For years riboflavin, also known as vitamin B2, was overlooked. But thanks to exciting new research, this vitamin is now being praised for its potential powers in combating debilitating migraines, preventing sight-robbing cataracts, healing skin blemishes – and much more.
What it is?
Looking through a microscope in 1879, scientists discovered a fluorescent yellow-green substance in milk, but not until 1933 was the substance identified as riboflavin. This water-soluble vitamin is part of the B-complex family, which is involved in transforming protein, fats and carbohydrates into fuel for the body. Found naturally in many foods, riboflavin is also added to fortified breads and cereals. It is easily destroyed when exposed to light. Inadequate riboflavin intake often accompanies other B-vitamin deficiencies, which are a common problem in the elderly and in alcoholics. Riboflavin is available as a single supplement, in combination with other B vitamins (as vitamin B complex), or as part of a multivitamin supplement.
What it does?
Riboflavin plays a vital role in the production of thyroid hormone, which speeds up metabolism and helps to ensure a steady supply of energy. Riboflavin also helps the body to produce infection-fighting immune cells, and works in conjunction with iron to manufacture red blood cells, which transport oxygen to all the cells in the body. In addition, it converts vitamin B6 and niacin into active forms so that they can do their work.
Riboflavin produces substances that help powerful antioxidants, such as vitamin E, to protect body cells against damage from the naturally occurring, highly reactive molecules known as free radicals. It is essential for tissue maintenance and repair – the body uses extra amounts to speed up the healing of wounds after surgery, as well as after burns and other injuries. Riboflavin is also necessary to maintain the function of the eyes, and may be important for healthy nerves as well.
By boosting antioxidant activity, riboflavin protects many body tissues – particularly the lens of the eye. It may therefore help to prevent the formation of cataracts, the opaque, milky growths in the lens that impair the vision of so many older people. Ophthalmologists urge everyone, especially those with a family history of this eye disorder, to get an adequate and steady supply of riboflavin throughout their lives. Riboflavin has also been shown to be highly effective in reducing the frequency and severity of migraine headaches. Migraine sufferers are believed to have reduced energy reserves in the brain, and riboflavin may prevent attacks by increasing the energy supply to brain cells.
Riboflavin has proved valuable in treating skin disorders, including rosacea, which causes facial flushing and skin pustules in many adults. In combination with other B-vitamins, including vitamin B6 and niacin, it may help to treat a broad range of nerve and other ailments, including numbness and tingling. Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, as well as anxiety, stress, and even fatigue. Some doctors prescribe riboflavin supplementation for sickle-cell anaemia, because many of these patients have a riboflavin deficiency.
- Prevents or delays the onset of cataracts
- Reduces the frequency and severity of migraines.
- Improves skin blemishes caused by rosacea.
- Reminder!: If you have a medical or psychiatric condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
How much you need?
The daily RDI for riboflavin is 1.7 mg for men and 1.2 mg for women. These amounts guard against general deficiencies; larger doses are usually prescribed for specific conditions.
If you get too little
Classic symptoms of riboflavin deficiency are cracking and sores in the corner of the mouth, heightened sensitivity to light, and watering, burning and itchy eyes. The skin around the noses, eyebrows and earlobes may peel, and there may be a skin rash in the groin. A low red blood cell count (anaemia), causing fatigue, can also occur.
If you get too much
Excess riboflavin isn't dangerous because the body excretes any extra with the urine. However, high intakes can turn the urine bright yellow – a harmless but slightly alarming side effect.
How to take it?
To help prevent cataracts: The usual dose is 25 mg a day. (In high dosages, riboflavin may exacerbate existing cataracts)
For rosacea: Dosages of 50 mg a day are recommended.
For migraines: Up to 400 mg a day may be needed. Many one-a-day vitamins meet the RDI for riboflavin; high-potency multivitamins may contain much higher amounts – 30 mg or more. Mixed vitamin B formulas typically contain 50-100 mg of riboflavin with other B-vitamins, including niacin, thiamine, vitamins B6 and B12, and folic acid.
Guidelines for use
Consult your doctor if you're taking oral contraceptives, antibiotics or psychiatric drugs, which can affect riboflavin needs. And don't take riboflavin with alcohol, which reduces absorption of riboflavin in the digestive tract.
Good sources of riboflavin include milk, cheese, yoghurt, liver, beef, fish, fortified breads and cereals, avocadoes, mushrooms and eggs.
Facts and Tips
- Australians and New Zealanders get about half their riboflavin from milk and other dairy products
- Milk stored in a clear glass bottle loses 75% of its riboflavin after just a few hours, because the vitamin is extremely sensitive to light. That's one reason why milk now comes in opaque plastic bottles or waxed cardboard cartons.
- A well-balanced diet is especially important for the elderly, many of whom are deficient in riboflavin..
- In a recent European study, 55 patients who suffered two to eight migraines per month were given 400 mg of riboflavin a day. After three months, patients experienced, on average, 37% fewer headaches – a rate commonly achieved only with prescription migraine drugs. But riboflavin has far fewer side effects than those drugs – and, at about 50 or 60 cents for a daily 400 mg dose, it's very much cheaper.
Did you know?
You'd have to drink about 18 liters of milk to get 30 mg of riboflavin – the amount found in many high-potency multivitamins.