The Alzheimer’s Prevention Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2012),features nearly 100 recipes for reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of cognitive decline. Discover the health benefits that B-complex vitamins provide in this excerpt taken from Chapter 3, “Vitamin B and the Brain.”
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For years now, we’ve known that B-complex vitamins have myriad health benefits, including a lowered risk of heart disease, diabetes, and anemia. B vitamins—a whole family of closely related vitamins that consists of vitamin B1 (thiamin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B9 (folic acid), and B12 (cyanocobolamin)—can also boost the digestive and immune systems, preserve the skin, and maybe even fight cancer.
More recently, scientists have begun to investigate the relationship between cognitive health and B vitamins. Recent epidemiologic data has shown that dietary sources of B vitamins, especially pyridoxine, folic acid, and B12, can protect us against Alzheimer’s and other forms of cognitive decline and dementia, with several studies demonstrating a link between cognitive decline in the elderly and low levels of these B-complex vitamins.
As in so many areas of Alzheimer’s research, we still have a lot to learn. While we’ve seen tangible evidence of their benefits time and again, we know very little about why B vitamins seem to do such a good job of protecting the brain. All we know is that a B12 deficiency can be a direct cause of dementia, and there’s a consistent association between deficiencies in B-complex vitamins, or low levels of vitamin B in the blood, and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s.
More generally, B-complex vitamins are essential for the nervous system to function. In contrast to many vitamins, B vitamins in supplement form have been shown to boost certain aspects of cognitive function. B vitamins are water soluble, meaning the body tends to eliminate them through urine. Because they’re not stored in large amounts in the body, they’re unlikely to reach toxic levels. And best of all, B vitamins are present in just about every natural food you can name. Most of us already get adequate levels of B vitamins in our diets, though less than we used to now that so many grains are processed and stripped of their natural nutrients. Some people, however, have trouble actually absorbing these vital nutrients in both dietary and supplement form, especially as they age. The only solution is to eat even more B-complex vitamins, thereby increasing the chances that adequate levels are absorbed by the stomach and small intestine. The older you get, the more B-complex vitamins you need to be eating.
Thiamin is directly involved in the brain’s metabolic functions, and can help with reaction time and mental energy. A sudden drop in thiamin levels, most often caused by heavy alcohol consumption, can lead to confusion, vision problems, and difficulties with balance and walking. Acute thiamin deficiency as a result of frequent alcohol intoxication is called Wernicke’s encephalopathy, a condition that’s characterized by delirium, trouble walking, and impaired eye movements. When a thiamin deficiency becomes chronic, a type of dementia, called Korsakoff dementia, emerges. This type of dementia is characterized by an inability to plan and complete tasks, and short-term memory loss with confabulation (making things up to fill in memory gaps). Good food sources of thiamin include pork, oatmeal and other whole (as opposed to refined) grains, asparagus, romaine lettuce, mushrooms, spinach, black beans, green beans, pinto beans, lima beans, lentils, sunflower seeds, tuna, green peas, tomatoes, eggplant, and brussels sprouts.
Niacin is important for glucose metabolism, and has been shown to increase blood flow and lower cholesterol. And while we’ve long known that severe niacin deficiency can cause dementia, researchers have recently begun to investigate whether dietary levels of niacin might also have some effect on age-related neurodegeneration or the development of Alzheimer’s. Increasing your dietary intake of niacin may protect you against Alzheimer’s and age-related cognitive decline. It’s fairly easy to get niacin in your diet: it’s present in liver, chicken, beef, fish (tuna, salmon, halibut), mushrooms (particularly shiitake and crimini), cereal, seeds, peanuts, legumes, lamb, venison, avocados, and vegetables ranging from asparagus to leafy greens. Niacin is also synthesized from the neurotransmitter precursor tryptophan, which is found in meat, dairy, and eggs. However, the benefits of eating these foods—especially beef and full-fat dairy—might be offset by the harm they might cause in terms of increasing body weight, which, as we’ll see, is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s.
B5 (Pantothenic Acid)
Pantothenic Acid, is essential for the production of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. In the brain, vitamin B5 plays a role in the production of acetylcholine, a crucial neurotransmitter involved in learning and memory, and the one that is lost in Alzheimer’s disease. You can get pantothenic acid in egg yolks, broccoli, liver, and brewer’s yeast. Fish, shellfish, chicken, milk, yogurt, legumes, mushrooms, avocados, and sweet potatoes are also good sources. Whole grains also contain pantothenic acid, but the processing and refining of grains may result in a 35 to 75 percent loss of the nutrient. Freezing and canning foods can have a similar effect.
Pyridoxine assists in the balancing of chemicals such as sodium and potassium. In the brain, pyridoxine is necessary to produce important neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline, and adrenaline. Dietary sources of B6 include rice and wheat bran, dried herbs and spices, raw garlic, sunflower and sesame seeds, pistachios, hazelnuts, certain fish, bananas, salmon, turkey, chicken, potatoes, spinach, and vegetable juice.
B9 (Folic Acid)
Folic Acid is one of the few vitamins whose specific isolated total intake has been significantly associated with a lowered risk of Alzheimer’s. Low folate levels are associated with poor cognitive function and dementia in the elderly, whereas the literature suggests that supplement-delivered folic acid may help protect against Alzheimer’s.
Folic acid deficiencies are rare in the United States today, a fact that is attributed to its nationwide supplementation in grain products. It’s also easy to get folic acid as a single vitamin, in multivitamins, or in B-complex vitamins, and these supplements can be just as effective as dietary sources—a rare exception to the rule. But again, because you can’t overdose on B vitamins, and because you need folates more than ever as you get older, you should make an effort to incorporate these brain-preserving nutrients into your diet as well. Good dietary sources of folates include asparagus, broccoli, lettuce, and cauliflower; leafy greens like spinach and kale; and legumes like lentils, peas, and beans. Corn, eggs, baked potatoes, and fruits like bananas, strawberries, and oranges also contain folate.
Cyanocobolamin could be the single most important vitamin for neuronal health. It helps build the coating, or myelin sheaths, around nerve cells. Vitamin B12 deficiencies have been closely linked with spinal cord and nerve damage, memory loss, and dementia. Treatment with high-dose B vitamins has been shown to protect against heart attacks, strokes, and death. A population-based study published in Stroke in 2005 showed that people who took the highest dose of B12 were significantly less likely to suffer a stroke or heart attack. This study relied on B12 in supplement form because supplements, in this case, were easier to quantify, and foods high in B12 also happen to be high in saturated fats. That’s because most dietary sources of B12 derive from animals: you can get it in liver (pâté and sausage included), shellfish (clams, oysters, and mussels have the highest content; crab and lobster are also a good source); fatty fish (and that includes caviar!); beef, lamb, and eggs. Most of these foods are good in moderation but not in excess, so be sure you’re getting B12 in supplement form as well.
As the foods listed above indicate, B vitamins are everywhere, and it’s not too difficult to fit more of them into your diet. You can get general B-complex vitamins in whole grains, potatoes, bananas, lentils, chile peppers, beans, nutritional yeast, brewer’s yeast, and molasses.
As always, the key is to eat these foods regularly, since a composite diet, meaning everything you eat over the course of a day from a variety of sources, provides the best defensive culinary action against Alzheimer’s and other inflammatory diseases. Research also strongly suggests that it is a daily, long-term, dietary intake of high doses that have the greatest effect on our brains and bodies.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Alzheimer’s Prevention Cookbook, published by Ten Speed Press, 2012. Buy this book from our store: The Alzheimer’s Prevention Cookbook.