I remember given “iron supplement pills” back in high school days. It was an effort of the National Health Promotion Department to mitigate the effect of anemia in women, particularly teenagers with the crazy diets. I remember throwing away the pills because I didn’t need it. I mean I was suffering secondary amenorrhea (missed menstruation cycles for at least 3 CONSECUTIVES cycles or 3 months). Well, now I look back at it, I know my issue was not just iron deficiency-it was pretty much “everything deficiency” issue because I ate about 2-3 kg of vegetables and fruit a day-usually just one type of vegetable OR one type of fruit for a few months before I grew tired of it. That, my friend, the lack of variety of foods, caloric intake, and nutrients, quickly led to amenorrhea. (One day I’ll list exactly what I used to eat for 7 years and how long it took to destroy one’s health). To the less severity, unhealthy eating habit causes irregular period (well this issue is very common for different reasons, but food and drugs affecting certain hormones will be the first to blame). Regardless, it was stupid to throw away those precious iron supplement pills. My other female classmates threw them away too, for a different reason. There was a notion that taking iron supplement would do one of the two things (or both?!): making the girl gain weight and/or darkening the skin color. Well, that’s pure urban legend. It was clear to me that we needed nutrition education as much as sex education. Why? I’m not talking about it now, but taken for granted that nutritional status of the woman determines her offspring’s future heatlh-including the epidemic (or pandemic?) obesity.
So…vitamin B6 and period. No not really, I mean to talk about vitamin B6, also known as pyridoxine, one of the nine water soluble vitamins, and its important role in red blood cell formation, which may cause anemia. Yep, anemia can be caused by other reasons rather than iron deficiency. So…while I do appreciate the effort of the National Health Promotion Department, I have to say an assessment and treatment of anemia requires more than a couple of iron supplement pills. You cannot just assume somebody must have iron deficiency because that person looks pale, feels sluggish, and low red blood cell count. So, let’s talk a little more about vitamin B6 and how it may cause anemia unrelated to iron deficiency.
1/ Functions of vitamin B6:
First, if you want to determine whether you have anemia for whatever the cause may be, you need to know your red blood cell counts. If it’s below certain range, you have anemia. So they look at the number of red blood cells to see if you have anemia, right? And, red blood cells contain hemoglobin. Hemoglobin A1C is another thing used to measure blood glucose – one of many things your doctor looks at when he/she orders a blood test for annual check up. So, hemoglobin helps maintain the shape of a red blood cell. When the shape changes, you may face serious health issues (sickle cell anemia). Hemoglobin also carries oxygen to everywhere in the body. Thus, low hemoglobin is equal to lethargy. Each hemoglobin contains a component called heme (thus we have heme and non-heme iron from foods). This particular component “heme” plays a big role in the synthesis of red blood cells.
What does it have anything to do with vitamin B6, then? The formation of heme requires vitamin B6. That’s the relationship. So…if you don’t have enough vitamin B6 in the long run, you may get anemia.
That’s the first function of vitamin B6. Now, the second role of this vitamin B6 is to provide energy from glycogen. When the body needs energy, first it will try to get it from glycogen because glycogen is the easier and most readily available for use. In order to break down glycogen to release the energy, the body needs a special enzyme for this job. That enzyme is activated only when vitamin B6 is available. So, no vitamin B6 means no enzyme released and no glycogen for energy, which is another reason to feel sluggish when a person does not absorb enough vitamin B6.
Role number 3: vitamin B6 affects the synthesis of 3 important neurotransmitters which are serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. These there neurotransmitters can affect psychological state of a person: serotonin and dopamine have been known to cause depression if deficiency is prolonged.
The last role may interest those who care about detox diets. The liver is the most overloaded, overworked, and overtaxed organ in the body. It is the process house, more or less. So the detox process relies on the liver to do the job. While the detox process needs a bunch of different nutrients, vitamin B6 is needed-maybe because glycogen is stored in the liver (besides another storage location: the muscles).
2/ Recommended daily intake:
- 0-6 months: 0.1 mg/day
- 7-12 months: 0.3 mg/day
- 1-3 years: 0.5 mg/day
- 4-8 years: 0.6 mg/day
- 9-13 years: 1 mg/day
- Male from 14-50 years: 1.3 mg/day
- Male above 50 years old: 1.7 m/day
- Female from 14-18 years: 1.2 mg/day
- Female from 19 to 50 years: 1.3 mg/day
- Female above 50 years old: 1.5 mg/day
- Pregnant women: 1.9 mg/day
- Lactating women: 2 mg/day
3/ Risks of Toxicity : DO NOT consume more than 100 mg/day accumulated from any source
The risk of toxicity is possible with overdose of vitamin B6, especially with the use of supplement. Therefore, the upper level is set at 100 mg/day. If you look at it, it’s really difficult to overdose yourself with foods: 100 mg is 50 times more than the recommended amount for a lactating woman.
4/ Risks of Deficiency: Who’s at risk?
Vitamin B6 deficiency is more common in developing countries where people rely heavily processed starchy foods as their base and lack of adequate animal foods. The risk is usually higher among the elder and the pregnant and lactating women who need the greatest amount of vitamin B6 of all population groups.
It’s noteworthy to mention that women on oral contraceptive pills may be at greater risk of vitamin B6 deficiency. Studies have shown that 40% of women on OCP suffered vitamin B6 deficiency. The consequence may be due to the particular medication she uses, and /or the diet she’s on. However, as long as a woman eats enough vitamin B6 to offset the effect of the OCP, she does not necessarily belong to that vitamin B6 deficiency camp due to OCP. I may sound bias, but I personally think men should step up and actively use condoms as contraceptive methods. WHY? Okay, using the pill is like doing an experiment: women have to try different pills for a while to know which one best fits without side effects. The key is side effects, people. Why should you (women) do something that changes the way your body naturally does to the extend that it gives you side effects? Perhaps I sound like I belong to a holistic camp, but I think people should make the choice based on the effects it may have on just themselves as individuals, but also on others. Condoms, to my knowledge, do not cause side effects, cheap, and very effective as long as you can determine whether you’re allergic to latex-then you still have a flux of products (of condoms) to choose from. See, we need nutrition education just as much as we need sex education.
5/ The relationship between vitamin B6 and vitamin B9, B12 and magnesium
The relationship of the trio vitamin B6, vitamin B9, and vitamin B12 is like a triangle: one thing affects another. The trio works with one another to produce red blood cells. When you have deficiency of any of those, the red blood cell formation is compromised. Also, if you have deficiency of one, you may deficiency of the other 2 vitamins because one vitamin affects the others.
Besides, vitamin B6 works closely with magnesium which is the mineral that maintains proper functions of the cardiovascular system and the skeletal system. That means vitamin B6 deficiency may compromise cardiovascular health and cause other complications in the skeletal system (bones and muscles). I might not have mentioned it, but in developed countries, vitamin B6 deficiency may be caused by excessive protein intake instead of not having enough dietary vitamin B6 (which is the reason most people in developing countries suffer this deficiency).
6/ Diseases and illness due to vitamin B6 deficiency:
- Severe symptoms of morning sickness (in pregnant women)
- Severe PMS
- Epilepsy (vitamin B6 plays a role in neural system through effects on neurotransmitters)
- High level of homocysteine (vitamin B6 works with vitamin B12)
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
7/ The best source of vitamin B6:
Usually animal based food, especially TUNA, is the easiest way to obtain vitamin B6 as long as one does not over eat protein. From what I see, a typical American diet has a lot of protein, mostly from meat. However, a typical adult needs just 6-9 oz of meat/day, including eggs, ( 200-300 g would be the equivalent), the rest of the needed protein can be provided by plant-based foods. As I said earlier, excessive protein (particularly animal based protein) can cause deficiencies of vitamin B6 and consequently, vitamin B9 and B12 (not to mention that it may cause osteoporosis).
Okay, here’s the food list…
Animal based food:
- Tuna, 100 g, 67% daily value of vitamin B6
- Chicken, 100 g, 37%
- Beef, 100 g, 35%
- Salmon, 100 g, 33%
- Shrimp, 100 g, 13%
Vegetables and Legumes
- Corn, 1 ear, 6%
- Spinach, 200 g, steamed or sauteed with juice: 26%
- Eggplant, 100 g, 5%
- Green peas, 150 g, 20%
- Beet greens, 150 g, 11%
- Onions, raw or sauteed, 100 g, 8%
- Carrots, raw, 200 g, 18%
- Red chili, 5.5 g, 6%
- Sweet potatoes, 200g, steamed or baked, 34%
- Potatoes, 200 g, steamed or baked, 35%
- Turnip greens, 150 g, 16%
- Bell peppers, 150 g, 16%
- Cabbage, 150 g, 20%
- Bok choy, 200 g, steamed or sauteed, 17%
- Cauliflower, 125 g, 12%
- Broccoli, 150g, 17%
- Garlic, 6 cloves, 13%
- Celery, 100 g, raw, 4%
- Green beans, steamed or sauteed, 125 g, 4%
- Tomatoes, raw, 200 g, 8%
- Pineapple, raw, 200 g, 15%
- Avocado, raw, 150 g, 23%
- Banana, 1 large, 25%
- Cantaloupe, 150 g, raw, 6%
- Watermelon, 150 g, raw, 4%
- Strawberries, 150 g, raw, 4%
8/ Factors impacting on vitamin B6 retention
Because vitamin B6 is water soluble vitamin, it will leak into water if contacted with water. Therefore, when you choose a cooking method, avoid water. If you steam your food, make sure the water does not over boil and touch the food. Also, you can minimize the loss of vitamin B6 by washing the food as whole before you chop it.
Although vitamin B6 is relatively stable when heated, we should minimize the cooking time when we choose high temperature cooking method such as grilling, baking, and deep frying. Overall, steaming and blanching help save 80% of vitamin B6. Boiling contributes to anywhere between 25-40% loss of the original vitamin B6 content depending on HOW LONG YOU COOK it. The best cooking method of all is to use a pressure cooker because it shortens cooking time which helps preserve the most amount of all nutrients.