To Your Health
September, 2009 (Vol. 03, Issue 09)
By Dr. James Meschino
Can certain vitamins help your brain, particularly when it comes to
maintaining cognitive function and warding off Alzheimer's and other
brain-related disorders as we age? Look no further than the B vitamins,
three of which may do just that, according to a growing body of research.
The B vitamins are eight water-soluble vitamins that were once considered
a single vitamin, but are actually chemically distinct nutrients that tend
to be present in similar foods, including meat, eggs, dairy products,
green vegetables and whole grains. As a group, they are responsible for
several important functions, including supporting metabolism, enhancing
immune and nervous system function, maintaining healthy skin and muscle
tone, and promoting cell growth and division.
Three of the B vitamins have also been linked to brain health. The results
of several research studies suggest that consuming adequate amounts of
vitamin B6, vitamin B9 and vitamin B12 throughout one's lifetime may play
a key role in reducing the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and
other types of dementia as we age. This evidence was strengthened by a
study that found patients with Alzheimer's disease had higher blood levels
of homocysteine (an amino acid in the blood) than members of the
age-matched control group who were not afflicted with Alzheimer's disease.
Individuals with higher blood levels of homocysteine were several times
more likely to have Alzheimer's disease than those with lower blood
homocysteine levels. And what is the strongest determinant of blood
homocysteine levels, unless there is an overriding genetic defect of some
major consequence? The nutritional status of folic acid, vitamin B6 and
These same B vitamins are also involved in the synthesis of important
neurotransmitters that are required for cognitive function and other brain
functions. Currently, the average intake of folic acid is only about half
of the 400 micrograms experts indicate should be the daily recommended
intake level for otherwise healthy individuals. Additionally, a
significant number of individuals over the age of 60 don't absorb vitamin
B12 efficiently from food sources due to changes in their digestive tract.
Many authorities encourage consumers to ingest more dark-green vegetables,
beans and fortified grains to acquire folic acid and fortified cereals to
help acquire additional vitamin B12. Taking a daily multiple vitamin and
mineral is another way to ensure you achieve a more optimal intake of
these B vitamins. This may be a simple but important measure to prevent
changes in brain function related to the development of Alzheimer's
disease and dementia.
Preventing Age-Related Mental Decline
The notion that deterioration in mental capacities is a natural part of
the aging process has been challenged by the findings of a number of
research studies that indicate vitamin and mineral status may be
significant factors in modifying a person's risk of developing Alzheimer's
disease and other types of cognitive impairment and dementia. One study
found that older individuals with low blood concentrations of vitamins B6,
B9 and B12 had the poorest scores of brain function, as measured by a
battery of cognitive tests, of all study participants.
Other studies have implicated clinical deficiencies of B vitamins in
brain-related disorders, including reversible dementia (vitamin B12 and
possibly folate), depression (folate) and electrophysiological
dysfunction, including convulsions (vitamin B6). In healthy older adults,
blood levels of B vitamins usually considered to be in the normal range
were associated with poorer scores on tests of delayed recall, abstract
reasoning and selective attention.
There is also good evidence that deficiencies of these three B vitamins
increase with age and are common in older adults. Thus, there is growing
support for the premise that optimal B vitamin status can prevent, slow or
reverse the deterioration in memory and other mental capacities important
to quality-of-life issues in older individuals.
The Normative Aging Study, involving 70 male subjects, ages 54 to 81,
revealed that blood levels of vitamin B9 and B12 appear to be related to
cognitive performance in a different away than vitamin B6. Low blood
levels of these two vitamins were associated with deficits in spatial
copying. Higher blood levels of vitamin B6 were associated with better
performance on two tests of memory. Another interesting finding was that
nearly one-half of the subjects in the study had low blood levels of
This study is extremely important because B vitamins are known to
participate in brain chemistry and physiology. Vitamins B12 and folic acid
are required as co-enzymes in the synthesis of the neurotransmitters,
serotonin catecholamines (adrenaline, norepinephrine). They are also
required for the production of S-adenosylmethionine, which has
antidepressant properties. Vitamin B12 deficiency may also result in
de-insulation of nerve fibers (demyelination), which produces a number of
neurological symptoms. Vitamin B6 is a co-factor in the production of
other brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) including dopamine,
norepinephrine, serotonin, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and taurine.
Higher blood levels of homocysteine also often result from subnormal
intakes of folic acid, vitamin B12 and vitamin B6. This is because these
vitamins are required to recycle homocysteine to other amino acids such as
methionine and cystathionine. High blood levels of homocysteine are
associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular, cerebrovascular
(narrowed arteries in the brain), and peripheral vascular disease
(narrowed blood vessels in the arms, hands, legs and feet. Narrowed
arteries in the brain (cerebrovascular disease) have been shown to be
associated with decrements in psychomotor speed and on tests measuring
fluid and visual abilities. Such cognitive dysfunction, therefore, may
stem from high levels of homocysteine. As previously stated, vitamins B6,
B12 and especially folic acid are key nutrients that prevent and reverse
high blood levels of homocysteine.
In the Normative Aging Study, subjects with high levels of homocysteine
performed, on average, like patients with mild Alzheimer's disease. They
also exhibited difficulty in copying the most complex spatial figures. For
example, few subjects in the highest 25 percent range of homocysteine
concentrations completed the cube (22 percent) and tapered box (17
percent) correctly. By comparison, these figures are mastered by 50
percent of schoolchildren by the age of 13. Subjects with the lowest blood
homocysteine levels demonstrated the best results on these tests.
Taken together, the body of evidence continues to support the contention
that B vitamin nutritional status is crucial to the development and
preservation of mental capacities throughout our lifetime. The sad reality
is that many midlife and older members of society have poor dietary intake
and nutritional status of various B vitamins. Pay attention to foods that
are rich sources of these important B vitamins and talk to your doctor
about the multitude of benefits available from daily use of a
well-formulated multiple vitamin and mineral supplement.
B Vitamins: The Big Eight
Vitamin B1 (thiamine): Involved in nervous system and muscle function,
various enzyme processes and production of hydrochloric acid, which
assists in digestion. Very little is stored by the body, so depletion can
occur in as little as two weeks.
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin): Necessary for normal cell function, growth and
energy production. Deficiency is rare because small amounts are present in
most animal and plant tissues, so there are abundant dietary sources.
Vitamin B3 (niacin): Includes niacin and niacinamide. Often found in
combination with other B vitamins. A well-accepted natural treatment for
Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid): A component of coenzyme A, a molecule
necessary for numerous cellular chemical reactions; key in carbohydrate,
protein and fat metabolism, and hormone and cholesterol synthesis.
Deficiency only occurs in cases of severe malnutrition.
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine): Required for the synthesis of serotonin and
norepinephrine (brain neurotransmitters) and for the formation of myelin,
which forms an insulating layer around neurons. Mild deficiency is common,
with severe deficiency affecting the peripheral nerves, skin, mucous
membranes, and blood cell system.
Vitamin B7 (biotin): Also known as vitamin H, recent studies suggest
biotin is necessary for DNA replication and gene expression. Deficiency is
extremely rare because the body can recycle previously used biotin and
daily intake requirements are small.
Vitamin B9 (folate): Consumption during pregnancy prevents deficiency and
anemia in pregnant women; low levels during pregnancy may contribute to
birth defects such as cleft lip and palate.
Vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin): Vitamin B12 helps maintain healthy nerve
cells and red blood cells, and is needed to make DNA. The human body can
store several years worth of this vitamin, so deficiency is extremely
James Meschino, DC, MS, practices in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and is the
author of four nutrition books, including The Meschino Optimal Living
Program and Break the Weight Loss Barrier.