Riboflavin, also known as vitamin B2, is an important member of the water soluble B complex of vitamins and has of course been well known as an essential nutrient for many years, hence its popularity as a fortifying agent in commercially produced breakfast cereals and breads etc. But in the current craze for tracking down new anti-oxidant "superfoods" it's easy to overlook the more familiar, but nonetheless vital, nutrients such as the B complex vitamins.
Riboflavin, for example, is essential for the body's production of certain enzymes, known as flavocoenzymes, which are needed for the production of energy through the metabolism of the proteins, fats and carbohydrates consumed in the diet. Flavocoenzymes are important in the breaking down and the using or neutralising of chemicals, including drugs and toxins within the body, and it has also been noted that they are a precursor of the specialised proteins needed for the proper functioning of the brain cell mitochondria.
Impaired oxygen metabolism within these mitochondria has been identified as a possible cause of migraine headaches, Although tested on only a small sample of patients, supplementation with high levels (400 mg) of riboflavin has been duly found to have significant effects in reducing the frequency of migraine attacks when continued over a three month period. Despite the limited scope of the research so far, orthodox medicine regards riboflavin as worthy of further investigation for use in conjunction with conventional drug therapies.
Riboflavin is also important as an anti-oxidant in enabling the proper functioning of glutathione, the crucial anti-oxidant enzyme. Glutathione is needed to neutralise the hydrogen peroxide which is released as a by-product of normal metabolic reactions within the body. Left unchecked hydrogen peroxide can interact with other free radicals to produce hydroxyl, the most damaging of all. Glutathione is particularly important in protecting the delicate fatty structures, eg the membranes, of every cell in the body.
Although anti-oxidants are required to protect every cell in the body, particular attention has been focussed on their role in the lens of the eye, where light induced oxidative damage has been found to be a risk factor for the development of cataracts, one of the most significant causes of vision loss in the elderly.
Measuring by reference to glutathione activity, research has suggested that individuals in the highest quintile of riboflavin levels may have only around half the risk of developing cataracts as those in the lowest quintile.
In addition to facilitating the action of the fat soluble glutathione, riboflavin is also essential for the body's manufacture of another enzyme, xanthine oxidase, which is needed for the formation of uric acid, one of the most powerful water soluble anti-oxidants.
In common with all the vitamins of the B complex, a deficiency in riboflavin is likely to be associated with, and to cause, a deficiency in each of the others. Deficiency in riboflavin, however, has also been particularly associated with problems in the absorption of iron, and consequent anaemia and lowered immune system function.
The US Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for riboflavin is set at the very low sounding levels of 1.3 mg per day for men, and 1.1 mg for women, In Europe the slightly higher figure of 1.6 mg is suggested. To put these in perspective, a cup of fortified cereal may provide between 0.6 and 2.3 mg; 8 oz milk perhaps 0.35 mg, and a single large egg 0.3 mg. Meat, fish, chicken and green vegetables also provide a certain amount.
So these food values would seem to suggest that the RDAs should be easily achievable by those eating a normally balanced diet - and indeed they should. The problem is that the RDAs are set at levels designed to ensure protection against outright deficiency disease, which is not at all the same as optimal health. There is also good evidence that few of us in any case, in fact succeed in eating such a diet, and this can be a particular problem for older adults. Some research suggests that as many as a quarter of over 65s fail to achieve their RDA of riboflavin though their normal daily diet, and of course that which they do take in tends to be less well absorbed than that consumed by younger people. The result is that as many as 10% of the over 65s show signs of severe deficiency, an alarming and unforgivable statistic in wealthy Western societies.
But such symptoms of deficiency may not be confined to the elderly. Younger adults who achieve only these minimal levels of riboflavin intake may also be at risk if subjecting their bodies to unusual stresses, amongst which must be included physical work, intensive athletic or sporting activity, and the use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs.
There are no known toxicity issues with any quantity of the B complex vitamins conceivably likely to be consumed, and the Food and Nutrition Board has specified no upper safe limit. The vitamins are water soluble with any excess being easily excreted by the body. So given the difficulties of absorption which become more pronounced as the body ages, and the increased requirements for these vitamins which seems to arise with the increasingly stressful lives we lead in the 21st century - not to mention the nutritional poverty of much of the heavily refined and processed foods we now routinely consume, there seems no reason not to supplement with riboflavin and the other vitamins of the B complex.
About the Author
Steve Smith is a freelance copywriter specialising in direct marketing and with a particular interest in health products. Find out more at http://www.sisyphuspublicationsonline.com/LiquidNutrition/Information.htm