Today we’re getting back to basics. We know you have questions like “are B vitamins good for you” and “which B vitamins should I take?” Consider today’s blog to be all things “B”—a quick B Vitamins 101 snapshot designed to make you smarter about the Bs.
There are eight B vitamins that are identified both by number and by name. In numerical order they are: B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B7 (biotin), B9 (folate) and B12 (cobalamin).
If you’re curious as to the whereabouts of B4, B8, B10 and B11, the simple explanation is that they are no longer categorized as vitamins, failing to meet that definition. A vitamin is a substance that is required for normal growth and health and is “essential”—meaning it must be obtained through diet because it isn’t produced by the human body.
No worries though. As we just mentioned, there are still eight to be curious about.
Probably the most buzzed about of the Bs are B6, B7, B9 and B12. We’ll get to that soon. But first, you need to know that all of the B vitamins have important functions, some that overlap, and some that are unique to the specific vitamin.
It’s also important to understand that a hallmark of nutrition is that vitamins work hand-in-hand with each other. That is true of B vitamins. And, they also work synergistically with other nutrients.
Five fast facts about B vitamins:
- You need B vitamins to function. Your body’s cells won’t work properly without them. B vitamins make hemoglobin, the protein that enables red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout your body. Some research also shows B vitamins are useful for brain health, cardiovascular health, immune health and energy.
- Boosting energy may be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about B vitamins. That’s because they play a role in metabolism by releasing energy from food. By turning food into fuel, so to speak, B vitamins create energy for your body’s use.
- Because B vitamins are essential, you need to obtain them from some external sources. Fortunately, they are readily available in food and as nutritional supplements. In addition, some people may need vitamin B drugs (e.g., injections, high doses), but we’re saving that topic for another blog. Most people can generally get what they need from the Bs from their diet, which may or may not include supplements.
- When it comes to supplements, you can purchase individual B vitamins or a combination of several. When you hear the term B vitamin complex, that product will likely include all eight of the B vitamins. Check the supplement facts box on the label to learn which of the B vitamins are included and at what dose.
- All B vitamins are water soluble (as opposed to fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K), which means you’re not likely to reach toxic levels as the body excretes excess amounts through urine. But that doesn’t mean you should feel free to overindulge. In particular, vitamins B3, B6 and B9 have upper limits.
What are the Health Benefits of B vitamins?
The Buzzworthy Bs
Let’s start backwards, because of all the Bs, B12 (cobalamin) is likely the one that is top of mind. You’ve probably heard B12 referred to as the “energy” vitamin, but according to this post, if you already have adequate intake of B12, it’s unlikely that supplementing with B12 will actually boost your energy. If, however, you’re deficient in the vitamin, increasing your intake—whether through diet and supplements (or physician recommended injections)—may actually also increase your energy levels.
How do you know how much B12 you have in your system? Talk about buzzworthy: OmegaQuant recently launched an at-home test to determine how much methylmalonic acid (a B12-status marker) you have in your urine. The results are the first step to ensuring your body obtains and maintains sufficient status of B12. You can read more about it here.
Like all the B vitamins, B12 turns food into usable energy. But B12 has many other important functions. It’s needed to keep your blood healthy; in fact, it helps to prevent megaloblastic anemia, a blood condition that causes you to be weak and fatigued. In addition to keeping your blood and nerve cells healthy, B12 helps produce the genetic material in all of your cells. And it plays a role in maternal and fetal health during pregnancy. Learn more about the health benefits of B12 here.
Next up, B9. You’re probably more familiar with this one by its name: folate or folic acid. (Quick aside: Folic acid is a form of folate that can be added to food during the manufacturing process. Folate in dietary supplements and functional food was listed as folic acid prior to the U.S. government’s recent revised label requirements. Learn more here.)
Folic acid is best known for its ability to reduce neural tube birth defects (NTDs) such as spina bifida and anencephaly. Research shows that folic acid can reduce some brain and spinal cord NTDs by more than 70 percent. That is why it is recommended by medical experts and the U.S. government that all women of child-bearing age take 400 mcg of folic acid daily in addition to eating food with folate from a varied diet. Some experts, including the March of Dimes, recommend 600 mcg daily of folic acid during pregnancy.
Folate is also important for healthy cell growth and to help your body produce DNA and other genetic material.
Biotin (or B7) helps enzymes turn the carbohydrates, fats, and proteins in your food into energy for your body. Some research also indicates that biotin may help manage symptoms of diabetes.
But the current buzz surrounding biotin swirls around the nutrient’s potential ability to promote healthy hair growth, strengthen brittle nails, and improve skin hydration. While there’s some science that supports the buzz for hair, nails and skin, manage your expectations and be aware that unsurprisingly, not all the science has reached the same results. Still, those beauty benefits may be icing on the cake to the facts that your body needs biotin for a healthy pregnancy, a healthy nervous system and to metabolize the “big three” macronutrients: carbs, fats and protein.
B6 (pyridoxine) is believed to be involved in brain development during pregnancy and infancy as well as immune function. This article lists no fewer than nine reasons to consider this vitamin an important component in your good health arsenal, ranging from its potential role in improving mood, promoting cognition, and reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s to working with vitamins B9 and B12 to help lower homocysteine levels, which in turn may help reduce the risk of heart disease. Further, the body needs vitamin B6 for more than 100 enzyme reactions involved in metabolism.
The Benefits of the Other B Vitamins
Just because we’ve separated the other four B vitamins from the buzzed about category, that doesn’t mean they’re not important. Quite the contrary. Although they might be considered as background players, not showcased as much as the previous four, don’t discount them. All four of them—B1, B2, B4 and B5—have crucial roles to play in helping your cells grow, develop and function. And all four are energy drivers, metabolizing your food into accessible energy for your body’s use.
Specifically, B1 (thiamine) has been shown to help improve high blood sugar and insulin levels and help reduce high blood pressure and heart issues in people with diabetes, according this article. And by producing acetylcholine—a nervous system compound that delivers messages between your nerves and your muscles—this vitamin helps with your heart’s proper function.
B2 (riboflavin) supports eye health by protecting glutathione, an important antioxidant in your eyes, and this vitamin may reduce the risk of developing cataracts. Some research has also shown it may help in reducing migraine frequency and help reduce homocysteine levels.
In addition to its role in synthesizing coenzymes as a means to producing usable energy from food, B3 (niacin) has a part to play in cell signaling and manufacturing and repairing DNA.
According to this article, B3 is needed for proper brain function, may protect skin cells from sun damage, and help protect insulin-creating cells in people with type 1 diabetes. While high doses may help improve blood fat levels, it’s unclear as to whether that also relates to a decreased risk in heart disease or related deaths. And that high dose, typically 1,500 mg or more, comes with some unpleasant side effects such as flushing, as well as some potentially harmful ones.
B5 (pantothenic acid) is vital for producing red blood cells as well as for manufacturing sex and stress-related hormones in the adrenal glands. Plus, your body needs B5 to partner with coenzyme A to synthesize fatty acids and cholesterol and to create a fat-like molecule known as sphingosine that transports chemical messages in the body’s cells.
What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough of the B vitamins?
Generally, most people can obtain what they need through a balanced diet, which for some may include nutritional supplements. There are some groups of people, including those with certain health conditions (e.g., diabetes, alcohol dependency, HIV/Aids) or hormone or specific genetic disorders, vegetarians, vegans, those who don’t eat dairy, and older people, who may have trouble reaching adequate vitamin B levels. And that’s important because the issues resulting from deficiency or even insufficiency can be serious.
For example, a lack of thiamine (B1) can cause appetite and weight loss, confusion, memory problems, muscle weakness and heart problems. Sepsis, a severe response to an infection, can become fatal if your thiamine levels are too low.
If you don’t get enough riboflavin (B2), you may experience problems with your reproductive and nervous systems, liver disorders, hair loss and mouth sores. Severe, long-term riboflavin deficiency can lead to anemia and cataracts.
Niacin (B3) deficiency can result in a disease called pellagra—rare in developed nations—which can lead to death. Mood disorders, brain fog, dementia and brain cell damage are also associated with a niacin deficiency.
Pantothenic acid (B5) deficiency in the U.S. is very rare, but can cause sleeping problems, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite, as well as extreme tiredness, headache, and numbness and burning in your hands and feet.
Without sufficient pyridoxine (B6), the symptoms can run from itchy rashes to scaly skin on the lips and corner cracks on the mouth, as well as swollen tongue and anemia.Very low levels of this vitamin may result in depression, confusion and a weakened immune system.
Biotin (B7) deficiencies can result in thinning hair, skin infections, brittle nails and pinkeye and other eye rashes. You might also experience seizures, nervous system disorders, and high levels of acid in the blood and urine.
Women who don’t get enough folate (B9) risk having a premature or low birth weight baby or giving birth to a child with spina bifida or other neural tube birth defects. Getting too little folate can result in the blood disorder known as megaloblastic anemia, open sores on the tongue and mouth, and color changes in skin, hair or fingernails.
B12 (cobalamin) deficiency is probably the most common B vitamin deficiency in the U.S., affecting between 3% and 43% of older adults. The calling card of B12 deficiency is megaloblastic anemia, which will make you feel extremely tired or weak. You might also have pale skin, loss of appetite, weight loss and heart palpitations, even infertility. B12 deficiencies could also include nervous system damage, balance problems, depression, confusion, dementia and more.
The National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements has created a comprehensive resource of fact sheets for consumers and health care practitioners for each B vitamin (as well as for countless other vitamins/minerals/dietary supplements) that cover, in addition to the topics covered in this blog: how much you need, what foods will help you meet those recommendations and other helpful information.