Photo courtesy NASA
Illustrated vitamin B12 molecule.

­We've all stared at the cereal box label during breakfast and wondered what words like riboflavin, folic acid and pyridoxine mean. Has your mom ever reminded you to eat a balanced diet and "make su­re you eat your greens"? The words on your cereal box and your mother's good advice both involve vitamin B. The B vitamins are a group of eight individual vitamins, often referred to as the B-complex vitamins. In this article, we will take a look at how the B vitamins work so you can begin to understand why Kellogg's and your mother made sure you included these essential vitamins in your diet. We'll also look at some of the more serious conditions that can result from B vitamin deficiencies.

The word vitamin is derived from a combination of words -- vital amine -- and was conceived by Polish chemist Casimir Funk in 1912. Funk isolated vitamin B1, or thiamine, from rice. This was determined to be one of the vitamins that prevented beriberi, a deficiency disease marked by inflammatory or degenerative changes of the nerves, digestive system and heart.

If you read What are vitamins and how do they work?, you know that vitamins are organic (carbon containing) molecules that mainly function as catalysts for reactions within the body. A catalyst is a substance that allows a chemical reaction to occur using less energy and less time than it would take under normal conditions. If these catalysts are missing, as in a vitamin deficiency, normal body functions can break down and render a person susceptible to disease.

Try These Recipes

The body requires vitamins in tiny amounts (hundredths of a gram in many cases). We get vitamins from these three primary sources:

  • Foods
  • Beverages
  • Our bodies -- Vitamin K and some of the B vitamins are produced by bacteria within our intestines, and vitamin D is formed with the help of ultraviolet radiation, or sunshine, on the skin.

Vitamins are either fat-soluble or water-soluble. The fat-soluble vitamins can be remembered with the mnemonic (memory aid) ADEK, for the vitamins A, D, E and K. These vitamins accumulate within the fat stores of the body and within the liver. Fat-soluble vitamins, when taken in large amounts, can become toxic. Water-soluble vitamins include vitamin C and the B vitamins. Water-soluble vitamins taken in excess are excreted in the urine but are sometimes associated with toxicity. Both the B vitamins and vitamin C are also stored in the liver.

The B-complex vitamins are actually a group of eight vitamins, which include:

These vitamins are essential for:

  • The breakdown of carbohydrates into glucose (this provides energy for the body)
  • The breakdown of fats and proteins (which aids the normal functioning of the nervous system)
  • Muscle tone in the stomach and intestinal tract
  • Skin
  • Hair
  • Eyes
  • Mouth
  • Liver

Some doctors and nutritionists suggest taking the B-complex vitamins as a group for overall good health. However, most agree that the best way to get our B vitamins is naturally -- through the foods we eat!