B vitamins are a group of eight essential nutrients your body needs for good health. Members of the vitamin B family include thiamine (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacinamide (vitamin B3), pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), pyrixodine (vitamin B6), biotin (vitamin B7), folic acid (vitamin B9) and vitamin B12. This group of vitamins plays an essential role in the chemical reaction that cells use to grow, reproduce and sustain life. Deficient levels of any of these vitamins has a negative impact on health and may lead to death when extreme. B vitamins and are water-soluble which means they dissolve in water and are excreted in urine daily when not used by the body so it's important to get them every day, preferably at every meal. Certain groups of people may not get adequate amounts of some B vitamins through diet alone. Vegetarians and vegans are at high risk for vitamin B12 deficiency because vitamin B12 is found naturally only in meat and dairy foods, although some foods such as cereal and non-dairy milk are fortified with it.
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It's not uncommon for older people to become vitamin B12 deficient. That's because they're less able to absorb it. Research suggests they may need more of this vitamin than younger people. People who have low levels of stomach acid also have problems with B12 absorption. Vitamin B12 plays a critical role in forming red blood cells and nerve function. People with a deficiency can develop anemia and neurological symptoms including difficulty balancing, numbness and tingling and even paralysis or death if it goes untreated.
Vitamin B12 stands out from the other B vitamins because deficiency is more common than with other B vitamins and because it's found naturally only in foods of animal origin. The other B vitamins are widely distributed in whole grain food, vegetables, beans, nuts etc. Still, it's possible to develop a deficiency of any of the B vitamins.
It's important that you get enough vitamin B during pregnancy. Folic acid, vitamin B9, is vital for making healthy, new cells. Deficiency of folic acid during pregnancy is linked with serious birth defects in unborn babies. These are called neural tube defects and involve the brain and spinal cord. Getting enough folic acid before and during pregnancy greatly reduces the risk of neural tube defects. That's why women considering pregnancy should talk to their doctor about taking a folic acid supplement. The greatest benefits come from starting folic acid supplements before becoming pregnant and continuing throughout.
Inadequate amounts of certain B vitamins can lead to serious conditions. For example, deficiency of vitamin B3, or niacinamide, leads to pellagra, a condition characterized by mental changes, diarrhea, weight loss, skin rashes and eventually death. Such is the importance of getting enough B vitamins.
People who are deficient in vitamin B1 can develop a condition called beriberi with symptoms such as muscle weakness, fluid build-up and heart failure. Those who don't get enough biotin in their diet can experience skin problems, hair loss and weakening of their nails. Biotin deficiency is more common in smokers, alcoholics and people who eat raw egg whites. Raw egg whites contain an ingredient called avidin that binds to biotin so it can't be absorbed.
All members of the B vitamin family are vital for cellular metabolism, energy production and growth. That's why it's so important to get enough of them. Talk to your doctor about whether a B vitamin supplement is right for you, especially if you're considering become pregnant, eat a vegetarian diet or don't eat a diet that contains a wide variety of foods.
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