“Vitamin B could stave off Alzheimer’s – Elderly people could stave off Alzheimer’s disease by taking Vitamin B supplements because they reduce brain shrinkage associated with the disease by up to 90 per cent, a study suggests.” This was the headline in the Daily Telegraph relating to the Oxford University research released in May.
The exciting implications of the research continue to be reported around the world and in this article we take a look at some of the key aspects of the research comprising B Vitamins and homocysteine levels.
We also look at what the media and health organisations have had to say. The Daily Telegraph commentary (link to the full story below) neatly summarises:
“Consuming vitamins B6, B12 and folic acid can lower levels of homocysteine, an amino acid linked to shrinkage of the brain in conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. Previous studies had shown that patients with mild cognitive impairment, a precursor to Alzheimer’s, suffered 50 per cent less brain shrinkage overall if they took vitamin B supplements. But the new study of 156 patients, by researchers from Oxford University, found that the shrinkage was in fact reduced by 90 per cent in particular areas of the brain which are most vulnerable in Alzheimer’s patients.”
Homocysteine is an amino acid that occurs naturally in the body. Elevated levels of blood homocysteine have been linked to increased risks of many common disease conditions and many medical experts now consider homocysteine levels a more useful predictor of potential health problems than cholesterol. Elevated levels of homocysteine are commonly caused when insufficient levels of ‘methyl group’ foods are consumed.
The ‘B-Complex’ Vitamins are necessary for the normal functioning of the nervous system and may be the single most important factor in the maintenance of the nerves. The water solubility of the B-Complex vitamins means that any excess is excreted and not stored (e.g. excreted by going to the toilet or sweating); therefore they must be continually replaced.
Of the B-Vitamins specifically used in the research: vitamins B6, B12 and folic acid they have many approved nutrient claims from EFSA (The European Food Safety Authority). Moreover they have positive claims relating to cognitive/ brain functions. For example Vitamin B6 ‘Contributes to the normal function of the nervous system’ and both Vitamins B6 and Folate ‘Contribute to normal psychological functions’. Whilst Folic Acid/ Folate ‘Contributes to normal homocysteine metabolism’.
Each of the B-Vitamins is generally to be found in plentiful supply in a good diet; for example Vitamin B6 can be found in meat, whole grains, cabbages, legumes, green vegetables etc. However vegans and vegetarians are often at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency as the vitamin is mainly found in animal based foods such as meats and offal.
As noted above insufficient ‘methyl donor’ foods are likely to elevate homocysteine levels and vitamin B6, folic acid and vitamin B12 are all excellent methyl donors. So eating a good diet is, as always essential. Stress and excess alcohol consumption (for example) place a greater burden on our B-Vitamin supply, quite literally ‘burning’ up our reserves. Illness, injury and genetic dispositions can all affect the ability of our body to efficiently utilise vitamins including B-Vitamins.
Optimism & Caution
The review of the research from the media and medical profession was generally one of positiveness, excitement and cautious optimism. This study is seen as another forward step that will give impetus to further research. Commentators stressed the key importance of a good diet and exercise to help support good cognitive function.
Professor Hugh Perry, Chairman of the MRC’s Neurosciences and Mental Health Board, said (link below to full story):
“We already know that low levels of B vitamins are associated with cognitive impairment. This study adds to that knowledge and shows that high doses of these vitamins – particularly B12 – can lower homocysteine levels and reduce the rate of atrophy of those specific parts of the brain related to Alzheimer’s. The challenge now is to identify the mechanisms by which lower homocysteine influences brain atrophy and to study larger cohorts of patients in trials to confirm that progression to dementia really can be slowed down.”
Dr Eric Karran, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said (link to story below):
“While the VITACOG trial showed that B vitamins slowed brain shrinkage in people with mild cognitive impairment and high homocysteine, it is too early to know whether these effects mean someone is less likely to develop dementia in the long term. It is also not clear from other research in this area whether B vitamins would have any benefit for those who already have dementia. Until further trials have confirmed these findings, we would recommend people think about eating a healthy and balanced diet. Controlling weight and blood pressure, as well as taking exercise, are also ways that we can help to keep our brains healthy as we get older.”
The dosages of the B-Vitamins used in the Alzheimer’s research were above the UK recommended daily allowances (RDA). However many experts believe that the RDA’s for B-Vitamins in this country are too low.The same debate continues regarding RDA’s for many other vitamins and minerals, for example Vitamin D intake.
Indeed the daily dosages used in the research those would be in line with many health practitioners recommendations as suitable as a minimum intake for many in the population. The dosages used in the research were:
- Folic at .8mg (roughly 800ug and 400% of RDA)
- Vitamin B12 at .5mg (roughly 500ug which is 20,00% of RDA – yes the RDA for this vitamins remains at a stubbornly low level in our opinion)
- Vitamin B6 at 20mg (1400% of RDA)
It should be noted that with Vitamin B12 the ‘sublingual’ tablet form is becoming increasingly popular. Sublingual tablets quickly dissolve in the mouth beneath the tongue. Sublingual Vitamin B12 rapidly allows the Vitamin B12 to be absorbed into the blood vessels – and thus avoid the problems associated with digestive tract uptake. However sublingual is generally the Cyanocobalamin form of B12 whilst some prefer non-sublingual B12 tablets in the form of Methylcobalamin; this is because cyanocobalamin needs to be enzymatically converted to methylcobalamin in the body.
Finally a quick word on ‘Methylfolate’ which is emerging as a new and exciting food supplement for anyone who needs to supplement with Folate/ Folic Acid. Methylfolate (also known as 5-MTHF and L-Methylfolate) is the most stable, safe and bioeffective form of Folate. It is ideal as a supplement and the form we would recommend.
If you have any questions regarding this article, any of the health topics raised, or any other health matters please do contact me (Amanda) by phone or email at any time.