House CallAug/Sep 2009 Issue

Vitamin B is for Brain Fog

Boost mental clarity with vitamin B.

If you’re on a special diet due to food allergy or an autoimmune condition like celiac disease or Type 1 diabetes, you’re vulnerable to the impact of dietary restrictions on mood and cognition. Many of my patients complain about “brain fog,” a frustrating combination of lack of focus, forgetfulness and difficulty retaining new information. Sound familiar?

Symptoms of brain fog differ from those of early dementia. It’s normal to forget where you put your keys; it’s a red flag if you can’t remember what your keys do. For many people with brain fog, B vitamins can make a world of difference in mental and emotional wellbeing.

There are eight B vitamins, all essential in trace amounts. They are all water soluble and must be taken daily. Common symptoms of B deficiency include depression, anxiety, fatigue, memory loss and nerve symptoms like numbness and tingling. Severe deficiency can lead to rashes, swollen tongue, anemia, constipation, migraines, dementia, seizures, brain swelling and can even be fatal. Blood tests don’t accurately detect mild B deficiency that might be causing low-grade symptoms like brain fog.  

Your best defense against B deficiency is to consume lots of foods high in B vitamins, such as whole grains (millet, quinoa, brown rice, etc.), eggs, fish, nuts and legumes. Include dark-green leafy vegetables in your daily diet for B9 folic acid. Animal foods like meat and liver are best sources of B12 (vegetarians: take care to get enough of this vital nutrient). The two richest foods with a broad spectrum of B are nutritional yeast and rice bran. (Read “The Top 10 Superfoods of 2009” at LivingWithout.com; click on Past Articles.)

If you have malabsorption issues or are on a limited diet, you’re at particular risk for developing deficiencies that may be difficult to reverse through diet alone. In addition, alcohol and certain medications like antidepressants and heartburn medicines can increase your need for B vitamins.

Taking a B-complex oral supplement is generally safe. (Take it with food to avoid potential nausea.) The exception is too-high doses of B6, which can lead to neuropathy, i.e., numbness and tingling in the extremities, and B3 niacin, which can cause an uncomfortable “flushing” sensation and liver damage. In both cases, over-dosage is rare.

B2 riboflavin is responsible for the bright yellow urine that’s commonly experienced after taking B complex. Critics often use this as a case against supplements, arguing that the vitamin is excreted out and you’re wasting your money. But the same is true for water. Does that mean you should stop drinking water? The fact that this vitamin is eliminated through the urine doesn’t mean it doesn’t benefit the body on its way through.

If you have ongoing malabsorption problems, a history of pernicious anemia or have had part of your small intestine removed, talk to your doctor about vitamin B injections. After administering thousands of vitamin B shots (and getting them myself for the last ten years), I can personally attest that many symptoms improve dramatically with injections.

People often experience the benefits of diminished brain fog and better mood within the first week of adding vitamin B complex to their daily diet. It can take up to three months to completely reverse a deficiency—so stick with it. 

Christine Doherty, ND, is a licensed naturopathic doctor who specializes in food allergies and celiac disease. Consult your health care practitioner before taking supplements and if brain fog or other symptoms persist.

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