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B Vitamins: Metabolism Must-Haves
B vitamins have quite the reputation for supporting energy levels. But how does this all work exactly? B vitamins act as coenzymes or helper compounds that assist in the activation of our metabolism. After we eat, our bodies have the demanding task of making good use of all these energy-supplying morsels. They do so through the use of metabolic enzymes that act as catalysts in a variety of reactions that produce energy — all with the help of B vitamins. For most people, metabolism refers to something that influences how easily our bodies gain or lose weight. Many people complain of having slow metabolisms and attempt to speed them up in order to lose weight. But metabolism is so much more than counting calories and numbers on the scale. It includes the hundreds of natural biochemical reactions in our cells that convert the food we eat into the energy we need to do everything from moving to breathing to thinking to growing.
After we eat a mouthful of food, compounds in our stomachs and intestines called digestive enzymes break down proteins into amino acids, fats into fatty acids, and carbohydrates into simple sugars. Once absorbed into your bloodstream, these substances are transported inside our cells where they are metabolized. During these reactions, energy is either released so our bodies can use it right away or it is stored away for later use, mainly in our livers, muscles, and fat cells. In a nutshell, our bodies are either breaking down food compounds to produce the energy required to live. This is known as catabolism. Or, we are building and storing — building new cells or creating a back-up”of energy stores (much like we do in our pantries when we stock up for future use!) This building process is known as anabolism. The balance of these two opposing forces — known collectively as metabolism — is extremely important to how we feel on a daily basis and how we hold our weight (too much or too little “storage” isn’t a good thing).
Busy B’s: Keeping Metabolism Balanced
Each of the busy B vitamins plays a vital role in this balancing act. A deficiency or imbalance in just one of these life-sustaining vitamins may throw a wrench into our well-balanced metabolic machines. Each B vitamin has its own specialties when it comes to metabolism. Take a look:
Thiamin (Vitamin B1): Specifically involved in the oxygen-dependent breakdown of sugar or glucose into energy. Most cells in your body depend on glucose as their main energy supply. This explains why those eating a very high carbohydrate diet, one high in sugar, refined breads, pastas, desserts and the like, may need extra amounts of thiamin. Example: Eating a big bowl of pasta to give you extra energy? Your body needs vitamin B1 to make this happen.
Riboflavin (Vitamin B2): Like thiamin, riboflavin acts as a coenzyme to many oxygen-dependent energy producing pathways for not only carbohydrates, but also fats and protein. These “flavoprotein” co-enzymes are found everywhere in your body, but are particularly concentrated in the cells in your heart and muscles. Example: Going for a jog? Your heart needs riboflavin to keep pumping while your muscles need it to keep moving.
Niacin (Vitamin B3): Over 200 enzymes require niacin as cofactors. Not only is niacin needed for the breakdown of sugars, fats and protein into usable energy, but it is also involved in the building of key fat-containing structures in your body (like cell membranes and hormones). Example: Feeling weak and low energy? Low niacin levels may be contributing to improper energy metabolism and low hormone production.
Pantothenic Acid (Vitamin B5): Critical to the breakdown of sugars, starches and fats into, you guessed it, ENERGY! Like niacin, vitamin B5 is also vital to the creation of healthy fats, including a substance called sphingosine which is involved in the delivery of very important chemical messages within our cells. Example: Under intense stress and working towards a deadline? Vitamin B5 is working hard behind the scenes to produce much needed energy and stress-relieving hormones.
Pyridoxine (Vitamin B6): Vitamin B6 is integral to the development of the building blocks of both protein (amino acids) and DNA (nucleic acids). The storage form of starch called glycogen, found in muscle and liver, is also broken down with the help of B6 when you need it. Example: Competing in an athletic event? Vitamin B6 helps your body access your back-up energy reserves so you can do your best.
Biotin: Like most of its other B cohorts, biotin turns sugar and fat into energy. But it is most well known for its ability to create fats, especially those most needed for optimal skin cell production. Example: Struggling with persistent dry skin? You may need a little biotin fatty acid boost.
B12 and Folic Acid: Although somewhat necessary for food metabolism, B12 and folic acid are definitely most involved in the building process — of DNA, nerve cells, red blood cells and more. Example: Feeling numbness or tingling in your hands or feet? Your body may be lacking the B12-faciliated fatty acid covering or sheath that keeps your nerve cells healthy.
So whether you’re breaking down food into energy or using these metabolized compounds to create the things your body needs to grow and thrive, none of this could happen without the power-packed B vitamins.