According to the World Health Organization, mental health conditions are a leading cause of disability worldwide. While often overlooked, nutrition and vitamin intake are major contributing factors in mental illness. The B vitamins in particular are critical for optimum mental health. Let’s take a look at why B vitamins are so important.
What are B vitamins?
The B vitamins are a group of essential water-soluble vitamins. In terms of vitamin classification, “essential” means we have to get them from our diets because our bodies cannot make them on their own. There are eight B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, and B12) which have similar roles and chemical properties, although each has unique functions. Our bodies need B vitamins for various functions throughout the day. Since we can’t store extra vitamin B, it’s important to replenish our supply often by eating vitamin B-rich foods.
What role do B vitamins play in brain function and mental health?
While B vitamins perform essential roles throughout the body, they are particularly important for brain function. B vitamins are involved in energy production, DNA/RNA repair, methylation, and the synthesis of numerous brain chemicals.
Here’s why B vitamins are critical for good mental health
B vitamins are important co-factors in the production of neurotransmitters (such as serotonin and dopamine), which affect mood, energy, appetite, and more. These essential vitamins also regulate energy release in brain cells, and perform a number of other important roles to support optimum brain function.
B1 – Thiamine
The brain uses vitamin B1 to help convert glucose or blood sugar into energy. Without it, the brain may not have enough energy to function normally. B1 deficiency has also been linked to anxiety, depression, irritability, memory loss, and insomnia. Good food sources of B1 include whole grain cereals, brown rice, green vegetables, potatoes, pasta, liver, pork, and eggs.
B2 – Riboflavin
Vitamin B2 helps break down proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Like B1, it also plays a vital role in maintaining the body’s energy supply. Brain-specific symptoms of B2 deficiency include fatigue, brain dysfunction, and even personality change. The best food sources of B2 are dairy products, leafy vegetables, legumes, liver, brewer’s yeast, and mushrooms.
B3 – Niacin
B3 helps in the synthesis and repair of DNA, and also plays a role in signaling between nerve cells. In addition, it’s a potent antioxidant in brain cells. The mental health benefits of B3, or Niacin, have been extensively studied, and it is especially effective in the treatment of schizophrenia. B3 deficiency has been linked to depression, anxiety, aggression, memory loss, paranoia, and in more severe cases, psychotic symptoms. Good food sources of B3 include meat, fish, whole grain cereal, legumes, mushrooms, and nuts.
B5 – Pantothenic acid
B5, or Pantothenic acid, is a precursor in the biosynthesis of coenzyme A (CoA), an essential coenzyme in body and brain chemistry. Clinical trials have shown that Vitamin B5 deficiency can lead to fatigue, depression, apathy, irritability, and sleep issues. Foods that are good sources of B5 include meat, fish, whole grains, dairy, eggs, legumes, mushrooms, avocados, and sweet potatoes.
B6 – Pyridoxal, Pyridoxamine, and Pyridoxine
Vitamin B6 plays a critical role in keeping the brain and nervous system functioning properly. It helps the body make serotonin (which regulates mood) and norepinephrine (which helps us cope with stress). Vitamin B6 is also involved in melatonin synthesis, which regulates sleep. A deficiency in B6 can lead to irritability, fatigue, depression, cognitive decline, and autonomic dysfunction. Several studies have shown that many individuals diagnosed with autism present with low levels of vitamin B6, and experience symptom improvement with vitamin B6 supplementation. Good food sources of B6 include fortified cereals, beef, poultry, fish, starchy vegetables, and non-citrus fruits.
B7 – Biotin
B7, or Biotin, is a cofactor for several metabolic enzymes critical for brain function, and helps maintain a healthy nervous system. As a result, B7 deficiency can lead to depression, lethargy, and even psychosis. Foods rich in biotin include organ meats, egg yolks, dairy, barley, brewer’s yeast, fortified cereals, and wheat bran.
B9 – Folate
Vitamin B9, or Folate, plays an important role in brain function and mental health. First, it regulates the levels of tetrahydrobiopterin, or BH4, which is an important cofactor in the formation of dopamine and serotonin. Without adequate BH4, these critical neurotransmitters cannot be made. Folate is also involved in the breakdown of homocysteine, high levels of which can contribute to the development of both Alzheimer’s and depression. Other mental health symptoms associated with a B9 deficiency include difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, irritability, mood swings, and in extreme cases even psychosis. Good food sources of vitamin B9 include dark green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, whole grains, beans, liver, fish, and eggs.
B12 – Cobalamin
B12 supports optimum brain function by synthesizing and metabolizing serotonin. In addition, it supports the nervous system and prevents brain atrophy (the loss of neurons in the brain). As a result, a B12 deficiency can lead to memory loss or dementia, mood, and behavior changes, and more severe deficiency can contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s. Case studies have also documented B12-deficiency-induced psychosis. Animal products are the only natural food source of Vitamin B12, so vegans and vegetarians should choose fortified plant-based products or consider supplementing B12 to prevent deficiency.
Could a Vitamin B deficiency be affecting you?
If you suspect that you, or a loved one, might be experiencing symptoms of a Vitamin B deficiency, the first step is to look at the diet to ensure it includes adequate Vitamin B food sources. For some individuals, genetic, metabolic, or other factors can lead to vitamin B malabsorption or poor utilization even when dietary intake is sufficient. In those cases, taking a Vitamin B supplement may be beneficial.