In simpler times, a chemist discovered a substance vital to human health that the body could not produce and called it a “vitamine,” a portmanteau of “vital” and “amine” (due to a mistaken belief that this substance was an amino acid). Things got slightly more complicated when another such substance was found, but the scientists handled it with aplomb: they proclaimed the first “vitamin A” and the second — do you see where this is going? — “vitamin B.” Then came C, and D, followed by E, and then K, as several compounds in a row (F, G, H, I, and J, presumably), didn’t pass vitamin muster.
But then things started getting messy. When researchers began to realize that vitamin B was actually an entire family of substances, similar in form and function, but unique in the roles they play in human health. Instead of adding more letters (there weren’t that many left, and who knew where this proliferation of Bs was going to end), the namers turned to numbers: B1, B2, B3, B5, and so on.
A few things here. First, there’s no B4, which you could charitably chalk up to not wanting to be responsible for the following hypothetical conversation:
Parent: “Did you take your B4?”
Child: “Did I take my what before?”
Thank you, science.
Second, while there are eight B vitamins, there are no B batteries, which feels suspicious to me.
And third, the Bs aren’t even named in chronological order. If you peruse the 1,098-page classic, Handbook of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Fourth Edition, by Lundblad and McDonald, you’ll learn that B12 was first identified in 1926, while B3 wasn’t discovered until 1936. Either these folks had other things on their minds, or time travel is real. You decide.
Anyway, none of that is to take away from the importance of the B family of vitamins. In fact, all of them are essential for a healthy body and mind and play an integral role in how your body functions, starting at a cellular level. Conventional nutritional wisdom holds that the best places to find B vitamins are in animal products, where you can generally find them in abundance. But is it possible to get what you need from plant-based foods? What are the health benefits and risks of the various B vitamins? And should you supplement? These are the questions that we’ll tackle in this article. And we won’t take 1,098 pages to do it.
What Are the B Vitamins?
B vitamins refer to a group of 8 different vitamins that make up what’s often called the B-complex. The B vitamins are:
- thiamin (vitamin B1)
- riboflavin (vitamin B2)
- niacin (vitamin B3)
- pantothenic acid (vitamin B5)
- pyridoxine (vitamin B6)
- biotin (vitamin B7)
- folate (vitamin B9)
- cobalamin (vitamin B12)
This group of vitamins helps your body convert food into energy — also known as the process of metabolism — as well as create new blood cells. They’re also important for the maintenance of healthy skin cells, brain cells, and other body tissues.
Like vitamin C, the B vitamins are water-soluble, which means that they dissolve in water. Unlike the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, which are best absorbed when ingested alongside dietary fats, the water-soluble vitamins can be taken with water and then used by your body. Bacteria in the intestinal tract of animals produce B vitamins, which is why prevailing wisdom has recommended eating animals to get our daily requirements. This isn’t necessary, as many plants also contain these nutrients (see below for examples).
Recently, however, scientists have discovered that bacteria in the human microbiome themselves generate B vitamins. This makes logical sense, given that humans are in fact animals, but there are a couple of reasons that we can’t rely on our internal B factories for all we need.
First, not all guts produce these compounds equally. Second, we absorb B vitamins in the small intestines, but the bacteria that manufacture these vitamins are in the large intestines. Since the large intestines are the next to last stop on the poop train, it’s not clear how fully and efficiently those vitamins get to their absorption sites. For these reasons, many of us need to be intentional with our dietary sources of B vitamins to make sure we’re getting enough. But luckily, most of the B vitamins are typically found together in food.
8 Benefits of the 8 B Vitamins
Each of the B vitamins plays an integral role in maintaining your health and making sure your body functions properly. Below are some of the most important benefits of B vitamins; individually and collectively.
1. Help Regulate Blood Sugar
Getting enough B vitamins is important for regulating your blood sugar. Lower levels of B1, B6, and B7 have been observed among people who are struggling to regulate their blood sugar levels, and supplementing these has been shown to help improve metabolic control. Additionally, pharmaceutical doses of B1 and B3 may be useful to prevent kidney and cardiovascular complications in people with type 2 diabetes. The absorption of B9 and B12 has been found to be decreased by the use of metformin, a very common drug used to help manage blood sugar in type 2 diabetes. This demonstrates the importance of making sure you’re getting enough B9 and B12 if you have type 2 diabetes or other conditions that require close monitoring of your blood glucose.
2. Support Heart Health
Vitamins B6, B9, and B12 help reduce levels of the amino acid homocysteine, which contributes to increased cardiovascular disease risk when elevated (called hyperhomocysteinemia, and worth 8 gazillion points in Scrabble). These B vitamins improve vascular endothelial function and help keep your blood vessels dilated, which supports healthy circulation and is good for your heart. Vitamins B3 and B5 can increase HDL “good” cholesterol while lowering LDL “bad” cholesterol and triglycerides, which can also improve heart health. In fact, B3 is so effective at lowering cholesterol it was referred to as “the granddaddy of cholesterol-lowering drugs” by Harvard Medical School. It wasn’t until the first actual drug for this purpose — lovastatin — was introduced in 1987 that the use of niacin for cholesterol stopped being the standard of care in clinical settings.
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3. Protect Against Cognitive Decline
Getting enough of vitamins B2, B6, B9, and B12 may slow cognitive decline. Some observational studies have found an association between low serum folate (B9) levels and worse cognitive function. And low serum B12 is also associated with poor brain function. B2 is known to help alleviate both the frequency and severity of migraines. In one study, high-dose supplementation of B2 for 6 months resulted in a 50% reduction in headache frequency and severity. And vitamin B1 is a key factor in protecting against alcohol-related dementia, as it can reduce the accumulation of iron deposits in the brain that leads to deterioration.
4. Boosts Athletic Performance
Those who have lower levels of B vitamins — including college and professional athletes — may perform worse during high-intensity exercise, according to Oregon State University research published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. They may also have a tougher time recovering and building muscle. B vitamins are necessary during the body’s process for converting proteins and sugars into energy, and are used to produce and repair cells, including red blood cells (which carry oxygen to every cell in the body).
5. Improve Mood
All B vitamins — and especially B6, B9, and B12 — seem to help brain health and mood. A 2019 meta-analysis and review of 16 studies concluded that, when compared to a placebo, B vitamin supplements appear to be helpful in improving overall mood and reducing stress, especially among people at higher risk for poor nutrition or suffering from poor mood status. (For people who prefer plain talk, I think “poor mood status” can be translated to “feeling crappy.”)
6. Supports Healthy Pregnancy and Fetal Development
B vitamins are also crucial for supporting a healthy pregnancy and normal fetal development. Getting enough B9 and B12 is important to the development of a baby’s spinal cord. This is why it’s standard practice to educate mothers-to-be on supplementing folic acid and eating folate (B9)-rich foods, like dark leafy greens, lentils, and oranges, during pregnancy, to meet their minimum 400 micrograms per day requirement of this nutrient. In addition, some research suggests that vitamin B3 may help bypass genetic mutations that can cause certain birth defects or an increased risk of miscarriage.
7. Balance Hormones
B vitamins have many roles within the reproductive system and may help naturally maintain hormonal balance. Many women find success with supplemental vitamin B6 for alleviating nausea associated with morning sickness, as well as reducing symptoms of premenstrual syndrome. And vitamins B3 and B5 are needed for the production of hormones in the adrenal glands, such as sex and stress hormones.
8. Keep Nails, Hair, and Skin Healthy
All of the B vitamins may work together to keep your hair, skin, and nails healthy, but B7, B9, and B12 may be especially helpful. Biotin (B7) deficiency often presents as brittle nails, hair loss, and skin rash, and while evidence is mostly anecdotal, biotin supplementation is often used in hopes of improving these conditions. Changes in your nails are often the result of micronutrient deficiencies, including an array of B vitamins. In fact, a B12 deficiency may show up as entirely blue nails or other dark pigmentations. And a folate (B9) deficiency can cause your nails to become brittle and rigid.
Testing for Vitamin B Deficiency
A person may sometimes have a B vitamin deficiency diagnosis and obtain treatment based upon clinical findings and a response to treatment, rather than specific testing. But a blood or 24-hour urine test is usually done to confirm any suspicions if an individual is at high risk.
If you show concerning symptoms — like a rash, anemia, numbness, tongue inflammation, or abnormal fatigue — it’s more likely that testing should be done to diagnose what’s going on. Or, if you have a condition that puts you at a higher risk for vitamin B deficiency, like alcoholism, malnutrition, or a malabsorption disease, testing may be indicated.
Test results may show that you have less than optimal levels of certain B vitamins, but can’t necessarily tell you whether it’s because of a lack in your diet or an inability to properly absorb the vitamin. However, they do give your health care provider a place to start when determining the best plan forward to treat the deficiency and underlying cause.
Sources of B Vitamins
Now that you know how important getting enough B vitamins is to your health, where can you find them? Fortunately, there are many sources of B vitamins in whole foods that you may already enjoy — or can easily incorporate into your diet.
B Vitamin Food Sources
You can find most B vitamins in animal products, like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. But some of the best sources are plant-based and include whole grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, leafy greens, fortified foods, bananas, mushrooms, avocado, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and broccoli.
More specifically, below are some of the best places to find each of the 8 B-complex vitamins from plant-based foods:
- Vitamin B1: beans, peas, lentils, and sunflower seeds.
- Vitamin B2: almonds, tofu, mushrooms, avocado, and spinach.
- Vitamin B3: brown rice, nuts, seeds, legumes, and bananas.
- Vitamin B5: mushrooms, avocado, nuts, seeds, potatoes, brown rice, oats, and broccoli.
- Vitamin B6: chickpeas, dark leafy greens, papayas, bananas, oranges, and cantaloupe.
- Vitamin B7: sweet potatoes, nuts, seeds, and avocado.
- Vitamin B9: dark leafy greens, beans, peanuts, sunflower seeds, and oranges.
- Vitamin B12: fortified nutritional yeast and breakfast cereals, as well as enriched plant-based milks and yogurts.
B Vitamin Supplements
Most of the B vitamins (other than B12) are in a variety of whole foods. But you may want to supplement with certain ones if you don’t think you get enough from your diet, or if you fall into a category of people who may be at higher risk for deficiencies.
You may want to consider supplementing with folic acid — the more bioavailable synthetic form of folate — if you fall into a group that’s at higher risk for folate deficiency, like pregnant women and people with a history of chronic alcohol use.
Vitamin B12 also deserves extra attention because it’s harder to get from plant foods. Still, it’s not just plant-based eaters who are at risk. In fact, one study conducted a while back by researchers at Tufts University found that nearly 40% of Americans (including omnivores) may be deficient in this B vitamin. As such, supplementation is recommended for most people, especially vegans. For more on B12 see our article here.)
If you choose to supplement, you’ll most often find all the B vitamins combined as a B-complex. Alternatively, you can get individual supplements for each of the B vitamins, but this isn’t usually necessary. The exceptions are if you know you’re deficient in certain ones or are wanting to maximize a specific B vitamin and not the others.
It’s also worth noting that if you choose to take a daily multivitamin with minerals, it likely contains all the B vitamins.
If you’re considering taking a B-complex supplement, it’s important to know that not all supplements are equally effective. Many are poorly absorbed. Our friends at Purality Health developed a unique Micelle Liposomal technology that may be the most effective, home-consumer level option for delivering the B vitamins in a bioavailable way. It also has a pleasant taste when you mix it into a glass of water. And if you make a purchase using this link, you can take advantage of a discount for FRN readers. PLUS, they’ll make a contribution in support of our work.
Risks of Taking B Vitamin Supplements
Risks of potentially overdosing on B vitamins are usually associated with taking too many B vitamin supplements — not with eating too many foods rich in them. And in general, risks associated with taking B vitamin supplements are rare because of their water-soluble nature. If you consume too much, your body will eliminate the excess through urine. Despite this built-in “overflow mechanism,” an overdose of B-complex is possible and may result in symptoms like excessive thirst, skin rashes or flushing, blurred vision, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, increased urination, and diarrhea.
Note that niacin, or vitamin B3, specifically has been shown to be extremely effective in reducing high LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels when consumed in high doses (around 500-1,000 mg per day or more). One of the more commonly reported side effects of high dose niacin is called a “niacin flush”, a reddening of the skin that usually starts around 30 minutes after ingestion. While this isn’t generally considered harmful, such high doses of niacin (or any B vitamin) could potentially interact with other medications and should only be done with the direction of your healthcare provider. As a side-note, many internet sites recommend the niacin flush as a strategy to pass a drug test if you’d otherwise test positive for THC (the active ingredient in marijuana). Let me save you some time: it doesn’t work.
One more oddity: People who take supplemental B2 (riboflavin) may find that they develop abnormally bright or neon yellow urine. If this happens to you, don’t worry. You aren’t necessarily dehydrated, and you certainly aren’t in danger of turning yellow. Your body is just excreting some of the riboflavin that it doesn’t need.
Vitamin B-Strong Recipes
With the exception of B12, getting plenty of B vitamins on a plant-based diet can be easy when you add a variety of whole, healing plant-based foods to your plate. Mushrooms may not look as vibrant as kale, but they sure do pack a lot of nutrition including several B vitamins. Add nutritional yeast and whole-grain breadcrumbs to the appetizer and you get a B-vitamin smorgasbord!
Sweet and Savory African Soup — is it soup or breakfast? The truth of the matter is that we like to enjoy this B vitamin-rich soup for dinner, then devour tasty leftovers for breakfast (because it gets even better overnight!). So, it’s your choice, enjoy it for soup or breakfast or any time of the day.
Finally, B vitamins never tasted as good as they do in the Chunky Monkey Smoothie. Chocolate and vitamins? Who knew?
Starting with the superstar mushroom, you get a rich source of B vitamins like riboflavin, niacin, and pantothenic acid. Add nutritional yeast for B12 (if it’s fortified). Then get even more B vitamins by using whole grain bread for breadcrumbs, which provide folate and thiamine. This appetizer is not only tasty but it’s also a B-vitamin jamboree!
What’s in this soup that doesn’t contain an abundance of B vitamins? Not much! Peanut butter, chickpeas, sweet potatoes, and spinach all provide a variety of B vitamins to support brain health, heart health, and mood. Plus, it is pretty insanely delicious!
Vitamins never tasted so good! Getting your daily dose of B vitamins in a healthy-indulgent smoothie might be the most fun and delicious way to support brain, heart, and skin health. You’d never know that leafy greens snuck their way into this creamy chocolate-y blend!
B Vitamins Can Be Easy
B vitamins are important to just about every system in your body. And, they’re important for a healthy pregnancy, for hormone production, and for your hair, skin, and nails. While all of the B vitamins are in whole foods, there are a few that some people may struggle to get enough of. However avoiding deficiency is relatively easy with testing when indicated, and the addition of appropriate supplements. Hopefully, this article has helped you to B proactive with your well-being!
Tell us in the comments:
- Do you take B-complex or any individual B vitamin supplements?
- Have you ever experienced a deficiency in any of the B vitamins? What did that look like for you?
- Where do you find B vitamins in your diet?
Feature image: iStock.com/OksanaKiian
- Vitamin B12: Why it’s Important and How to Avoid B12 Deficiency
- Folate (B9): What It Is, Where to Get it, and Why Folate is Different from Folic Acid
- How to Get Maximal Nutrition from Your Food: Putting Food Combining, Sourcing, & Preparation Methods to Work for You