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Vitamins make your body work properly and fall into two categories: fat soluble and water soluble. The fat soluble vitamins – A, D, E, and K – dissolve in fat and can be stored in your body. The water soluble vitamins – C and the B-complex vitamins – need to dissolve in water before your body can absorb them. Because of this, your body cannot store these vitamins.
Vitamins occur naturally in food and are needed in very small amounts for various bodily functions such as energy production and making red blood cells. There are 13 vitamins our body needs, eight of which make up the B-group (B-complex) vitamins.
The B-group vitamins do not provide the body with fuel for energy, even though many supplement providers claim they do. They do, however, help the body to use the fuel created by carbohydrates, fat and protein, and play a necessary role in helping cells to multiply by making new DNA.
As a group, the B vitamins are necessary for the brain and nervous system to work efficiently, and are involved in maintaining the health of hair, skin, nerves, blood cells, immune system, hormone-producing glands and the digestive system. Because of the role they play in growth and development, B-group vitamins are a crucial part of all children’s diets.
B-group vitamins are readily available in a variety of foods, however as they are water soluble they tend to be delicate. B vitamins are easily destroyed, particularly by alcohol and cooking, and food processing can also reduce the ingestible amount, making white flours, breads and rice less nutritious than their whole grain counterparts.
There are eight types of vitamin B, and each type plays a significant role in the health and functioning of your body. The eight types are:
Thiamin is important for healthy muscles and nerves, as well as for breaking down carbohydrates (such as rice, pasta, bread, fruit and vegetables) so they can be used for energy in active bodies. Good sources of thiamin include wholemeal cereal grains, sesame seeds, legumes, wheatgerm, nuts, yeast and pork. In Australia, it is mandatory that white and wholemeal flour used for bread is fortified with thiamin.
Thiamin deficiency affects the cardiovascular, muscular, gastrointestinal and nervous systems. Symptoms include confusion, irritability, poor arm or leg coordination, lethargy, fatigue and muscle weakness.
Riboflavin is involved in red blood cell formation, energy production, growth, digestion, vitamin B6 activation and the creation of vitamin B3. Riboflavin is crucial for our bodies, as red blood cells have the important job of carrying oxygen to all parts of the body. Good sources of riboflavin include milk, yoghurt, cottage cheese, wholegrain breads and cereals, egg white, leafy green vegetables, meat, yeast, liver and kidney.
Symptoms of riboflavin deficiency include an inflamed tongue, cracks and redness around the mouth, anxiety, inflamed eyelids and sensitivity to light, hair loss, and skin rash, but riboflavin deficiencies are rare.
Niacin (also known as niacinamide) is needed to convert carbohydrates and fats into energy. It also helps maintain healthy skin, nervous system function and the health of little tummies. Good sources of niacin include meats, fish, poultry, milk, eggs, wholegrain breads and cereals, nuts and mushrooms. Unlike other B-group vitamins, niacin is very heat stable and little is lost in cooking.
Niacin deficiency (pellagra) is commonly associated with the three Ds – dementia, diarrhoea and dermatitis. Other symptoms include an inflamed tongue, irritability, loss of appetite, mental confusion, weakness and dizziness.
Pantothenic acid (B5)
Pantothenic acid is necessary for the body to metabolise proteins (such as meats, fish, lentils and eggs), carbohydrates and fats, as well as for the production of red blood cells and steroid hormones. Good sources of pantothenic acid include liver, meats, milk, kidneys, eggs, yeast, peanut and legumes.
Pantothenic acid deficiency is extremely rare. Symptoms include loss of appetite, fatigue or insomnia, constipation and vomiting.
Pyridoxine is essential for the healthy functioning of the nervous system, and is necessary for the production of some brain chemicals including serotonin. Vitamin B6 is commonly linked to the balance of mental processes and is thought to have a dramatic effect on mood. Good sources of pyridoxine include cereal grains and legumes, green leafy vegetables, fish and shellfish, meat and poultry, nuts, liver and fruit.
Pyridoxine deficiency affects mostly the elderly and women who consume excess alcohol. Symptoms include insomnia, depression, anaemia and muscle twitching.
Biotin plays a key role in the metabolism of some amino acids, cholesterol and certain fatty acids. It also helps to maintain healthy hair, skin and nails. Good sources of biotin include cauliflower, egg yolks, peanuts, liver, yeast and mushrooms.
As biotin requirements are very small, biotin deficiency is extremely rare. There is some risk of deficiency, however, in bodybuilders that consume large amounts of egg whites, which inhibit biotin absorption.
Folic acid (folate or B9)
Folic acid is the manufactured form of folate, which occurs naturally in our food. It is needed to form red blood cells and is extremely important in pregnancy, helping to ensure the proper development of a baby’s nervous system as well as healthy DNA production and cell growth. Good sources of folate include green leafy vegetables, legumes, seeds, liver, eggs and citrus fruits. All flour used in Australian bread making is fortified with folic acid.
Women of child-bearing age need a diet rich in folate and, if planning a pregnancy, a supplement containing at least 600 micrograms of folic acid should be taken.
Symptoms of folate deficiency include tiredness, weight loss, megaloblastic anaemia, and an increased risk of neural tube defects during pregnancy.
Cyanocobalamin is necessary for brain and nervous system function, red blood cell formation and energy production. It has a close relationship with folate, as both vitamins depend on each other to work properly. Good sources of cyanocobalamin include liver, meat, milk, cheese and eggs.
Vitamin B12 deficiency is most commonly found in the elderly, vegans, and breastfed babies of vegan mothers. Symptoms include tiredness, weight loss, heart palpitations, memory loss, vision loss and shortness of breath.
The body has a limited capacity to store most of the B-group vitamins (except B12 and folate, which are stored in the liver), and children who consume a poor diet for a few months may end up with a B-group vitamin deficiency. For this reason, it is important that adequate amounts of these vitamins be eaten regularly as part of a well-balanced, nutritious diet. Fussy eating stages should be monitored, and if you are worried about your child’s eating habits, speak to your GP or your local dietician.
B vitamins have a huge impact on good mental health, and are necessary for essential mental functions. Typical vitamin B deficiency symptoms that affect the ability to learn are widely found in today’s children, and most nutritional experts will agree that a high number of children suffer some type of vitamin B deficiency. Mental symptoms often include forgetfulness, moodiness, confusion, dizziness and difficulty paying attention. Movements may also be sluggish, and hand-eye coordination slow. Some B vitamin deficiencies also present themselves in the skin, with children suffering from rough, inflamed dermatitis.
A well-balanced, nutritionally-rich diet is all that’s required for maintaining adequate vitamin B intake in children. By choosing a wide range of food choices that contain B vitamins, there should be no need for supplements.
If you are a vegetarian and you do not have at least four daily serves of eggs, dairy foods or vitamin B12-fortified soy products, you will need to take a vitamin B12 supplement while you are breastfeeding. Not only will vitamin B12 help maintain energy levels and lower postnatal stress, it’s an essential part of your baby’s brain development.