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The vitamin B complex consists of 12 related water-soluble substances. Eight are considered essential vitamins because they need to be included in the diet. Four are not essential because the body can synthesize them. Although these vitamins are chemically distinct, they are grouped together because they are found with one another in the same foods. Since they are water-soluble, most are not stored for any length of time, and must be replenished daily. The eight vitamins have both names and corresponding numbers. They are:
Biotin is not always included among B complex supplements. The numbers that appear to have been skipped were found to be duplicate substances or non-vitamins. The four unnumbered components of the B complex that can be synthesized by the body are choline, inositol, PABA, and lipoic acid.
As a group, the B vitamins have a broad range of functions, including the maintenance of myelin, which is the covering of nerve cells. A breakdown of myelin can cause a large and devastating variety of neurologic symptoms. B vitamins are also key to producing energy from nutrients that are consumed. Three members of this group—folic acid, pyridoxine, and cobalamin—work together to keep homocysteine levels low. This is quite important, since high homocysteine levels are associated with heart disease. Some B vitamins prevent certain birth defects (including cleft palate and neural tube defects), maintain healthy red blood cells, support immune function, regulate cell growth, aid in hormone production, and may have a role in preventing certain types of cancer. They also help maintain healthy skin, hair, and nails.
There are many claims regarding the usefulness of various B vitamins. Thiamine is thought to be supportive for people with Alzheimer's disease, a disorder that is also associated with low levels of pyridoxine and cobalamin.
Author Info: Rebecca J. Frey Ph.D., Samuel Uretsky Pharm.D., The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, 2005
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