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Vitamin B Complex
Other common name(s): B vitamins; vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, and B12
B vitamins are essential for growth, development, and a variety of other bodily functions. They play a major role in the activities of enzymes, proteins that regulate chemical reactions in the body, which are important in turning food into energy and other needed substances. B vitamins are found in plant and animal food sources.
B vitamins are an important part of the diet and are needed to help avoid many health problems. But, with the exception of vitamin B9 (folic acid), there is not enough scientific evidence to know whether B vitamins can reduce the risk of cancer.
People with low intake of folic acid are at increased risk for certain types of cancer. A diet rich in vegetables containing this vitamin, and perhaps a daily multivitamin supplement containing the recommended daily value of folic acid is recommended by some experts in cancer prevention. (See our separate document, Folic Acid, for more information.)
Available scientific evidence does not support claims that any B vitamin is an effective treatment for people who already have cancer.
How is it promoted for use?
Scientists know that B vitamins are part of many important bodily functions:
- Vitamin B1 (thiamin) and vitamin B2 (riboflavin) help the body produce energy and affect enzymes that influence the muscles, nerves, and heart.
- Vitamin B3 (niacin) has a role in energy production in cells and helps keep the skin, nervous system, and digestive system healthy.
- Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) influences normal growth and development.
- Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) helps the body break down protein and helps maintain the health of red blood cells, the nervous system, and parts of the immune system.
- Vitamin B7 (biotin) helps break down protein and carbohydrates and helps the body make hormones.
- Vitamin B9 (folic acid) helps the cells in the body make and maintain DNA and is important in the production of red blood cells.
- Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) plays a role in the body's growth and development. It also has a part in producing blood cells, nervous system function, and how the body uses folic acid and carbohydrates.
- Deficiency of certain B vitamins can cause anemia, tiredness, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, depression, numbness and tingling in the arms and legs, muscle cramps, respiratory infections, hair loss, eczema, poor growth in children, and birth defects.
Some alternative medical practitioners claim that deficiencies in B vitamins weaken the immune system and make the body vulnerable to cancer. They recommend high doses of B vitamins as treatments for people with cancer. Many researchers are studying the relationships between vitamin intake and risk of developing certain cancers.
What does it involve?
Nutritionists maintain that a balanced diet that includes 5 daily servings of fruits and vegetables, as well as grains, gives most people with all the B vitamins they need. Only small amounts of these vitamins are needed to reach the recommended dietary intakes. But many people do not eat enough fruits, vegetables, or other healthy foods to get the recommended amounts. The National Academies of Science (NAS) recommends that adults over the age of 50 take B vitamin supplements, or eat foods enriched with these vitamins, in order to prevent deficiency, which is common in this age group.
Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding need more folic acid than others. The Public Health Service recommends that women of childbearing age who can become pregnant should consume at least 400 micrograms of folic acid daily through dietary supplements and fortified foods, in addition to a diet containing folate-rich foods, to help prevent certain birth defects in their children.
Food sources of B vitamins:
- B1 and B2 are found in cereals and whole grains. B1 is also found in potatoes, pork, seafood, liver, and kidney beans. B2 is found in enriched bread, dairy products, liver, and green leafy vegetables.
- B3 is found in liver, fish, chicken, lean red meat, nuts, whole grains, and dried beans.
- B5 is found in almost all foods.
- B6 is found in fish, liver, pork, chicken, potatoes, wheat germ, bananas, and dried beans.
- B7 is made by intestinal bacteria and is also in peanuts, liver, egg yolks, bananas, mushrooms, watermelon, and grapefruit.
- B9 is in green leafy vegetables, liver, citrus fruits, mushrooms, nuts, peas, dried beans, and wheat bread.
- B12 is found in eggs, meat, poultry, shellfish, milk, and milk products.
Supplements that contain several B vitamins, usually in combination with other nutrients, are sold in grocery stores, health food stores, and over the Internet in pill form. Dosages vary by manufacturer.
What is the history behind it?
While the diseases caused by vitamin deficiencies have been known for centuries, just about all of the B vitamins were discovered in the early 1900s. Since then, B vitamins have been studied to determine how they affect the human body.
As their importance and functions were clarified, the US government began recommending daily intake levels to promote and maintain good health. The current recommended levels are known as dietary reference intakes (DRIs).
Research on the possible role of some B vitamins in preventing cancer began in the last few decades.
What is the evidence?
The limited data on B vitamins and cancer come mainly from animal studies and observational epidemiologic studies. These types of studies are not as strong as randomized controlled clinical trials and must be interpreted with caution.
There is some evidence from observational epidemiologic studies that increased intake of vitamin B9 (folic acid) is linked to a lower risk of colon cancer, especially in people who are vitamin deficient, such as those who drink excessive amounts of alcohol. Evidence of effects on breast cancer and other types of cancer has been mixed.
Most observational epidemiologic studies have also shown a link between intake of vitamin B6 (as well as blood levels of this vitamin) and lower risks of colorectal cancer. Possible links between other B vitamins and cancer risk have not been studied as extensively or have been studied with mixed results.
Only a few randomized clinical trials of B vitamin supplements have been done. Most of these studies reported that supplements did not reduce cancer risk. In one recent study, people given folate and vitamin B6 supplements were more likely to develop and die of cancer than people taking a placebo pill. It is still unclear whether taking in more B vitamins will help protect against cancer or increase cancer risk. Some scientists have proposed that inherited differences in to the way a persons body uses B vitamins influence whether these supplements will harm or help a person, and that some day it will be possible to provide a personalized recommendation that might lower cancer risk.
Even if some B vitamins prove to be helpful in preventing certain cancers, it does not mean that B vitamins would be useful in treating cancers. In fact, some experts have cautioned that certain B vitamins, such as thiamine and folic acid, might actually make it easier for established tumors to grow. This is not well proven, but caution is advised when considering taking large doses of these vitamins.
At this time, it is hard to say how each nutrient or nutrient combination affects a persons risk of cancer. On the other hand, studies of large groups of people have shown that those whose diets are high in vegetables and low in animal fat, meat, and or calories have lower risks for some of the most common types of cancer. Until more is known about this, the American Cancer Society recommends eating a variety of healthy foods -- with most of them coming from plant sources -- rather than relying on supplements.
While it is best to get vitamins and minerals from foods, supplements may be helpful for some people. If a supplement is taken, the best choice for most people is a balanced multivitamin mineral supplement that contains no more than 100% of the (Daily Value) of most nutrients. Pregnant women, women of childbearing age, and people with restricted food intakes should speak with their doctors about supplements containing higher levels of certain vitamins.
Are there any possible problems or complications?
This product is sold as a dietary supplement in the United States. Unlike drugs (which must be tested before being sold), the companies that make supplements are not required to prove to the Food and Drug Administration that their supplements are safe or effective, as long as they dont claim the supplements can prevent, treat, or cure any specific disease.
Some such products may not contain the amount of the herb or substance that is on the label, and some may include other substances (contaminants). Actual amounts per dose may vary between brands or even between different batches of the same brand. In 2007, the FDA wrote new rules to improve the quality of manufacturing for dietary supplements and the proper listing of supplement ingredients. But these rules do not address the safety of the ingredients or their effects on health.
Most such supplements have not been tested to find out if they interact with medicines, foods, or other herbs and supplements. Even though some reports of interactions and harmful effects may be published, full studies of interactions and effects are not often available. Because of these limitations, any information on ill effects and interactions below should be considered incomplete.
B vitamins are water-soluble, meaning that any excess intake is largely excreted in the urine. Supplements containing B vitamins are generally thought to be safe but still should not be taken in very large doses. Possible side effects include gout, high blood sugar levels, and skin problems. Overdoses can lead to heart and liver problems. Rarely, large doses of vitamin B3 (niacin) supplements can cause blurred vision, nausea, vomiting, and can make stomach ulcers worse. High doses of folic acid supplements may interfere with at least one chemotherapy drug, methotrexate, and other medicines like it. Always tell your doctor and pharmacist about any supplements and herbs you are taking.
Relying on the use of B vitamins alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.
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