As we age, one thing all of us do not want to experience is loss of brain or cognitive functioning. Cognitive functioning includes the processes of memory, knowledge, attention, judgement, problem solving, decision making, comprehension and production of language. We may not totally be able to prevent the age-related declines in this area, however there are certain vitamins playing important roles in keeping your brain healthy – the B vitamins. There are eight B vitamins which include thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), vitamin B6 also known as pyridoxine, biotin (B7), folate (B9), and vitamin B12.
The United States is an aging nation with the fastest growing age segment people aged 65 and older. With brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease at epidemic proportions – 5.3 million Americans or one in eight people aged 65 and older have it – the need for preventative measures is more critical than ever.
How B vitamins boost brain health
Our brain is by far the most metabolically active organ in the body, representing only 2% of body weight but accounting for over 20% of the body’s total energy expenditure. The B vitamins have a special role in maintaining brain function. Each B vitamin is actively transported across the blood brain barrier with active roles in making brain chemicals called neurotransmitters helping to communicate information.
Another factor in keeping our brain healthy revolves around an amino acid called homocysteine. The B vitamins help to keep homocysteine levels in a healthy range. If the intake of B vitamins is below normal in one’s daily diet, this raises the levels of homocysteine leaving the brain not as well protected. High homocysteine levels have been linked with a greater risk of age-related cognitive decline, brain shrinkage, and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s.
Why B vitamin deficiencies are found in developed countries
It is assumed that in developed countries like the United States, vitamin deficiencies are uncommon. Yet when you look at the typical “Western” dietary pattern – high-intake of processed meat, red meat, butter, high-fat dairy products, eggs and refined grains and sugars – our intake of the B vitamins may be questionable. Compare this style of eating to the Mediterranean diet – high intake of fruits, vegetables, legumes, olive oil, whole grains, red wine and moderate amounts of fish and white meat – which is associated with increased amounts of the B vitamins.
The B vitamins are also water-soluble, meaning they dissolve in water and are not stored within the body. Any excess amount the body doesn’t need will be excreted in the urine. Therefore, B vitamins are usually safe at doses much higher than the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA’s). But because they are not stored in the body, they do require a more consistent pattern of consumption than the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) which are stored in the body. If a person is not eating a diet sufficient in the B vitamins on a daily basis, they may be marginally deficient in them.
How to increase intake of B vitamins
Out of the eight B vitamins, three of them – folate, vitamin B6 and B12 – have been the main focus of studies on their effect on keeping our mind sharp. But a 2016 review in Nutrients journal, suggests that research should be redirected at looking at all eight B vitamins as they all are essential for optimal physiological and neurological functioning.
The key with obtaining adequate amounts of the B vitamins is to include daily foods rich in these brain boosting nutrients. If you eat the typical western diet, your intake of them will most likely be subpar. Here are foods to include on a daily basis containing good to excellent amounts of the B vitamins:
· Prunes and prune juice
· Potatoes, sweet potatoes, acorn squash
· Oatmeal, wheat bran, wheat germ
· Tuna, salmon, trout, mackerel
· Chicken, beef, venison, pork
· Chickpeas/garbanzo beans, peas, all beans (pinto, navy, black, white, kidney)
· Sunflower seeds
· Spinach, broccoli, asparagus, artichokes, beets, okra
· Enriched breakfast cereals
· Cottage cheese, milk
· Orange juice
· Nuts – pistachio, macadamia, brazil, hazelnuts, pecans, peanuts
The uniqueness of vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is unique as it requires a substance called intrinsic factor needed to detach B12 from food protein in order to be absorbed. Intrinsic factor is produced in the stomach but as we age, our production of stomach acid decreases. This decreased ability to produce intrinsic factor can lead to decreased absorption of B12 which may cause a deficiency of the vitamin. It’s estimated that one in four adults are deficient in B12 and nearly half the population has suboptimal blood levels.
The other unique aspect of vitamin B12 is it is only found in animal foods or foods fortified with it. People who avoid all animal products (vegans) need to choose alternative sources such as soy products and some breakfast cereals fortified with B12 or take a B12 supplement.
Be proactive for your brain health
If you are already noticing signs of declined mental functioning, ask your doctor to check your homocysteine level with a blood test which can reveal if you’re consuming enough B vitamins. In the meantime, begin adding the foods listed rich in B vitamins to your daily diet. Supplements like multivitamins can be another source of the B vitamins but remember our bodies will absorb the vitamins better if you get them from food sources. Always get advice from your doctor or a registered dietitian on multivitamin supplementation to determine what is best for your needs.
In the meantime, it’s never too early to take action on keeping your brain mentally sharp and functioning at its optimal best as you age.