B vitamins — including folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 — play an important role in protecting the body against a number of health conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, hypertension, cognitive impairment, osteoporosis, and cancer. A new study reveals they may also help protect against the damaging effects of air pollution. Researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that high doses of vitamin B supplements may achieve “close to a complete offset” of the damage caused by very fine particles known as PM2.5. The particles, which which have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers, come from sources of pollution such as diesel cars and woodburning stoves, and are also a byproduct of chemical reactions between other polluting gases.

Health risks associated with air pollution

The effects of air pollution on health have been a growing concern around the world. An estimated 92 percent of the world’s population lives in areas where air pollution exceeds safety guidelines, according to the World Health Organization. Though the actual ways in which air pollution negatively impacts health are not fully understood, scientists have long suspected that PM2.5 causes changes in cells that contribute to lung and heart diseases. About 1/30 the width of a human hair, PM2.5 particles can lodge inside the lungs, contributing to health issues such as asthma, lung cancer, respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, and death from cardiopulmonary diseases. Adverse effects from air pollution are more obvious in pregnant women, elderly patients, adolescents, and those with a history of lung and heart problems.

Researchers had previously observed that nutrients could stop the negative effects of PM2.5 in animal studies, and wanted to see if the effects could be reduced in humans with a daily B vitamin supplement containing 2.5mg of folic acid, 50mg of vitamin B6, and 1mg of vitamin B12. They found that after four weeks of vitamin B supplementation, the effects of PM2.5 were limited by 28 to 76 percent.

Because the study was conducted on a small group of healthy adults, researchers stress that they are not yet in a position to recommend the use of B vitamins to protect against air pollution, and that follow-up studies are needed in heavily polluted areas such as Beijing, India, or Mexico. The doses of B vitamins used were also very high — higher than the normal recommended daily intake.

B vitamins: how much do you need?

  • Folate / folic acid: The recommended daily intake of folic acid, also known as vitamin B9, is 400 – 600 micrograms per day. People who regularly drink alcohol should aim for 600 micrograms of folic acid per day. Folic acid supplements taken during pregnancy can help avoid birth defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly. Folate is naturally found in foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and beans.
  • Vitamin B6: The recommended daily intake of vitamin B6 is 1.3 to 1.7 milligrams per day, depending on age and gender. Vitamin B6 can be found in beans, poultry, fish, and some fruits and vegetables, including papayas, oranges, cantaloupe, and dark, leafy greens.
  • Vitamin B12: The recommended daily intake of vitamin B12 is 2.4 micrograms per day. Vitamin B12 naturally occurs in animal products such as meat, poultry, and dairy, making vegetarians and vegans particularly at risk of B12 deficiency. While most people have enough B12 in their diets, many individuals are unable to absorb and use the B12 they ingest. B12 deficiencies are common among elders due to a decreased ability to absorb nutrients as well as decreased food intake. Individuals with certain genetic variants also have a reduced ability to absorb B12. For these reasons, B12 is commonly administered as an injection or in the form of a sublingual spray.

Genetic testing can help you determine if you are at risk of a vitamin B deficiency and whether optimizing your intake of B vitamins is necessary. Vivaliti DNA offers personalized genetic blueprints that provide insight into how your body works, allowing you to adopt a diet and supplementation plan that provides your body with the exact levels of vitamins and nutrients it needs. Request a free consultation with a Vivaliti DNA health coach to learn how your individual genetic blueprint can help you optimize your health and make smarter choices every day.