What is Biotin?
In perhaps the most memorable instant breakfast scene in film history, Rocky Balboa, dressed in his iconic grey sweatsuit, bleary-eyed and exhausted, rolls out of bed before dawn, cracks five raw eggs into a cup and downs the liquid-chicken cocktail in one gulp. A metaphor for the grit, discipline and sacrifice it takes for the ultimate underdog to rise from obscurity to become the champion, raw eggs are often believed to be a quick shot of protein for a healthy lifestyle. But, in fact, if you made this dietary practice a daily ritual you are more likely to end up with eczema, nausea, and muscle pain than a championship belt.
Consuming raw eggs, especially the whites, can lead to a condition called an egg-white injury. Other symptoms include scaly lips, loss of appetite, and depression. First observed in animals in the early 1900’s, research on egg-white injury led to the discovery of biotin, also known as vitamin B7. Uncooked egg whites contain a protein called avidin which binds and sequesters biotin molecules, preventing the body from absorbing the crucial vitamin. The cooking process breaks down the binding properties of avidin, allowing the body to absorb more, but not all, of the biotin.
Like niacin, riboflavin, and other B vitamins, biotin helps the body convert carbohydrates into glucose for fuel. It also helps the body grow cells, produce fatty acids and has a role in metabolizing amino acids. Biotin is water-soluble meaning it is easily flushed through the system, but, fortunately, the amount of biotin we need on a daily basis is relatively low, and it is abundantly available in foods. Our intestinal bacteria even produce biotin, ensuring a ready supply for absorption. In most cases, as long as you are not trying to be like Rocky every morning, you are likely getting enough biotin.
What are the Signs of a Biotin or Vitamin B7 Deficiency
While biotin deficiency is considered a rare disorder, it can be an extremely serious one and, in many cases, a fatal one. Even when cooked, egg whites can have up to 40% of avidin activity meaning biotin absorption is significantly diminished. People with a diet high in egg whites, perhaps to reduce cholesterol, are potentially at risk. Physical symptoms can include:
- fine, brittle hair
- fungal infections
Psychological symptoms can be even more alarming, including:
There are also genetic disorders that can contribute to biotin deficiency. Biotinidase deficiency is a recessive metabolic disorder that affects about 1 in 27,000 people. In the case of biotinidase deficiency, the digestive process does not release biotin from proteins. Symptoms can include:
- weak muscles & limbs
- loss of coordination
- loss of hearing
- loss of vision
Eventually, a coma-like state or death. Biotinidase deficiency can be present from birth or have an onset later in life.
holocarboxylase synthetase deficiency
By contrast, holocarboxylase synthetase deficiency is an inherited metabolic disorder that usually manifests in newborns within a few months of birth. Holocarboxylasesynthetase deficiency is characterized by the body’s inability to use biotin effectively. Symptoms include:
- Immunodeficiency diseases
- feeding and breathing difficulty
- skin rash
- hair loss
- general lethargy
As with other biotin deficiencies, without treatment, holocarboxylase synthetase deficiency can lead to seizures, coma, and even death.
Regardless of the severity of the deficiency, the treatment is always daily dosing with biotin supplements. It may also call for a diet of biotin-rich foods such as leafy greens, liver, peanuts, milk and egg yolks (not the whites, of course).
Antibiotics, anti-seizure medications, and smoking can all interfere with the absorption of biotin as well. Antibiotics can destroy the gut bacteria that produce biotin, and anti-seizure medications such as phenobarbital and valproic acid can induce biotinidase deficiency, preventing the body from releasing biotin from proteins. Excessive consumption of alcohol can also impair the body’s ability to absorb and use biotin and diminish digestive function leading to reduced biotin production by the body.
How Much Biotin Do You Need Each Day
Because biotin is readily available and even produced by the body, the Food and Nutrition Board of the U.S. Institute of Medicine has never established Estimated Average Requirements or Recommended Dietary Allowances for it. Instead, the Board defined Adequate Intake levels:
- The Adequate Intake for adults ages 19 and up: 30 micrograms per day
- The Adequate Intake for pregnant women: 30 micrograms per day
- The Adequate Intake for lactating mothers: 35 micrograms per day
- The Adequate Intake for infants up to 12 months: 5-6 micrograms per day
- The Adequate Intake for children ages 1–18 years increases with age from 8 to 25 micrograms per day
Why is Biotin Necessary?
Biotin is needed for the body to metabolize carbohydrates and fats into glucose for fuel. It also breaks down proteins into amino acids which are critical in biological processes including biosynthesis and neurotransmitter transport. Biotin is also critical for healthy embryonic development, one of the key reasons it is important for pregnant women to get plenty of biotin in their diet and work with their medical providers to test biotin levels as needed.
Top 10 Health Benefits of Biotin
Since biotin is essential to so many biological processes, it shouldn’t be surprising that it offers lots of health benefits. Some of the most important benefits are:
A lack of biotin can lead to thin, brittle hair and hair loss. In the extreme, it can result in alopecia, a condition that creates bald spots and can even result in hair loss over the entire body, including eyebrows and other facial hair. Biotin is believed to thicken and add body to hair and is often added to shampoos and conditioners. Some studies have even suggested that higher doses of biotin can prevent typical male hair loss. Biotin doesn’t actually make your hair grow faster or longer, but it does strengthen hair follicles, the skin organs that produce hair.
Biotin deficiencies can also result in uncomfortable and annoying skin conditions like rashes, eczema, and even fungal infections. In infants, this can manifest as seborrheic dermatitis, a condition more commonly known as cradle cap where the scalp becomes very dry and scaly, usually in a ring-shaped pattern. Biotin can help prevent the development of these and more common skin conditions like acne.
Some studies suggest that Vitamin B7 can prevent fingernails and toenails from becoming dry and brittle. As a result, biotin is often added to nail care products. Before taking high doses of biotin for nails, it is best to consult with a medical professional. Some nail irregularities such as dents, ridges and white spots can be indicators of other health conditions or nutritional deficiencies.
Blood Sugar Regulation
Since biotin has an important role, along with other B vitamins, in the production of glucose, it can impact the amount of sugar in the blood. Studies have indicated that higher levels of biotin in the blood can lower these sugar levels. As a result, biotin has been indicated as potentially helpful in treating type 2 and type 1 diabetes. The research is far from conclusive, though, with some studies indicating biotin needs to be combined with trivalent chromium as a mineral supplement.
By converting carbohydrates and fats into glucose, biotin has an important role in the metabolic process. Maintaining optimum levels of biotin helps your body digest food quickly and efficiently. By improving metabolism, biotin is believed to help with weight loss. Before going on biotin diet, though, you should consult a medical professional.
Brain Function Improvement
Biotin plays an important role in neurotransmitter activity, particularly in nerve signaling. Maintaining appropriate biotin levels, along with ideal levels of all the B vitamins, can aid in memory function and protect against cognitive impairment, especially age-related degenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia
Biotin, like other B vitamins, can help with overall cholesterol maintenance by increasing HDL, or “good”, cholesterol levels while lowering LDLcholesterol levels, which is considered the “bad” cholesterol. LDL cholesterol contributes to plaque build-up that clogs arteries making them less flexible. HDL cholesterol actually helps remove LDL cholesterol from arteries, transporting it to the liver where it can be broken down in order to pass through the body. Because biotin also has a positive effect on blood sugar levels, its role in cholesterol optimization is doubly beneficial because people with diabetes are at higher risk for heart disease.
Thyroid and Adrenal Health
The adrenal and thyroid glands are part of the endocrine system which secretes hormones into the circulatory system and regulates a wide array of bodily processes including metabolism, mood, sleep patterns, and reproductive functions. Thyroid and adrenal symptoms such as fatigue, excessive weight loss or gain, and insomnia can be related to insufficient biotin absorption. But excess levels of biotin can create false results from thyroid function tests, so supplementation should be done with medical consultation.
Build and Repair Muscle and Tissue
B vitamins, including biotin, help reduce muscle inflammation and provide the building blocks for growing and healing tissue. Low levels of biotin during fetal development can result in birth defects and stunted growth, and tissue can soften and degrade as the body ages.
Because it plays a role in embryonic development, biotin is important during pregnancy and continues to be a vital nutrient delivered through breastmilk. Nursing mothers require increased biotin intake that can generally be obtained from dietary sources, but it is recommended to work with your doctor, naturopath, or midwife to determine if your levels of biotin are adequate to ensure you and your child both thrive.
Simple and natural tips to get enough Vitamin B7
Biotin is abundantly available in many foods and our gut actually produces it for reabsorption. A diet high in biotin-rich foods is a good place to start. We have discussed many dietary sources, but other foods high in biotin include onions, oats, tomatoes, sweet potato, and salmon. Overall, a well-rounded diet of whole foods should provide sufficient biotin.
One of your best bets to absorb enough biotin is to make sure your digestive health is optimal. Good digestive health starts with what you eat. Eat a diet high in vegetables, lean meat, whole grains and healthy dairy products. Buy organic foods whenever possible, this ensures that fruits and vegetables haven’t been grown with dangerous toxins like the herbicide glyphosate which is in products like RoundUp and has been shown in clinical studies to actually kill gut microbes. Meat and dairy products should also be free of growth hormones or antibiotics. If the name isn’t clear enough, antibiotics are designed to kill bacteria and microbes – good and bad alike.
Avoid processed foods and those that are high in sugar. The human digestive system has evolved over 200,000 years and has adapted to natural food sources such as fruits, vegetables, grains and meat. It shouldn’t be surprising that our guts find modern, highly-processed foods to be foreign substances in many cases. Consuming a diet high in processed foods can actually trigger the release of antibodies in an effort to fight off these foreign substances. These same antibodies can, in turn, attack vital parts of our digestive system and compromise our ability to produce biotin.
Digestion is also affected by how and when you eat. A big part of digestion occurs in the mouth, and the longer you chew your food, the more easily it can be absorbed. Eating at regular times and avoiding eating too close to bedtime will also ease the load on your digestive system, allowing it to be more productive in the synthesis of biotin and other nutrients.
One other simple tip is to avoid chewing gum. When we chew, the mouth tells our gut it is about to receive food. To prepare to digest this food the stomach activates enzymes and acids, but when no food arrives, these digestive fluids can trigger symptoms like bloating and acid reflux instead, both of which can impair the gut’s synthesis processes.
Are There Any Negative Side Effects from taking too Much Biotin?
Biotin is non-toxic and generally benign in reasonable amounts, but there is not an abundance of research on it either, so some precautions should be considered when taking high doses. First, as mentioned, high levels of biotin supplementation can confuse thyroid testing, creating false positive results or masking deficiencies.
Like other water-soluble vitamins, excess amounts of biotin are excreted through the kidneys and leave the body in urine. But the jury is still out on whether or not biotin accumulation or excessive intake can be harmful, and at least one study indicates there is a real reason for concern. A 2001 study examined the case of a 76-year-old woman who was suffering from eosinophilic pleuropericardial effusion, a rare, but deadly disease which causes the pleural space around the lungs to become filled with blood and air. The woman was taking 10,000 micrograms of biotin daily in combination with pantothenic acid.
The study concluded that biotin “may cause symptomatic, life-threatening, eosinophilic pleuropericarditis” and physicians who prescribe it as a supplement “should be aware of the potential for adverse reaction.”
Is Vitamin B7 Supplementation Safe and Recommended?
If you think you are suffering from a biotin deficiency or you are at risk for a genetic condition such as biotinidase deficiency, you should seek professional medical help. Blood testing can determine if supplementation is required. In most cases, you can receive the necessary biotin intake through proper nutrition. If you do choose to take supplements, work with your physician or naturopath to ensure it is safe.
One other consideration is that vitamins and other supplements are not approved or even inspected by the Food and Drug Administration. This means the quality, efficacy, and even purity can vary from one manufacturer to another. Medical professionals can recommend which products are safest and most effective.
And finally, since there is less available research on biotin than on most vitamins, much of our knowledge about it is still growing. New information is likely to emerge in the future that may make the medical community re-examine biotin for new benefits and possibly for additional concerns.
SOME WORDS OF CAUTION
This information is not intended to be a substitute for any specific medical diagnosis, treatment or advice. If you have questions about a biotin deficiency or biotin supplementation it is recommended you work with a qualified medical professional in your locality.