The Benefits of B-Vitamins
Written By Claire Arcidiacono, ND
“Can’t I just take two Vitamin B6 supplements instead of one Vitamin B12?”
This was a customer question that really drove home the point of just how confusing B-vitamins can be! It is important to understand exactly what each B-vitamin does in order to understand the overall picture of why B-Complex is so important for your health and well-being.
Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)
This B-vitamin is considered an essential nutrient because the body cannot make it on its own and it must be consumed through the diet. Thiamine is made by bacteria, fungi and plants. For example, foods naturally rich in thiamine are oatmeal, flax, sunflower seeds, brown rice, whole grain rye, asparagus, kale, cauliflower, potatoes, oranges, liver and eggs. This is important because in the Standard American Diet (SAD), there is often a deficiency of these foods. Thiamine is used to make the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, as well as GABA.1 Acetylcholine is responsible for numerous actions in the brain, including encoding of memories and ability to concentrate. GABA, gamma-aminobutyric acid) is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that, simply, blocks nerve impulses. GABA basically tells the cells not to send an impulse, as without it, nerve cells can "fire" often and easily, causing anxiety disorders and other conditions.
Signs of a thiamine deficiency include:
feeling generally unwell
Well-known diseases associated with low thiamine include beriberi, Korsakoff psychosis, and Wernicke Korsakoff.
Deficiency may be caused by eating a diet of polished rice and refined-wheat. Other risk factors include alcoholism, low magnesium intake, digestive disorders and chronic diseases, such as HIV. Additionally, low intake causes low thiamine.2 Thiamine is usually taken in the form of a B-complex, a vitamin supplement containing all the essential B vitamins, including B12.
The prevalence of B1 deficiency has been shown to be as high as 33% of the population hospitalized with congestive heart disease.
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
Vitamin B2 works to convert folic acid into its active form. This B-vitamin is found in organ meat, eggs, milk, nuts, enriched flour, soybean, yogurt, yeast, Brussels sprouts and green leafy veggies. Vitamin B2 has been shown to help increase immune function and memory, and assist with digestive disorders.3 It has also been shown to be essential for energy metabolism for processing fats, ketone bodies, carbohydrates and proteins. Deficiency of riboflavin can be caused by alcoholism, medications, digestive disorders and a poor diet.
Signs of a deficiency include:
cracks and sores around the corners of the mouth
swollen or magenta-colored tongue
swelling and soreness of the throat
sensitivity to light
This vitamin has been studied in a number of clinical studies to aid numerous conditions, including cervical cancer, migraines, acne, muscle cramps, carpal tunnel, eye fatigue, cataracts, glaucoma, high homocysteine levels and more.
In the few studies in which riboflavin status has been assessed at the population level, the prevalence of deficiency is alarmingly high and more severe during pregnancy.
Vitamin B3 (Niacin)
This is a very well-known, water-soluble B-vitamin that is commonly used to help maintain healthy cholesterol levels and overall cardivascular health. Made using tryptophan (the chemical in turkey that makes us tired) Vitamin B3 is an important nutrient that’s known for causing the unpleasant feeling called “flushing”, an intense blush on your upper chest and face. However, there is more to this vitamin than just those tryptophan-induced itchy, red lips. Niacin is found in organ meats, chicken, beef, fish, eggs, venison, avocados, dates, tomatoes, vegetables, nuts, fungi, carrots and sweet potatoes and whole grains.5
Signs of a deficiency of niacin include pellagra which is known as the 4Ds - diarrhea, dementia, dermatitis and death. This disease killed 10,000 people between 1910 and 1940!
Other signs of deficiency include:
skin and mouth lesions
Deficiency can be caused by diets that are mostly corn-based due to the low niacin content of corn. Deficiency can also be caused by alcoholism, digestive complaints, Hartnup disease and some medications.6 Ironically, too much niacin can cause gout and flushing.7
Since fortification of B3 into cereal grains, deficiency is not common in the US but prevalence remains high, up to 6.5% in refugees, India, and in parts of Africa and China, especially where populations are dependent on maize-based diets may have pellagra.
Vitamin B5 / Pantothenic Acid
Vitamin B5 is found in almost all foods. In fact, when researchers tried to research the side effects of deficiency, it was near impossible to create a diet with low levels of this nutrient. The true major cause of B5 deficiency is extreme malnutrition. The most common uses for Pantothenic acid include: wounding healing, adrenal fatigue, acne, diabetic ulcers, to lower cholesterol and to help metabolize fats and carbs. (12)
Pantothenic acid deficiency has not been thoroughly studied and the prevalence is unknown though expected to be rare. In the few cases where deficiency has been seen nearly all symptoms can be reversed with the return of pantothenic acid.
Vitamin B6 / Pyridoxine
This vitamin is found in fish, beef, chicken, nuts, seeds and veggies. Vitamin B6 is essential for the activity of over 100 enzymes, which are mostly involved in protein metabolism. It is needed for tryptophan metabolism, to assist in dealing with stress, mood, appetite control and sleep. Vitamin B6 is used to make GABA, dopamine, and serotonin in the body.
Supplementation of this vitamin may be used to assist with PMS, morning sickness, fibrosistic breasts, ADHD, depression, diabetes, epilepsy, and carpal tunnel, as well as to help lower homocysteine levels and boost immune function.8 B6 deficiency may be caused by poor diet, oral contraceptive use, steroid use, antibiotic use or overuse, and poor nutrient absorption, especially in the elderly. Deficiency can cause depression, metabolism problems, nerve issues and worsened PMS symptoms.
Vitamin B6 status has only rarely been assessed at the population level but low intakes among the children in Indonesia, surveyed about 10% of those from urban areas and 40% of those from rural areas exhibited biochemical signs of deficiency.
Vitamin B7 / Biotin
This B vitamin is easily found in most foods and is also produced by the bacteria in the gut. Foods that are especially high in this vitamin include egg yolks, peanut butter, Swiss chard and other green leafy veggies. Biotin must be consumed regularly, as it does not store in tissues. It is essential to energy creation; when food that contains carbohydrates and fats are absorbed into the body, Biotin metabolizes them into neutral metabolites that the body can effectively use to make energy. It is necessary for muscle maintenance, brain energy, healthy immunity, healthy blood sugar levels and hair loss.(11)
Deficiency can be caused by malnutrition, pregnancy, diabetes, dialysis, and malnutrition.
Signs of low Biotin levels include:
hair loss/color change
Biotin deficiency rarely, if ever, occurs in healthy individuals who consume a regular diet unless they are being treated either with certain anticonvulsants or with broad-spectrum antibiotics.
Vitamin B9 / Folic Acid
Folic acid, also known as Vitamin B9, is a water-soluble member of the B-complex vitamin family. It is found in fortified foods like whole grains, green leafy vegetables, mushrooms, beans, nuts and some fruits. Folic acid has been shown in numerous clinical studies to support heart and circulatory health, healthy blood pressure levels, and protein metabolism. Folic acid is used by the body to create new cells.
Signs of deficiency include
macrocytic anemia with weakness or shortness of breath
nerve damage with weakness and peripheral neuropath
forgetfulness or other cognitive deficits
sore or swollen tongue
peptic or mouth ulcers
Worldwide prevalence of deficiency is unknown, but prior to 1998, about 15% of adult women in the US were believed to have low blood levels of folate. In fact, because Folic acid deficiency is so common in the US, in 1990 the US government implemented the folate fortification program to combat this issue. (9)
Recent studies show that sufficient levels of Vitamin B12 are needed by the body to product homocysteine levels, protect the heart and arteries, support the weight of brain matter, promote mental enegy and mood, protect memory function and support hearing. Vitamin B12 is also required for energy, stamina, and blood cell formation and divison. This B vitamin is only found in animal products. It's is very common for vegans to become deficient in this vitamin unless they take supplements or use nutritional yeast. In addition to animal products, B12 can be found in chlorella, Spirulina and fermented foods.
In general, deficiencies are caused by poor diet, obesity, surgery (this reduces the enzymes needed to absorb it), and digestive disorders. Other causes of low B12 include alcoholism, smoking, oral contraceptives, immune system disorders, and many medications. This vitamin is important for red blood cell formation, and a lack of B12 leads to a type of anemia called pernicious anemia.
Other signs of low B12 include (10)
changes in bowel movement
In countries where vitamin B12 deficiency has been assessed at the national level, low serum vitamin B12 concentrations were prevalent. The prevalence was lower in the US (0–3% in preschool and school-aged children, adults and the elderly) but up to 31% in the United Kingdom.
Overall, the B-Complex vitamins work together to help your body to perform at an optimal level. Speak to an InVite Health nutritionist to determine which B-Complex supplement is best for you!
- Mahan, L. K.; Escott-Stump, S., eds. (2000). Krause's food, nutrition, & diet therapy (10th ed.). Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company. ISBN 0-7216-7904-8
- Combs, G. F. Jr. (2008). The vitamins: Fundamental Aspects in Nutrition and Health (3rd ed.). Ithaca, NY: Elsevier Academic Press. ISBN 978-0-12-183493-7.
- Bruno EJ Jr, Ziegenfuss TN. Water-soluble vitamins: research update. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2005 Aug;4(4):207-13.
- Maraini G, Williams SL, Sperduto RD, Ferris FL, Milton RC, Clemons TE, Rosmini F, Ferrigno L. Effects of multivitamin/mineral supplementation on plasma levels of nutrients. Report No. 4 of the Italian-American clinical trial of nutritional supplements and age-related cataract. Ann Ist Super Sanita. 2009;45(2):119-27.
- "Niacin". DrugBank: a knowledgebase for drugs, drug actions and drug targets. Retrieved 14 January 2012.
- Ishii N, Nishihara Y (1981). "Pellagra among chronic alcoholics: Clinical and pathological study of 20 necropsy cases". Journal of neurology, neurosurgery, and psychiatry 44 (3): 209–15. doi:10.1136/jnnp.44.3.209. PMC 490893. PMID 7229643.
- Jacobson, EL (2007). "Niacin". Linus Pauling Institute. Retrieved 8 August 2011.
- Combs GF. Vitamin B6. In: The Vitamins. Academic Press, Waltham, MA, 2007.
- "Folate". Patient Care & Health Info – Drugs and Supplements. Mayo Clinic. 1 November 2013. Retrieved 11 January 2014.
- "Vitamins and minerals – B vitamins and folic acid". NHS. National Health Service. 2012-11-26. Retrieved 2013-07-10.
- du, Vigneaud, V, Melville, D. B., Folkers, K., Wolf, D. E., Mozingo, D. E., Keresztesy, J. C., and Harris, S. A. The structure of biotin: a study of desthiobiotin. J.Biol.Chem 1942;:475-485.
- Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine. Dietary reference intakes for thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, folate, vitamin B12, pantothenic acid, biotin, and choline. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 1998;58-86.
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