your health guide to biotin, an important b vitamin

Jill Bridges, SATI STAFF

Have you been hearing about biotin, but wondering what all the fuss was about? Biotin is a vitamin in the B-complex group that is important for a host of critical functions in our body. You may have heard that biotin can be good for skin and nails, and while that is true, biotin has a number of other vital uses in the body.

For example, biotin provides a key role in helping the body’s enzymes turn molecules like protein into glucose, which is then used to fuel activity in the cells. Thinking about it on a body-wide scale, biotin helps every single cell of your body work, ensuring you can move around, breathe and live another day. Also, biotin is needed to grow healthy hair, skin and nails, so a deficiency can lead to brittle nails and hair loss.

All of these factors make biotin an interesting compound and one worthy of consideration by anyone who wants to keep a close eye on their nutrition. You can read on to learn even more about biotin, the role it plays in our physiology and the seven biggest help benefits of biotin.

What, exactly, is biotin?

Biotin is a type of vitamin, specifically it is vitamin B7, part of the B-complex group of vitamins. Like all B vitamins, biotin functions as an enzyme cofactor that helps our body’s proteins metabolize certain molecules and perform other important work.

Vitamins, just to clarify, are organic molecules (molecules containing carbon) that are needed to sustain normal body functioning but that cannot be made by the body [1]. In other words, vitamins are things the body needs but must get from eating other sources of it. Many vitamins help enzymes perform work. Enzymes are special proteins that help make certain chemical reactions happen.

In the process of digesting food and metabolizing it into energy for cellular work, hundreds of enzymes are needed. These enzymes often need a “buddy,” or a coenzyme, to help make work easier. Some coenzymes help enzymes and other proteins carry important molecules to be involved in the chemical reaction. Other coenzymes serve as regulators, helping the enzymes know when to start and stop.

How does biotin help our body’s enzymes

In the case of biotin, it helps carry carbon dioxide and pack it tightly into the enzyme “mouth,” where a chemical reaction is likely to occur [2]. Biotin works with four enzymes in total: pyruvate carboxylase, beta-Methylcrotonyl-CoA carboxylase, propionyl-CoA carboxylase, and acetyl-CoA carboxylase.

All these enzymes help the liver break down amino acids from proteins into glucose molecules, allowing the body to obtain energy even if it has not eaten in eight or more hours. Biotin may make a near-permanent bond with the proteins that need it.

For this reason, the molecule was once called “coenzyme R,” but its name was later changed to vitamin H. The H stood for “haar und haut,” which in German means “skin and hair,” reflecting its role in healthy hair and skin growth. Later, the name was changed to B7 to better-reflect the vitamin’s role as a coenzyme, similar to other vitamins in the B-complex group.

One interesting use of biotin involves its role as a strongly bonded coenzyme. Because the molecule does not interfere with the protein it is attached to but can still aid in tracking at the molecular level, it is often used in biological and physiological research to “tag” proteins [3].

How much biotin do I need

The amount of biotin needed daily is quite small, just 30 to 50 micrograms. Surprisingly, most people can actually absorb biotin from the byproduct of materials created by natural, beneficial bacteria that live in the lower intestine.

However, not everyone can synthesize high enough levels of biotin on their own. Pregnant mothers and mothers who are nursing in particular end up having a biotin deficiency as a result of sharing nutrition with their fetus and newborn infant. Mothers who do not get enough biotin in their diet may also risk transferring conditions or birth defects to their newborn [4].

Additionally, some people may develop a biotin deficiency over time. Hair loss and brittle nails are common symptoms, as are rashes that appear around the mouth, nose, eyes or genitals [5]. Long-term biotin deficiency is also theorized to have neurological side effects. These include depression, hallucinations, numbness or tingling in extremities, seizures and ataxia (muscle spasms).

Individuals should consult with their physician to determine the optimal level of biotin in their diet. Women who are pregnant or nursing must take steps to ensure they are getting enough biotin.

How do I get more biotin

One of the best things about biotin is that it can be found quite easily in a normal diet. Eggs, for instance, contain a fair amount of biotin that can be absorbed when the whites are fully cooked [6]. Adding eggs to your diet can be easy, such as topping a green salad with chopped hard-boiled egg.

Dairy products also provide biotin, and it can also be obtained through eating certain meats and fish. A simple three-ounce cut of cooked meat or fish can provide around two to four micrograms of biotin. Many fruits and fresh vegetables also have biotin.

Biotin can also be taken as a supplement, although most medical professionals recommend getting as much nutrition as possible from natural foods. Biotin may be sold separately, but it is also frequently included in multivitamins or B-complex supplements, where it is labelled as “vitamin B7.”

As alluded to above, getting enough biotin in your diet is critical for regulating normal metabolic functioning, and it also provides a critical role in maintaining healthy hair, teeth and skin. If you are curious about the specific health benefits of biotin, read about the seven biggest ones below:

1. Helps you maintain energy throughout the day

Most of us only have time to eat three meals a day, if that. In between meals, our body may turn to other sources of energy, such as freely available carbohydrates and sugars. In most cases, the body will use glycogen, a form of starch-like hydrocarbon chains that can easily be broken down into simple sugars.

Other times, though, the body does not have enough glycogen or has more of an alternative product. In these instances, usually after fasting for eight or more hours, the body will turn to proteins as a source of nourishment. It can break down proteins into their amino acids, and then use these amino acids as a form of energy through most of the normal process used to break down glycogen.

Put simply, proteins (and other large molecules) can be “eaten” through a process called catabolism. Biotin plays a key role in this process as a coenzyme, helping enzymes manipulate molecules and break them down into smaller components. [7] Without biotin, we would not be able to survive for long periods without fat stores.

2. An important nutrient for pregnant or nursing mothers and their baby

During pregnancy, many women encounter a biotin deficiency [8]. Although some of this biotin is transferred through the umbilical cord to the fetus and through breast milk to the infant, it does not account for the full loss or common deficiencies. Consequently, some researchers think that biotin tends to break down more often in the bodies of women who are pregnant or who have recently given birth [9].

Regardless, pregnant women end up losing too much biotin! The result can be complications like hair thinning, nail brittleness and some of the side effects of biotin deficiency listed above.

A lack of biotin has been attributed to certain disorders or abnormalities in newborns. For example, some babies born with a biotin deficiency show rashes, unusually thin hair or unusual hair pigmentation (color). Cradle cap, a condition where skin on the head has a scaly rash, has also been linked to biotin deficiency [7].

3. A critical nutrient for people with a rare genetic condition

Some infants are born with an extremely rare condition: biotinidase deficiency. This metabolic disorder leaves the child without enough of the enzyme needed to recover biotin from other proteins and reuse it [10]. As a result, the child will have a chronic biotin deficiency unless a medical intervention is made.

Treating biotinidase deficiency is as simple as giving the child a supplement of five to 20 mg of biotin a day, but this must be done for the entirety of their life. This condition used to be largely undiagnosed since it did not produce any obvious symptoms, but now it is part of the typical screening process for newborns.

The gene for biotinidase deficiency is recessive, which means that both parents must have it, and also the gametes — the sperm and egg that made the baby — must combine to form two of the same types of abnormal gene. As a result biotinidase deficiency is extremely rare, affecting only one in 100,000 individuals, on average.

4. Could help maintain better skin with fewer rashes

While the medical community does not completely understand the role of biotin in skin health, it does know that deficiencies can lead to scaly, red skin rashes [11]. One of the suggested reasons for this connection is that biotin is needed to break down triglycerides into fatty acids, which are used by cells for energy and other important purposes.

Healthy skin depends on an available amount of fatty acids, and biotin has a huge role in helping make fatty acids available for skin protein, bridging the possible connection between deficiencies and obvious skin issues.

Furthermore, biotin is suspected to help the body regulate levels of keratin, an essential protein used as most of the structure for nails, hair and the outermost layer of skin. When keratin levels are abnormal, hair follicles on the skin can become clogged, leading to a rash. Research shows that the fungus Candida albicans can also be cultured from biotin-related rashes [11], indicating a possible secondary cause of irritation.

5. May have benefits for those with diabetes

Some studies have shown a correlation between administering supplemental biotin in diabetic patients and a decrease in blood glucose levels [12]. Researchers theorized that the connection lay in biotin’s ability to enhance the action of the enzyme pyruvate carboxylase, bringing glucose into the cell. Normally, diabetics’ complications with insulin lead to a decreased ability to transport glucose across cell membranes.

Other studies show how biotin given in conjunction with chromium picolinate can reduce levels for the atherogenic index of plasma (AIP) and also reduce the level of blood triglycerides while improving the ratio of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) to low-density lipoprotein (LDL), all biomarkers for diabetic health and also positive developments for those with a risk of stroke or heart disease [13].

So while no one can concretely prove the role in supplementing biotin for helping those with diabetes manage their condition, the complications of deficiency and the promise offered by co-supplementation with other minerals does make biotin a promising addition to any diabetic diet.

6. Can be good for hair and nails

Studies show that those with brittle, splitting nails can greatly improve their condition by supplementing biotin in their diet [14]. Results were inconsistent, but the study did note that “none of the patients considered the treatment altogether ineffective.”

Another, more in-depth study explored the effects of biotin supplementation on women with brittle nails and nail splitting. The study measured results more discretely, using scanning electron microscopy to investigate the microscopic structure of the nail. At the end of the study, measurements taken indicated that nail thickness in the group given consistent biotin doses had improved by 25 percent, a significant amount [15].

Yet another study tracked the effects of biotin supplementation long-term. Patients with brittle nails were given biotin supplements over a six-month period, and at the end of the study 63 percent of the subjects showed subjective clinical improvements [16].

As for hair, no studies have been able to concretely confirm benefits to hair growth, thickness or quality when supplements of biotin are taken. However, biotin deficiency can lead to thinning hair, changes to pigmentation and hair loss, so individuals with a deficiency can likely obtain benefits by upping the amount of biotin in their diet or through supplements. [17]

7. Potential use in treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS)

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune condition where, through a variety of reactions and reasons, vital protective proteins called myelin are destroyed and damaged. These sheaths are found all throughout the brain’s most vital nerve pathways, along the spinal cord and in the optic nerves [18].

MS describes a range of conditions and that can take on many forms, but the most common symptoms are difficulty coordinating muscle movements, especially when walking, numbness or tingling in extremities, muscle spasms, dizziness, issues with urinating and bowel movements, unexplained pain, and blurriness of vision or double vision.

Now, researchers are exploring the role biotin might play in creating myelin. Since biotin helps the body create short fatty acid chains and aids in the metabolization of macromolecules, creating energy, one research team proposes that biotin may have both direct and indirect benefits for multiple sclerosis patients [19].

Early research has also shown promising results, albeit in a limited patient population. Patients given 100 to 300 mg of biotin every day were tracked across a range of durations, from two month to 36 months (2.5 years). 90 percent of subjects exhibited some sort of improvement to their condition [20].

Which foods have the most biotin?

If you want to get biotin through your diet rather than through a supplement, there are several foods you can start eating more of. Cow milk has biotin in it as a form of nutrition for growing calves, so dairy products like butter and cheese have a fair amount of biotin in them, usually around five to six micrograms a serving [11].

Many vegetables are also rich in biotin, including leafy greens and, in particular, avocado. Since avocados are rich in healthy fats and can be easily added to any meal, they make for a great way to get more biotin and other critical nutrients.

Among meat products, organ meats like liver and kidney have higher concentrations of biotin in them than cuts of muscle. If organ meats are not something you enjoy eating, you can also consume extra fish, particularly salmon and oily fish like sardines or anchovies.

In fact, biotin is already in most of the foods you love! Anyone who wants to add biotin to their balanced diet can research their favorite food items and adjust serving sizes accordingly to get more dietary biotin.

The Sati line

Even though it is fairly easily available in a variety of common foods, individuals should take efforts to ensure that they get enough biotin in their diet. Those who are pregnant, nursing or diabetic should speak with their primary care physician about amending their diet or adding supplemental B-complex vitamins to their daily regimen.

Those who do take the time to get enough biotin will have most or all of the benefits described above, including improved energy levels, a better ability to maintain energy between meals and possibly improved hair and teeth. People with a biotin deficiency can also avoid serious possible health consequences, which can include hair loss, skin rashes, brittle nails and, in the long-run, difficulty breaking down proteins as a food source during long gaps in meals.

Now with all that you have learned, go out and start enjoying your life knowing just how important biotin is to you and everyone else! Whether in a B-complex supplement or in delicious foods, it offers plenty of reasons to get more.

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