Water-soluble vitamins dissolve in water, and, because your body is made mostly of water, they cannot be stored. Once ingested, they are easily lost through sweat and urine. In food they are easily lost by poor storage and excessive cooking. Therefore, you need a continuous supply of these vitamins to stay healthy.
Institutional food is a frequent source of water-soluble vitamin deficiency. Cooking in such quantities frequently results in overcooked and reheated foods, which causes considerable loss of these nutrients.
Eight of the water-soluble vitamins were once thought to be the same compound, designated by early scientists as vitamin B. Later, it was shown to be several compounds, and broken up into a group commonly known as the B complex.
Cooking vegetables in water is the best way to eliminate water-soluble vitamins. Unless you are making soup, and therefore plan to consume the cooking liquid, you should steam or quickly sauté your veggies over high heat. Canned vegetables, which are subjected to high heat in the canning process, are short on vitamins, too.
The main function of thiamin is its role in creating an enzyme (thiamin pyrophosphate) that is essential in the conversion of food to energy. It also contributes to the proper functioning of the nervous system by keeping the heart muscle elastic. Thiamin is found in whole grains, seeds, legumes, pork, and liver, and is fortified in many food products.
B2 — Riboflavin
This vitamin’s most important job is cell respiration. Oxygen and food molecules enter a cell, and there, enzymes release the food’s and oxygen’s energy. These enzymes contain riboflavin. If riboflavin is absent, the cells cannot release enough energy.
Serious athletes, who are regularly expending a lot of energy, may benefit from increased riboflavin, due to its role in protein synthesis and energy metabolism.
Riboflavin also regulates cell growth, helps in the production of red blood cells, and is important for healthy hair and skin. It helps the immune system by making antibodies and keeping mucous membranes healthy and able to fight off germs. Some studies suggest that it can be useful in reducing migraine headaches.
Riboflavin is found in dark green vegetables and whole grains. It is also found in milk products, especially cottage cheese and yogurt. This is because riboflavin is easily destroyed by light, and packages of cottage cheese and yogurt are typically opaque.
Deficiency results in dry cracked skin, especially around the mouth and nose. Eyes can also become sensitive to light. There is no known toxicity.
B3 — Niacin
Here is another enzyme-producing B vitamin that is used in the release of energy from cells. In addition, niacin helps control glucose levels in blood, and it is necessary for healthy nervous and digestive systems.
Niacin is found in high-protein foods such as fish, meat, poultry, peanuts, and in whole grains. When corn became a staple food of the poor throughout Europe, South America, and the southern United States, the niacin-deficiency disease pellagra became widespread. Symptoms include dermatitis, skin lesions, swollen tongue, mental confusion, aggression, and dementia.
Hominy, which is corn soaked in lye (lye is an alkali solution traditionally derived from ash), is the basis for corn tortillas, posole, and grits. The alkali makes the tryptophan in corn available as a nutrient, and corrects corn’s niacin deficiency.
The best source of niacin is from the amino acid tryptophan, found in much of the animal protein you eat. Half of this amino acid is converted to niacin in the body. Vegans, who do not eat animal protein, run the risk of niacin deficiency.
B5 — Pantothenic Acid
This vitamin, found in every food and made by intestinal bacteria, is important in the creation of enzymes that enable the conversion of fat and carbohydrates into energy. It is also part of hormone and red blood cell formation.
There is no recommended amount because it is so readily available in food. The best source for B5 is organ meat, but it is also plentiful in salmon, whole grains, eggs, beans, and milk. Be aware that frozen meat that has been defrosted loses half of its pantothenic acid.
Deficiency has only been witnessed in lab studies, and results in fatigue, mood swings, nausea, and cramps.
Some endurance athletes claim pantothenic acid helps them train harder. Extra B5 is taken to better release energy from fats and carbs and incur less lactic acid buildup. To date there has not been extensive research into these claims, however.
B6 — Pyridoxine
This vitamin builds over 60 enzymes, working for your immune and nervous systems and helping form red blood cells. It turns the protein you eat into proteins your body needs and helps convert carbohydrates into energy.
B6 is best found in high-quality protein foods like chicken and fish. It occurs in dairy, but not as much, so again, vegetarians are frequently deficient. Deficiency symptoms include getting sick frequently because the immune system is weakened. Also common with B6 deficiency is anemia, a low red blood cell count.
Some medications cause excretion of B6, including drugs for high blood pressure, asthma, arthritis, and birth control, as does alcohol. Toxicity is possible with large doses, more than 2,000 milligrams per day. B6 toxicity causes neurological damage. Symptoms can include tingling or numbness, and difficulty walking.
B9 — Folic Acid
This vitamin is essential for strong bodies. It aids in protein metabolism, helps new red blood cell formation, and has been shown to prevent spine and brain birth defects and lower the risk of heart disease.
Beans are a good source of folic acid, as is spinach, asparagus, and chicken or beef liver. As with all water-soluble vitamins, nutrients are easily lost in cooking. Deficiencies cause anemia, nausea, sore tongue, headache, and weakness. Because B vitamins work together, being low in one usually means you are low in them all.
Deficiency in folic acid can also be a sign of cancer. Cancer cells use up folic acid to fuel their cell division. Toxicity from folic acid is not a concern, as excess is excreted. Too much folic acid, however, can mask a rare type of anemia caused by a deficiency of B12.
Anemia is the most common blood disorder, classified as a deficiency of red blood cells or hemoglobin. It can be caused by loss of blood, destruction of red blood cells, or insufficient red blood cells. Symptoms include weakness, fatigue, lack of concentration, and in extreme cases, shortness of breath and heart failure.
B12 — Colabamin
Found only in animal foods, B12 is crucial to maintaining healthy red blood cells, immune systems, and the development of genetic material. It helps the nervous system by strengthening the fatty layer of nerve cells.
Your body absorbs only about half of the B12 you take in, so intake is double what you need. Because it is found in animal foods, vegetarians may need supplements, as may the elderly. As people age, their bodies have difficulty absorbing B12, and the difficulty increases the older you get. Additionally, potassium supplements interfere with B12 absorption.
A condition known as pernicious anemia is caused by B12 deficiency. Other deficiency symptoms include pins and needles in hands and feet, numbness, depression, memory loss, and dementia.
Biotin, Choline, and Inositol
These are vitamins that you do not need to consume because they are made in adequate amounts by bacteria in your intestines. Toxicity is unknown and deficiency is rare, but they are worth mentioning, as they work closely with the other B vitamins, converting your food into energy. Biotin in particular helps you utilize fats and proteins. Choline and inositol work together in the formation of neurotransmitters, crucial for brain function, cell membranes, and to move fats out of your liver.
This is arguably the king of all vitamins. Also known as ascorbic acid, vitamin C plays an important role for over 300 functions in the body. It is the body’s main antioxidant, it protects the immune system, helps build collagen for connective tissues, and heals wounds. Vitamin C is vital in the absorption of iron and calcium. It helps maintain blood vessels, bones, teeth, and the formation of brain hormones.
Rose hips are a potent source of vitamin C. Classically used for jellies and teas, rose hips are the fruit of the rose plant. They appear as red, orange, or purple balls, left on the bush after the flower has died. Remove the seeds and skin and dry or puree the inner pulp. Rose hip tea is available at health food stores.
Vitamin C is associated with citrus fruit, which carries a lot of it, but it is also found in leafy greens, especially watercress, kiwi fruit, peppers, potatoes, broccoli, strawberries, and tomatoes. Vitamin C requirements are increased by smoking, stress, allergies, birth control pills, antibiotics, and fever.
Deficiency results in scurvy, a disease whose symptoms include spots on legs, sore and bleeding gums, tooth loss, wounds that reopen, and eventually death. British sailors were given a daily ration of lime to prevent scurvy (that’s where the nickname “limey” originated). Because such deficiencies are easily treatable with vitamin C, fatalities are rare.