Vitamin B6 is an essential micronutrient that plays a crucial role in our health. But what happens when our bodies don’t get enough of it? Read on to learn more about the effects of vitamin B6 deficiency, how to treat it, and how to prevent it.
What is vitamin B6?
Vitamin B6 is one of the eight B vitamins. Vitamin B9 belongs to the family of water-soluble vitamins, along with vitamin C and the other B vitamins such as B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B7 (biotin), B9 (folic acid or folate) and vitamin B12. Unlike fat-soluble vitamins, which can be stored in our bodies and used over a long period of time, water-soluble vitamins are not stored in large quantities. Unused amounts of these vitamins are excreted from the body, which means a steady intake is necessary. Since the body cannot produce vitamin B6 itself, it must be obtained through food or supplements. Vitamin B6 is found in a variety of foods, including meats such as chicken and turkey, fish, whole grains such as oats and brown rice, chickpeas, bananas, potatoes, and dairy products (NIH, 2023).
Functions of vitamin-B6
The main functions of vitamin-B6 in our body include:
- Protein metabolism: Vitamin B6 helps build and break down amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. This process is crucial for the growth and repair of cells in our body.
- Glucose metabolism: Our body uses glucose (sugar) as its main source of energy. Vitamin B6 is critical for converting stored glucose into usable energy.
- Cognitive development: Vitamin B6 plays a critical role in the production of neurotransmitters, chemical messengers that transmit signals between nerve cells in the brain. This supports memory and mental performance.
- Immune system function: Our immune system uses vitamin B6 to make antibodies, white blood cells, and T cells, which regulates our immune response and helps protect us from infection and illness.
- Hemoglobin production: Vitamin B6 helps form hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells that carries oxygen to cells in the body. Inadequate amounts of vitamin B6 can cause anemia, or a lack of red blood cells.
Source: Linus Pauling Institute, 2023
What is a vitamin B6 deficiency?
A vitamin B6 deficiency occurs when the body does not have enough vitamin B6 to function normally. To ensure adequate intake, adults are recommended to consume 1.3 to 1.7 milligrams of vitamin B6 daily. A deficiency can occur if an individual does not consume enough vitamin B6 over an extended period of time, or if the body cannot absorb or use the vitamin effectively. As a general rule, however, vitamin B6 deficiency does not usually occur alone, but often occurs in conjunction with an inadequate supply of other B vitamins, such as vitamin B12 and folic acid. While a vitamin B6 deficiency may not initially have any symptoms, over time the health effects can become more noticeable (NIH, 2023).
Causes of vitamin B6 deficiency?
Vitamin B6 deficiency can occur for a variety of reasons, including:
- An unbalanced diet: a diet lacking in vitamin B6-rich foods can lead to a deficiency.
- Autoimmune diseases: Certain autoimmune diseases can cause the body to have difficulty absorbing and using vitamin B6 efficiently due to chronic inflammation. These include, for example, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and other intestinal disorders.
- Genetic disorders: Some rare genetic disorders can interfere with the body’s metabolism of vitamin B6. These disorders often cause severe symptoms in childhood that can be improved with vitamin B6 treatment.
- Alcohol abuse: Chronic alcohol abuse can impair the body’s ability to absorb and store vitamin B6 and other B vitamins, resulting in deficiency.
- Use of certain medications: Some medications, including certain antibiotics and anti-tuberculosis medications, may interact with vitamin B6 and interfere with its absorption or use in the body.
Symptoms of vitamin B6 deficiency
Some of the most common symptoms of vitamin B6 deficiency include:
- Skin inflammation (dermatitis) or a scaly rash
- Cracks and ulcers on the lips and in the corners of the mouth
- Swollen tongue
- Depression and mood swings
- Weakened immune system, leading to frequent infections
- Fatigue and lethargy
- In children, a lack of vitamin B6 can lead to problems with growth and development
It’s important to note that these symptoms are not specific to vitamin B6 deficiency and can also occur with other health problems. If you have any of these symptoms and suspect a vitamin B6 deficiency, you should consult a doctor (McCulloch, 2023).
Vitamin B6 and disease prevention
In addition to helping your body perform essential processes, getting adequate amounts of this vitamin could help reduce your risk of heart disease. Vitamin B6 is involved in regulating homocysteine levels in the blood. Homocysteine is a type of amino acid that, in high concentrations, has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. By helping to break down homocysteine, vitamin B6 may help promote heart health and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (Linus Pauling Institute, 2023).
Diagnosis of vitamin B6 deficiency
Diagnosis of vitamin B6 deficiency can be made through a combination of history, physical examination, and blood tests.
- Medical history and physical exam: Your doctor will ask about your symptoms, diet, and possible risk factors for vitamin B6 deficiency. A physical exam may also reveal signs of deficiency.
- Blood tests: a blood test can determine the amount of vitamin B6 in your blood. This test can additionally be used to rule out vitamin B12 and folic acid deficiencies, which cause similar symptoms to vitamin B6 deficiency. Also, a blood test can be used to detect autoimmune disease or other underlying causes.
Source: NIH, 2023
Would you like to check in on your own health from home?
Homed-IQ’s Vitamin Deficiency Test measures levels of vitamin B12 and folic acid in your blood, which can often occur in addition to a vitamin B6 deficiency. This laboratory-certified test can be completed completely from home and includes a laboratory report that can be brought to your doctor for follow-up.
Treatment of vitamin B6 deficiency
Treatment of vitamin B6 deficiency includes restoring adequate levels of vitamin B6 in the body and eliminating any underlying causes of the deficiency. Treatment can include:
- Dietary changes: Increasing the intake of vitamin B6-rich foods is usually the first measure to correct a deficiency. Your doctor may recommend specific foods to you or refer you to a nutritionist that can help make changes to your diet to ensure adequate nutrient intake.
- Taking supplements: For more severe deficiencies or for individuals who cannot effectively absorb vitamin B6 from food, vitamin B6 supplements may be recommended. Supplements should only ever be taken after consulting your doctor.
- Treatment of underlying conditions: If the deficiency is due to a disease or condition that interferes with the absorption or use of vitamin B6, the underlying cause must be treated. This could include discontinuing medications that affect vitamin B6 levels, providing support for alcoholism, or treating bowel disease.
Source: Mayo Clinic, 2021
Vitamin B6 – Health Professional Fact Sheet. (2023, June 16). NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. Retrieved July 6, 2023, from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB6-HealthProfessional/#h3
Vitamin B6 | Linus Pauling Institute | Oregon State University. (n.d.). Linus Pauling Institute. Retrieved July 6, 2023, from https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/vitamins/vitamin-B6
Vitamin B6 | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (n.d.). Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Retrieved July 6, 2023, from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/vitamin-b6/
Vitamin deficiency anemia – Symptoms & causes. (n.d.). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved July 6, 2023, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/vitamin-deficiency-anemia/symptoms-causes/syc-20355025#overview
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