To B Or Not To B: The Relationship Between B Vitamins, Depressive Symptoms and John Wayne Bobbitt

Friday, February 06, 2015 by Meg   •   Filed under Physical Health and Emotion

Folic Acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 are critical for physical and emotional health. Those with severe deficiencies in this class of vitamins may have striking symptoms such as easy bleeding and bruising, pale skin, sore tongue or rapid hearth rhythms.  When levels are not low enough to maintain these symptoms, subclinical B vitamin deficiencies are often overlooked or misdiagnosed as mood disorders since health practitioners may be unaware of the psychological implications of low vitamin B.  

It's kind of complicated because there is more than one B vitamin that is critical for mental health, but I'm game if you are. Let's do this. (That's what she said.)


Vitamin B Deficiency May Show Up As

Low B vitamin levels may also make you less resistant to the effects of stress in the workplace. Individuals using B vitamin supplements report significantly lower personal strain, decreases in depressive symptoms and improved concentration4. Anything that makes Monday less shitty is cool in my book. 

Some research also indicates that B complex nutritional supplements can decrease depressive and anxious symptoms, leading researchers to propose that B vitamin supplementation may be an effective treatment option for those suffering from mood disorders1. But is it?

Let’s look at the evidence. 

Folic Acid, AKA Folate, AKA Vitamin B9

Folic acid goes by three different names, I assume just to piss people off, or because he thinks he’s just that damn important. Like John Wayne Bobbitt, though I assume he was compensating for…ahem…deficiencies in other areas. I hear John Wayne tried to sue Lorena, but the evidence wouldn't stand up in court. 

Stupid three-name irritation aside, lower amounts of folic acid are routinely found in those with major depression2. But here’s where it gets sticky because all of the B vitamin research tends to get jumbled up together. Now instead of one bastard with three names, we have him plus vitamin B6 and B12, both of which are critically important but obviously more humble in their one-named state. 

Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12 and Bobbitt

So here's the run down: 

Depressive symptoms have been linked to low blood plasma levels of vitamin B65, low folic acid2,6 and reduced B126.

Deficiencies in folic acid seem to decrease the effectiveness of antidepressants, whereas B12 supplementation seems to improve how well drug therapy works6. Other studies have also found that adding folic acid to antidepressant treatments seems to increase the effectiveness of those drugs2,3 particularly because those with folic acid deficiencies tend to respond less favorably to drug treatment overall3

In the geriatric population, long-term studies find that adequate B6 and B12 tend to decrease risk for depressive symptoms over time8. And folic acid, B6 and B12 are all associated with reductions in the incidence of major depression following stroke 9.

That's a lot of positives. Almost as positive as John Wayne Bobbitt's new career in baseball. They needed a new cut-off man. (Wince).

B Vitamins, Homocysteine, MTHFR Gene Mutations and Depression

Another noteworthy issue with regards to B vitamins is the fact that high homocysteine levels can lead to to depression6, an issue that may be triggered by low folic acid. This issue is common in those who consume large amounts of animal protein and few vegetables, or those with issues metabolizing those chemicals, such as individuals with the MTHFR gene mutation. Some researchers believe that while both B12 and folic acid are associated with depression, the B12 might be a direct trigger for depression wheres the folic acid may be indirectly related by messing with the body’s ability to metabolize homocysteine, leading to increased levels in the body which in turn triggers depression7

Because B vitamins seem to have such an impact on emotional well-being, some researchers note that supplementation with B vitamins should encouraged throughout the treatment cycle in depressed individuals2.  

Then, why all the drama over B vitamins? 

The Controversy Over B Vitamins

Despite all of this research, there are a number of other studies which do not show these same results, sometimes finding that the blood levels of B vitamins were normal or had no effect on depression. So what does that mean? 

One study published in the Psychological Bulletin may have an explanation. Their study found that even in cases where the data support low B vitamins as a trigger for depression, blood serum levels failed to reflect what is actually happening in the body in terms of nervous system function10. In other words, the finding that blood levels of B vitamins are normal does not mean that the vitamins are being absorbed correctly or were able to be used by the body.

This idea is supported by other findings that metabolism issues, deficient reactions in methylation, gene expressions altered by nutrient deficiencies or latent (or hidden) diseases may alter how those nutrients play out in any individual and explain why nutritional supplementation works in some cases but not in others11. You can supplement all you want, but without the ability to absorb or use the nutrient correctly, you may still end up without the benefits.  

This may make accurate diagnosis difficult. Not as difficult as sewing on a severed penis, but tricky still. 

Foods High in B Vitamins

Since acquiring B vitamins from whole food sources is not detrimental to health, eating foods high in these compounds may be of assistance for those suffering from mood-related issues, particularly those below the threshold for clinical deficiency. However, due to the issues with absorption, some--such as those with pernicious anemia--will require injections of B vitamins in order to restore vitamin B levels.

I only hope Johnny boy doesn't have pernicious anemia. I can't imagine him letting anyone get near him with a sharp object.

Foods Rich In Vitamin B6 with Percentage of Recommended Daily Value (%DV)12

  • Chickpeas, canned, 1 cup, 55%DV
  • Beef liver, pan fried, 3 ounces, 45%DV
  • Tuna, yellowfin, fresh, cooked, 3 ounces, 45%DV
  • Salmon, sockeye, cooked, 3 ounces, 30%DV
  • Chicken breast, roasted, 3 ounces, 25%DV
  • Potatoes, boiled, 1 cup, 20%DV
  • Turkey, meat only, roasted, 3 ounces, 20%DV
  • Banana, 1 medium, 20%DV ( I suggest not thinking abut the Bobbitt thing while using banana for vitamin B supplementation.) 
  • Ground beef, patty, 85% lean, broiled, 3 ounces, 15%DV
  • Bulgur, cooked, 1 cup, 10%DV
  • Cottage cheese, 1% low-fat, 1 cup, 10%DV
  • Squash, winter, baked, ½ cup, 10%DV
  • Rice, white, long-grain, enriched, cooked, 1 cup, 5%DV
  • Nuts, mixed, dry-roasted, 1 ounce, 5%DV
  • Raisins, seedless, ½ cup, 5%DV
  • Onions, chopped, ½ cup, 5%DV
  • Spinach, frozen, chopped, boiled, ½ cup, 5%DV
  • Watermelon, raw, 1 cup, 5%DV

Foods Rich In Vitamin B12 with Percentage of Recommended Daily Value (%DV)13 

  • Clams, cooked, 3 ounces, 1,402%DV
  • Liver, beef, cooked, 3 ounces, 1,178%DV
  • Trout, rainbow, wild, cooked, 3 ounces, 90%DV
  • Salmon, sockeye, cooked, 3 ounces, 80%DV
  • Trout, rainbow, farmed, cooked, 3 ounces, 58%DV
  • Tuna fish, light, canned in water, 3 ounces, 42%DV
  • Haddock, cooked, 3 ounces, 30%DV
  • Beef, top sirloin, broiled, 3 ounces, 23%DV
  • Milk, low-fat, 1 cup, 18%DV
  • Yogurt, fruit, low-fat, 8 ounces, 18%DV
  • Cheese, Swiss, 1 ounce, 15%DV
  • Ham, cured, roasted, 3 ounces, 10%DV
  • Egg, whole, hard boiled, 1 large, 10%DV
  • Chicken, breast meat, roasted, 3 ounces, 5%DV

Foods Rich In Vitamin B9/Folic Acid/Folate with Percentage of Recommended Daily Value (%DV)14 

  • Beef liver, braised, 3 ounces, 54%DV
  • Spinach, boiled, ½ cup, 33%DV
  • Black-eyed peas (cowpeas), boiled, ½ cup, 26%DV
  • Rice, white, medium-grain, cooked, ½ cup, 23%DV
  • Asparagus, boiled, 4 spears, 22%DV
  • Brussels sprouts, frozen, boiled, ½ cup, 20%DV
  • Lettuce, romaine, shredded, 1 cup, 16%DV
  • Avocado, raw, sliced, ½ cup, 15%DV
  • Spinach, raw, 1 cup, 15%DV
  • Broccoli, chopped, frozen, cooked, ½ cup, 13%DV
  • Mustard greens, chopped, frozen, boiled, ½ cup, 13%DV
  • Green peas, frozen, boiled, ½ cup, 12%DV
  • Kidney beans, canned, ½ cup, 12%DV
  • Peanuts, dry roasted, 1 ounce, 10%DV
  • Wheat germ, 2 tablespoons, 10%DV
  • Tomato juice, canned, ¾ cup, 9%DV
  • Crab, Dungeness, 3 ounces, 9%DV
  • Turnip greens, frozen, boiled, ½ cup, 8%DV
  • Orange, fresh, 1 small, 7%DV
  • Papaya, raw, cubed, ½ cup, 7%DV
  • Banana, 1 medium, 6%DV
  • Yeast, baker’s, ¼ teaspoon, 6%DV
  • Egg, whole, hard-boiled, 1 large, 6%DV
  • Cantaloupe, raw, 1 wedge, 4%DV 

Probiotics, Kefir, B Vitamins and the Vagus Nerve

Kefir, a yogurt-like drink usually made by introducing bacterial grains to milk, is also high in B vitamins, though the amount varies with how long it is cultured. You also get the added bonus of probiotics, which might be a stress reducer on its own. Research published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” found that intestinal bacteria levels following probiotics may be communicated to the brain via the vagus nerve, which then alters expression in receptors for GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a neurotransmitter that regulates anxiety and depression15. This study noted that organisms like probiotics may be useful as additional therapies for anxiety and depression. 

Vitamin B and probiotics. Two birds, and all that. 

While there are store bought brands available, making kefir at home is a much cheaper alternative. Using “kefir grains” (the small bacteria that culture the milk), is a very easy way to get those nutrients. I use kefir every morning in smoothies, or eat the grains if I end up with too many. If you would like to make kefir at home, you can get the grains here.  

You can also get B complex supplements here. This is one of the better ones if you suspect you aren't getting enough or just can't handle the most potent B vitamin foods. I have always wanted to foster a love of liver, and as of yet, I remain unable to do so. Everyone has their limit, I suppose. Meat that tastes the way a cow smells is probably mine (though if you have a great way to make it not taste like ass, please let me know).

But no matter how grossed out I am by liver, at least I don’t have to worry about the same issues as Bobbitt. It’s the little things in life. (Sometimes literally.) 

*B vitamins should not be used as a stand-alone treatment for depression. If you are suffering from depression, please seek the assistance of a clinician. 

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Topic-Relevant Resources

Gut and Psychology Syndrome: Natural Treatment for Autism, Dyspraxia, A.D.D., Dyslexia, A.D.H.D., Depression, Schizophrenia
An additional piece to the puzzle for those suffering from allergies and certain types of neurological issues. Food matters for mental health. This helps to explain some of those processes.

Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats
Great book on nutrition that includes old world recipes to get back to basics

Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease
A look at the effects of processed food on the brain.

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
An in depth look at how the food industry alters physical and emotional health through advertising and addictive substances.

Against Depression
Detailed explanations of the systems involved in depression along with personal stories of success from psychiatrist Peter Kramer.

Prescription for Nutritional Healing
Guide to natural health practices