There are 8 separate vitamins which are referred to as “Vitamin B”:
- B1 (Thiamin, also Thiamine)
- B2 (Riboflavin)
- B3 (Niacin)
- B5 (Panthothenic acid)
- B6 (Pyridoxine)
- B7 (Biotin, also called vitamin H)
- B9 (Called folate in natural form, folic acid in synthetic form)
- B12 (Cobalamins)
Each of these B vitamins has its own separate function in the body. However, because many of the functions are similar or related, B vitamins are often grouped together. As a group, B vitamins are crucial for aiding in the process of breaking down food into energy. For this reason, they have often been hyped up as helping with weight loss. Further, B vitamins are essential for nervous system function and some studies show that they may help reduce risk of Alzheimer’s.
There are many other essential functions of B vitamins in the body, such as helping in red blood cell formation, hormone synthesis, and cell production. B vitamins have been attributed to numerous benefits, such as:
- Lowering cholesterol levels (niacin)
- Fighting depression and stress
- Reducing cancer risk
- Increasing energy levels
- Protecting against heart disease
- Improving skin, hair and nail quality
- Managing premenstrual symptoms
- Stabilizing blood sugar levels
One B vitamin, folic acid, is so essential for new cell growth that it is recommended for pregnant women in their first trimester. Studies show that taking folic acid during pregnancy can reduce risk of health problems like spina bifida, heart defects, and cleft palate.
Vitamin B Daily Recommendations
|B1 (Thiamine) (mg/d)||B2 (Riboflavin) (mg/d)||B3 (Niacin) (mg/d)||B5 (Panth. Acid) (mg/d)||B6 (mg/d)||B7 (Biotin) (μg/d)||B9 (Folic Acid) (μg/d)||B12 (μg/d)|
***Information taken from Dietary Reference Reports found at the Institute of Medicine.
Natural Sources of Vitamin B
Vitamin B is quickly flushed out of animals and plants. However, animals are better able to hold B vitamins than plants, which is why they are a much richer source of the vitamin than plants. Foods with the highest content of B vitamins include clams, sardines, fish, lamb, and beef. In general, foods with high amounts of protein tend to be good sources of vitamin B.
Vegetarian food which are a good source of B vitamins include eggs, yogurt, and cheese. There are also many vegan foods which are good natural sources of vitamin B though. These include:
- Green vegetables (particularly types of cabbage and dark leafy greens)
- Beans and legumes
While these vegan foods do contain high amounts of most B vitamins, they are not sources of vitamin B12, which (with the exception of nutritional yeast and some algae) is only found naturally in animal products. For this reason, many vegans choose to take a vitamin B12 supplement.
|Vitamin||Best Vegetarian Sources|
|B1 (Thiamin)||Whole grains, seeds, nuts, beans, squash, watermelon, corn, peas, nutritional yeast, raisins, leafy green vegetables, mushrooms, asparagus, egg yolk|
|B2 (Riboflavin)||Nutritional yeast, dried herbs, nuts, soybeans, most aged cheeses, wheat bran, tomatoes, sesame seeds, leafy green vegetables, yogurt, milk, mushrooms, eggs, bell peppers|
|B3 (Niacin)||Whole grains, nuts, legumes, mushrooms, soy sauce, asparagus, dates, tomato products, bell peppers, leafy green vegetables, corn, sweet potatoes, avocados, nutritional yeast, eggs|
|B5 (Pantothenic acid)||Bran, sunflower seeds, shiitake mushrooms, cauliflower, most aged cheeses, avocados, lentils, split peas, corn, leafy green vegetables, milk, yogurt, nuts, sweet potato|
|B6 (Pyridoxine)||Whole grains, squash, sunflower seeds, shiitake mushrooms, lentils, chickpeas, beans, nuts, bell peppers, leafy green vegetables, bananas, potatoes, yams|
|B7 (Biotin)||Egg yolk, leafy green vegetables, peas, soybeans, yeast, walnuts, peanuts, oats, bananas, avocados, lentils, wheat germ|
|B9 (Folic acid)||Leafy green vegetables, brown rice, peas, chickpeas, egg yolk, sunflower seeds, legumes, beans, citrus fruits, melon, banana, beets, corn, avocado|
|B12||Eggs, milk, yogurt, nutritional yeast, some algae|
Vitamin B Deficiency
Because B vitamins are so important for metabolism and the nervous system, a deficiency in these vitamins can result in problems like low energy, stress or trouble concentrating. Deficiencies in vitamin B6, B12 or folic acid can also lead to anemia because the vitamins are critical in the production of new red blood cells.
It is important to remember that, even though we usually refer to B vitamins as a group, each does have its own specific function and a deficiency will produce different consequences. If you suspect a vitamin B deficiency, you should visit your doctor and not try to self-diagnose or medicate!
People at risk of vitamin B deficiency include:
- Vegans (particularly a vitamin B12 deficiency)
- Pregnant and lactating women
- The elderly
- People with certain medical problems, such as intestinal problems, autoimmune disorders, or pernicious anemia
There is also some evidence that contraceptive pills may interfere with the absorption of vitamin B6. For this reason, women taking hormonal birth control may want to speak to their doctors about also taking B6 supplements.
Overdose of Vitamin B
B vitamins are water soluble (as opposed to fat soluble), which means that they are not stored in the body. They will be quickly flushed out of the body through urine, so a vitamin B overdose is not likely. For most of the eight B vitamins, there is absolutely no risk of overdose. The exceptions to this are vitamin B3 (niacin) and vitamin B6.
The recommended daily intake of niacin for adults is 14-16 mg. However, niacin is tolerable in much higher amounts. For healthy adults, the Institute of Medicine has listed the tolerable upper limit of niacin at 35mg/day. Niacin may be prescribed in high dosages for certain health conditions. For example, 1500mg/day of niacin is commonly prescribed for high cholesterol. At these levels, side effects from niacin could occur, such as:
- Skin rashes
- Upset stomach
If large dosages of niacin are taken for prolonged periods of time, it could possibly result in liver damage.
The recommended daily intake of vitamin B6 for adults is 1.2-1.9 mg. Like niacin, vitamin B6 is also tolerable in much higher amounts. The Institute of Medicine lists the tolerable upper limit of B6 for adults at 60-100mg/day. In dosages over 200mg/day for extended periods of time, B6 could result in neurological damage and coordination problems.
Who Needs Vitamin B Supplements?
Vitamin B supplements are prescribed for treating vitamin B deficiency. Since there is such a low risk of an overdose on vitamin B, many people at risk of deficiency may decide to take the vitamins as a preventative measure – particularly vegetarians. Vegans in particular should take vitamin B12 supplements because the vitamin is so difficult to get on a vegan diet.
Even people who aren’t at risk of vitamin B deficiency may decide to take the supplements because of their purported health benefits, like boosted energy, increased metabolism, and better mood.
Best Way to Take Vitamin B Supplements
Vitamin B should be taken with meals or immediately after eating. This will help the body absorb the vitamins.
Vitamin B supplements (like B complex pills) often come in very high dosage amounts. While there is virtually no risk of an overdose on vitamin B, it is pointless to take extremely high amounts of the vitamin. The body will not be able to make use of the high dosage and will just flush it out in your urine (which is why your urine will be very bright yellow after taking a high-dosage B complex vitamin).
To get the most of your B vitamin, consider taking lower dosages several times throughout the day (such as breaking pills in half and taking them at each meal). Or, you can look for extended-released vitamin B pills.
For severe deficiencies in vitamin B, a doctor may prescribe vitamin B injections.