There are eight B vitamins, collectively called B complex. B vitamins play a vital role in maintaining good health and well-being and have a direct impact on your energy levels, brain function, and cell metabolism. Among other things, they are responsible for breaking down protein, fat, and carbohydrates into energy.
Since they are water-soluble, your body cannot store B vitamins for very long so they must be replenished through food intake or supplementation. As always, in my personal opinion, getting vitamins through food is the best choice, but sometimes supplementation is necessary. For example, cobalamin (B12) is primarily found in animal foods, so vegetarians and vegans must supplement.
Vitamin B complex helps prevent infections and helps support or promote:
- cell health and growth of red blood cells
- energy levels
- good eyesight
- healthy brain function and proper nerve function
- good digestion and a healthy appetite
- hormones and cholesterol production
- cardiovascular health
- muscle tone
The popular immune-boosting supplement Emergen-C is a tasty, fruity powder you add to water and drink to treat or prevent respiratory illness and flu. While it’s named after the main ingredient, vitamin C, it also contains an assortment of B complex vitamins and electrolyte minerals. When I feel the onset of a cold, or when I travel by air, I take this to help boost my immune system and give me more energy. It often nips the illness in the bud before it’s even had a chance to fully manifest. (PS they didn’t pay me to say this! I just like it!)
The eight B vitamins and their RDA
Below are the eight B vitamins that comprise B complex. The recommended daily amount (RDA) of each B vitamin varies. Older adults and pregnant women generally need higher amounts of B vitamins.
Because they are water-soluble, you can’t really take too much. Any excess will be excreted in your urine. It is possible however that high doses may cause you to feel some abdominal cramping and intestinal distress.
- thiamine (B1) – 1.1 to 1.2 milligrams (mg) daily
- riboflavin (B2) – 1.1-1.3 mg daily
- niacin (B3) – 14-16 mg daily
- pantothenic acid (B5) – 5 mg daily
- pyridoxine (B6) – 1.3 mg daily
- biotin (B7) – 30 micrograms (mcg) daily
- folate (B9) – 400 mg (can also take in the form of folic acid) daily
- cobalamin (B12) – 2.4 mcg daily
Thiamine (B1) helps the body’s cells change carbohydrates into energy. It also plays a role in muscle contraction and the conduction of nerve signals.
Riboflavin (B2) plays a vital role in maintaining the body’s energy supply and allows oxygen to be used by the body.
Like other B vitamins, niacin (B3) helps the body break down carbohydrates, fats, and proteins into energy, and also plays a role in gland and liver function. Additionally, niacin can help treat migraine headaches, circulation problems, and dizziness.
Niacin flush is a common side effect of taking high doses of niacin supplements. As the niacin causes the small blood vessels in your skin to dilate so more blood can rush through, you’ll see a flush of red on the skin. This may be accompanied by an itching or burning sensation which is admittedly uncomfortable, but harmless.
Pantothenic acid (B5) gets its name from the Greek word pantos, meaning “everywhere,” because it’s found in most plant and animal foods, but usually only in small amounts. Pantothenic acid is responsible for creating stress-related and sex hormones, as well as synthesizing cholesterol.
Pyroxidine (B6) may improve mood and reduce symptoms of depression, and it also can help with PMS symptoms as well as reducing the nausea that’s often experienced in the first trimester of pregnancy. I took 50 mg of vitamin B6 a day with both of my pregnancies and had no nausea whatsoever.
Biotin (B7) helps strengthen hair and nails, and a deficiency of it can cause hair loss. It also helps lower cholesterol.
Folate (B9) gets its name from the Latin word for “leaf”: folium. It’s no surprise that leafy greens are one of the best sources of folate. Low levels of folate are linked with elevated homocysteine levels, a higher risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as an increased cancer risk.
Folate is the natural form of B9 found in food, while folic acid is a synthetic form of the B vitamin. Folate is easier for the body to process than folic acid, but both help reduce certain birth defects in pregnancy. In 1998, the FDA required that folic acid be added to enriched grain products like cereals, crackers, bread, pasta, rice, and other grain products, to help prevent these defects.
Cobalamin (B12) helps with red blood cell formation, prevents anemia, and also supports bone health and prevents osteoporosis. Vegetarians and vegans are particularly at risk for B12 deficiency, as it’s challenging to obtain this vitamin if you don’t eat meat or animal products, so supplementation will be necessary.
Conditions that can prevent proper B vitamin absorption
Certain underlying health conditions can prevent your body from properly absorbing vitamin B. Consider supplementing vitamin B complex if you have:
- celiac disease
- Crohn’s disease
- alcohol dependence
- kidney conditions
- rheumatoid arthritis
- ulcerative colitis
- inflammatory bowel disease
- MTHFR mutation (B9 specifically, best in the form of methyl-folate)
Vitamin B deficiency
Most people get enough vitamin B from their diet. However, it is still possible to be deficient. Some symptoms of vitamin B deficiency include:
- skin rashes
- cracks around the mouth
- scaly skin on the lips
- swollen tongue
- irritability or depression
- abdominal cramps
- numbness or tingling in the feet and hands
Although it’s possible that you’re experiencing a vitamin B deficiency if you have these symptoms, many of these symptoms also overlap with other underlying conditions. A visit to the doctor to get bloodwork done can help give you a clearer picture.
Being deficient can increase the risk of certain conditions including anemia and neuropathy. Also, babies born to mothers who are deficient in folate (B9)/folic acid are more likely to have birth defects.
Foods high in B vitamins
Salmon is a low-mercury fish that is rich in brain-benefitting omega-3 fatty acids. It’s particularly high in folate (B9) and cobalamin (B12), and a great source of protein too. Choose wild-caught fish for best health benefits, as unfortunately, conventional fish farming practices don’t translate into healthier fish.
Many leafy greens stand out for their folate (B9) content. Some folate is lost during the cooking process, so gently steam until somewhere between crisp and tender. Great leafy greens to add to your diet include spinach, kale, and romaine lettuce.
Citrus fruits are also very high in folate, plus they are rich in vitamin C as well. It’s always a great idea to add some lemon to your water, which helps detoxify the liver too.
Eggs are one of the best sources of biotin (B7), which contributes to healthy hair and nails. Careful not to eat raw egg whites though, as they contain a protein called avidin that binds with biotin and prevents absorption in the gut. Cooking the eggs inactivates avidin.
As always, I recommend eggs from chickens that are pasture-raised, eating bugs and grubs as they should (some eggs tout that the chickens were raised on a vegetarian diet, but chickens are not vegetarians!), and walking around in the sun to increase the vitamin D levels in the eggs as well.
Beef is high in niacin (B3), pyridoxine (B6), and cobalamin (B12) and a good source of protein. Definitely choose grass-fed beef, which is higher in omega 3 fatty acids, lower in calories, and has a reduced risk of heart disease than conventionally raised, grain-fed beef. Cows are supposed to eat grass, not grains!
Shellfish like oysters, clams, and mussels are a stellar source of riboflavin (B2) and cobalamin (B12). They are also high in protein and several minerals including iron, zinc, selenium, and manganese, and high in omega 3 fatty acids as well.
Legumes and beans are notable for their high folate (B9) content. Some great choices include lentils, chickpeas, soybeans/edamame, black beans, kidney beans, and pinto beans.
Blackstrap molasses is very high in pyroxidine (B6). It’s a byproduct of the sugar cane refining process, has the lowest sugar content of any sugar cane product, and is very rich in B6 and various minerals.
Chicken and turkey are high in niacin (B3) and pyroxidine (B6), with white meat providing more than dark. Choose chicken that was not given any antibiotics (animals are routinely given antibiotics preventively as a conventional farming practice), and ideally that was pasture-raised so it could eat the diet it’s supposed to (bugs and grubs) as well as walking around in the great outdoors.
Pork is especially high in thiamin (B1) while beef is not. Go for the loin cut for less fat and calories.
Nutritional yeast is very high in almost all of the B vitamins, a significant portion of which are added. It is not an active yeast, so you can’t bake with it, but rather is used to boost the flavor and nutritional profile of a dish. It has a yellowish color and slightly nutty-cheesy flavor, so it is often used to give cheese-like flavor to vegan dishes.
Trout is a freshwater fish that is high in more than half of the B vitamins. Like salmon, it is also low in mercury, high in omega 3 fatty acids, and a good source of protein.
Sunflower seeds are one of the best plant sources of pantothenic acid (B5). Sunflower seed butter is eaten extensively in my house, not only because it tastes delicious, but because my kids go to a nut-free school, and “sunbutter” is a great, tasty replacement for other nut-based spreads.
Fortified grain products like breads, cereals, rice, pasta and other grains contain supplemented B vitamins, particularly folic acid (B9).
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Eat a varied diet from the list of vitamin B-rich foods above, and you’ll “B” healthy!