Bring on the Beans for a B-Vitamin Boost for the Brain

The B vitamins are especially valuable to brain health. Most of us have heard of the three important B vitamins, namely B9/B12 and B6. Yet, this is only a small subset of the eight water-soluble vitamins that together comprise the larger group of B vitamins, all essential to our optimal physiological and neurological health.

What B vitamins Do For the Brain

Without getting too scientifically complex, the B vitamins help with the formation of brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine (which relate to mood) and epinephrine (a crucial part of the body’s fight or flight response). The B vitamins also play a role in the body’s metabolism (energy production). In addition, they form myelin which creates a protective insulating sheath around nerve fibers and in neurotransmitter communication. In fetal development, they help prevent birth defects, especially in the brain and spine.

B Vitamins, Heart Health and the Brain

Some B vitamins play an important role in heart health. Specifically, B3 lowers bad cholesterol and raises good cholesterol. This extends a protection to the brain against strokes. More recent studies link a lack of folic acid, vitamin B12 and vitamin B6 to declines in memory. This research is further explained in an article published by the National Institute of Health, entitled, “B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy – A Review.” It discusses the “homocysteine hypothesis,” considered to be a relevant predictor of cardiovascular disease. Why is this significant to brain health? Because, what is good for the heart is good for the brain. Let’s explain further.

The Homocysteine Hypothesis

Homocysteine is an amino acid in your blood. High levels of this amino acid link to heart disease and associate with low levels of three B9, B12 and B6. Seeing the link to cardiovascular disease, one hypothesis put forth is that high levels of homocysteine can be a causal contributor to cognitive functioning declines, including Alzheimer’s and dementia. High levels of homocysteine affect the brain by increasing oxidative stress, by inhibiting methylation reactions, by increasing damage to DNA and dysregulation of its repair, and through direct and indirect neurotoxicity leading to cell death and apoptosis. (Kennedy, 2016, p. 12) The assumption is these mechanisms produce the accumulation of beta-amyloid, hyper-phosphorylation of tau, brain tissues atrophy and comprised cerebrovascular circulation – all hallmarks of Alzheimer’s and related disorders.

As a result of the aforementioned hypothesis, recent observational studies investigated the relationship and role of B vitamins and cardiovascular health and brain function. By and large, these studies involved administering folic acid (B9) alone or in combination with the B12 and B6 vitamins; the idea being that these vitamins reduce homocysteine levels. However, the results of these studies have not been overwhelmingly positive.

One explanation put forth in the B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy – A Review states that one limiting factor of these studies is that they only consider three of the eight vitamins in the B vitamin spectrum. The suggestion being that the interconnectedness of all these vitamins – and the fact that they each have a multitude of complex cellular functions, may, when studied together, reach an entirely different conclusion. In summary, more research is needed before the homocysteine hypothesis can be entirely negated.

The Good News?

At a cellular level, the complex of B vitamins is essential to every aspect of brain function. These vitamins are generally safe to take well in excess of recommended dosages, with the possible exception of B9 (folic acid). Moreover, documentation in developed countries shows that many people suffer deficiencies in one or more of the B vitamins, which imparts negative health effects. So, while we await new research on this topic it would not hurt to be conscientious of getting the full range of Vitamin B into your system.

The B vitamins are water-soluble and are not storable in the body. You have to absorb them each day through the food that you eat. The good news is to accomplish this eat a well-rounded diet and be sure to include beans! Certainly beans are not the only source for absorbing the full range of vitamin B into your body, but they are one great option. Let’s look at how to mix more beans into your daily food intake and follow up with a brief review of all the various B vitamins, to cover: what B vitamins do for your brain and body; and, what foods offer the best source for a B vitamin boost.

Bring on the Beans

Beans are a nutritional powerhouse. They add fiber to your diet and lower your cholesterol and blood sugar. Here are some quick ways to add beans and legumes to your daily meals. Throw some chick peas or black beans into your salad. Add pinto, kidney or white beans to your home-made chili or soup. Hummus is made from chickpeas so use ample amounts as a dip for celery or carrot sticks. Finally, you can replace some of your meat options with soybean foods such as tofu. For more bean recipes and ideas, click here.

Information Source for B Vitamins

All in all, there are 8 different B vitamins. They work together as a group but each performs different roles and functions in the body. There are a variety of food sources from which to obtain the full spectrum of B vitamins.

B1 (Thiamine) metabolizes carbohydrates into food energy and supports brain and motor function. Beans and legume sources include soybeans, black, pinto, adzuki, kidney, lima, navy and roman, peas and lentils. Other food sources for B1 include green vegetables such as kale and spinach, potatoes with the skin, fortified cereals and pastas, liver, pork, salmon, tuna and eggs.

B2 (Riboflavin) is necessary for energy production; cellular function, growth and development; and in the metabolism of fats. Riboflavin also helps maintain normal levels of homocysteine (an amino acid in the blood). Food sources include eggs, organ meats such as kidney and liver, lean meats, milk and fortified cereals and grains.

B3 (Niacin) supports cellular energy production plus many aspects of brain cell function are dependent upon niacin, including oxidative reactions and antioxidant protection; improves cholesterol and lowers cardiovascular risk. Food sources include legumes, green vegetables, meat, poultry, fish and eggs.

B5 (Pantothenic Acid) breaks down fats & carbohydrates but is also involved in the structure and function of brain cells. Primarily done through its involvement in the synthesis of cholesterol, amino acids, phospholipids and fatty acids. Found in both plant and animal sources including beef, chicken, organ meats, whole grains, and some vegetables, namely broccoli.

B6 (Pyridoxine) helps with the synthesis of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin and the hormone melatonin – all big mood and alertness chemicals – and with neurotransmitter communication and nerve function. Food sources include meat, fish (tuna), legumes (especially chick peas), nuts, bananas, potatoes and non-citrus fruits.

B7 (Biotin)  plays a key role in helping the body process glucose and metabolizes proteins, fats and carbohydrates. The brain is particularly sensitive to the delivery of metabolism and glucose. Biotin also supports healthy hair, skin and nails. Foods sourced with Biotin come from eggs, liver, pork, leafy vegetables, peanuts, salmon and sardines.

B9 (Folic Acid or Folate) is important to red blood cell formation and healthy cell growth and function. It helps in fetal development to prevent deformities of the brain and spine; it may reduce age-related hearing loss and is thought to enhance brain health though more research is needed. Folate is found primarily in dark green leafy vegetables, beans, peas and nuts.

B12 (Cobalamin) is necessary for proper red blood cell formation and function, for the production of DNA and it keeps nerve cells healthy. Vitamin B 12 is naturally found in animal products which includes fish (salmon, trout, tuna), meat, poultry, eggs, milk and milk products. It is not typically found in plant foods but, for vegetarians, can be sourced through fortified breakfast cereals.

Kennedy, D. (2016). B vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy—A Review. Nutrients8(2), 68. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4772032/