teenage girls. Symptoms of deficiency include heart palpitations, weakness and behavioural disorders. A study carried out by the Iran University of Medical Sciences in 2009 showed that folic acid was effective in the acute phase of mania with patients suffering from bipolar disorder. In fact I have listed a whole bunch of studies in my book Mad Diet which support the claim that vitamin B9 deficiency is not only linked to bipolar disorder and depression, but can be used as an effective treatment for mental illness.
Foods high in folic acid include: lentils, dried beans and peas, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, spinach, asparagus, citrus juice, cabbage and kale.
Vitamin B12 is often called ‘the energy vitamin’. We need it to make red blood cells, nerves, DNA, and carry out a host of other functions. Patrick J. Skerrett of Harvard Medical School said, “Vitamin B12 deficiency can be sneaky and harmful.” This is because unlike other water-soluble vitamins, B12 doesn’t exit the body quickly in urine. It is stored in the liver, kidney and other body tissues, which means a deficiency may not show up for a number of years depending on your body’s ability to absorb the nutrient and what you are eating in your diet. If you are deficient in B12 for a number of years it can cause irreversible brain damage. Certainly something to be avoided!
Like many vitamins, B12 can’t be made in the body so we need to get it from food or supplements. The average adult requires at least 2.4 micrograms (mcg or µg) per day. People eating a strict vegetarian or vegan diet need to supplement with cobalamin otherwise they can encounter symptoms ranging from shortness of breath, irritability, fatigue, high blood pressure and depression.
But it isn’t just human herbivores that are often deficient in B12, 20 per cent of people over 50 are lacking in this vital nutrient and recent studies from the US Framingham Study show that one in four adults in the US are deficient in cobalamin and almost half the American population is consuming less than they need. The Framingham Study is particularly interesting because it is a long-term study which began in 1948 to explore the cardiovascular health of residents in the small town of Framingham, Massachusetts, and is now on its 3rd generation of participants with over 5000 people already studied.
The reason that vegans and vegetarians are so susceptible to B12 deficiency is that this nutrient is not readily available in plants. It is found almost exclusively in animal tissues and good sources of B12 include liver, beef, lamb, venison, salmon, scallops, prawns, poultry and eggs.