What Do B Vitamins Do and Why Should You Take Them?

05/30/2021 | 8 min. read

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If you have ever bought a gallon of milk or a carton of orange juice at the grocery store, then there is a good chance you've been introduced to vitamins D and C.

Many have been trained from childhood to understand the nutritional value found in these vitamin-enriched breakfast beverages. However, many people are less likely to be familiar with their alphabetical predecessor: B vitamins.

Although B vitamins may be lesser known, their nutritional value for health and wellness are equally as important. Unlike vitamins C and D, B vitamins refers to a group of vitamins, also referred to as B-complex vitamins. This group of nutrients are essential to our health and each has an important and unique role to play.

B Vitamins: What Are They?

B vitamins, or B-complex vitamins, refer to a collection of eight, water-soluble nutrients — together they contribute to overall health.

Roles in the body include:

  • Cellular health and function; growth and development
  • Aid in metabolism; help to convert food to energy by breaking down fats, proteins, and carbohydrates
  • Helps in hormone and cholesterol production
  • Aids in digestion, healthy brain function, proper Immune function and health, cardiovascular health, and more

B-complex Vitamins

As mentioned, there are eight vitamins that make up the group of B vitamins:

  • B1, also known as thiamine
  • B2; riboflavin
  • B3; niacin
  • B5; pantothenic acid
  • B6; pyridoxine
  • B7; biotin
  • B9; folic acid or folate
  • B12; cobalamin

Where Do We Get B Vitamins?

B vitamins, like all water-soluble vitamins, are not produced naturally by our bodies. They must be consumed by the foods we eat or through supplementation. B vitamins can be found in a variety of foods.

Since these nutrients must be consumed through the foods we eat, deficiencies can arise without proper nutrition. Each B vitamin has specific deficiencies, some of which overlap.

B Vitamins: What Do They Do?

As stated, each B vitamin has a unique role to play within the body. Let’s take a moment and look at each, their specific role, health benefits, and why they shouldn’t be neglected.

Vitamin B1 Thiamine

Thiamine is an essential nutrient for muscle and nervous system health. It also helps in the metabolism process, as carbohydrates in the food we eat are broken down and used as energy. In fact, research suggests that it may also have a role to play in decreasing glucose (blood sugar) levels in people with type 2 diabetes.

In the randomized, placebo-controlled study, one group of type 2 diabetic participants received oral thiamine (150 mg) for one month. Results show a significant decrease in their glucose levels after thiamine intervention as compared to the placebo group.

Although thiamine deficiency is less common in the U.S., deficiency can still persist. More severe forms of thiamine deficiency can cause a disease known as beriberi, which can damage nerves and lead to a decrease in muscle strength.

Sources of Thiamine

  • Whole grains
  • Beans, lentils, and green peas
  • Fish and pork
  • Some fortified breakfast cereals

Recommended Dietary Allowance: Men (19 and older); 1.2 mg daily | Women (19 and older); 1.1 mg daily, 1.4 mg for those pregnant or breastfeeding.

Vitamin B2 Riboflavin

Riboflavin’s main role is in energy production. It also aids in other important cellular functions such as the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins for energy; as a coenzyme, it helps break down certain hormones.

Riboflavin also shows promising evidence as a preventive nutrient for migraine headaches.

In one controlled trial, researchers found that participants who received high doses of riboflavin, 400 mg daily, had a reduced frequency of migraine headaches as compared to the placebo group.

Sources of Riboflavin

  • Dairy products; milk, cheese, and yogurt
  • Lean beef, organ meats, fish, pork and poultry
  • Dark, leafy greens such as spinach
  • Nuts such as almonds

Recommended Dietary Allowance: Men (19 and older); 1.3 mg daily | Women (19 and older); 1.1 mg daily, 1.4 – 1.6 mg for those pregnant or breastfeeding.

Vitamin B3 Niacin

Niacin is found in two forms: Nicotinic acid and niacinamide.

Like other B vitamins, niacin aids in the metabolic process, helping convert food into energy by supporting certain enzymes. It also has positive effects as an antioxidant, playing a key role in cell signaling and DNA repair.

Some of the more surprising benefits are niacin’s role in improving cholesterol; lowering LDL and increasing HDL cholesterol.

One research study conducted by JAMA Internal Medicine found that niacin acid significantly reduced low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol by 5 to 25 percent.

Sources of Niacin

  • Beef liver, beef, pork, and tuna
  • Grains, such as white and brown rice
  • Nuts and seed such as peanuts and pumpkin and sunflower seeds
  • Vegetables such as potatoes, broccoli, and spinach

Recommended Dietary Allowance: Men (19 and older); 16 mg daily | Women (19 and older); 14 mg daily, 17 – 18 mg for those pregnant or breastfeeding.

Vitamin B5 Pantothenic acid

Like other B vitamins, pantothenic acid is necessary for energy production.

Pantothenic acid is carried throughout the body via red blood cells and helps aid in the metabolic processes; lipoprotein metabolism and triglyceride synthesis — helping lower lipid levels in those with hyperlipidemia.

Sources of Pantothenic Acid

  • Beef liver, chicken, and fish
  • Shitake mushrooms and avocados
  • Carrots, spinach, and cabbage
  • Grains; brown rice and oats

Recommended Dietary Allowance: Men (19 and older); 5 mg daily | Women (19 and older); 5 mg daily, 6 -7 mg for those pregnant or breastfeeding.

Vitamin B6 Pyridoxine

One of pyridoxine's major benefits is its role in numerous enzyme reactions. It helps the body form hemoglobin, which is an important substance in red blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen in the cells.

Pyridoxine is also essential in amino acid metabolism, helping to break down proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. It also shows positive results in mood regulation due to its enzyme reactions and role in creating neurotransmitters; including those that regulate emotional hormones such as:

  • Serotonin
  • Dopamine
  • Gamma-aminobutyric acid

Some studies show a correlation between low pyridoxine levels and depression symptoms. In addition, low levels of pyridoxal have also been associated with an increased risk of coronary artery disease in some studies.

Sources of Pyridoxine

  • Chickpeas
  • Beef liver, salmon, and turkey
  • Squash, onions, and spinach
  • Fortified breakfast cereals, white rice, and raisins

Recommended Dietary Allowance: Men (19 and older); 1.3 mg daily | Women (19 and older); 1.3 mg daily, 1.9 - 2 mg for those pregnant or breastfeeding.

Vitamin B7 Biotin

Biotin is also essential for energy metabolism. In addition, it is a necessary nutrient for fat and glycogen synthesis.

Since biotin deficiency presents with symptoms such as skin rashes and hair loss, it is commonly used for hair and skin health. However, there are only a few current studies to confirm these benefits.

One small study in Switzerland did show positive results in biotin supplementation for brittle nails, promoting nail thickness in 63 percent of participants.

Sources of Biotin

  • Dairy products; milk, cheese, and yogurt
  • Beef liver, salmon, and pork
  • Oatmeal and whole wheat bread
  • Spinach, broccoli, and sweet potatoes

Recommended Dietary Allowance: Men (19 and older); 30 mcg daily | Women (19 and older); 30 mcg daily, 30 - 35 mcg for those pregnant or breastfeeding.

Vitamin B9 | Folate

Vitamin B-9 is also known as folate, or folic acid in its synthetic form. It, like the other water-soluble vitamins, does not occur naturally in the body.

Some of the essential functions it aids include:

  • Metabolism of amino acids and other vitamins
  • DNA synthesis and repair
  • Cell growth and division

It has also been found to reduce the risk for certain birth defects (spina bifida) in unborn children. Folate has also been shown to aid in the reduction of blood pressure.

One study conducted by the Journal of American Medical Association found a decreased risk of hypertension among women who took 1,000 mcg or more of folate a day; a 46 percent lower risk than those with a daily intake of less than 200 mcg.

Furthermore, folate-based supplements, along with other B vitamins have also shown promising results in managing blood sugar and diabetes; helping to reduce insulin resistance.

Sources of Folate

  • Black-eyed peas, kidney beans, and green peas
  • Beef liver, crab, and some fish
  • Asparagus, turnip greens, and spinach
  • Orange juice and tomato juice

Recommended Dietary Allowance: Men (19 and older); 400 mcg daily | Women (19 and older); 400 mcg daily, 500 - 600 mcg for those pregnant or breastfeeding.

Vitamin B12 Cobalamin

Vitamin B12 is the last of the important B-complex nutrients. Since it contains traces of the mineral known as cobalt, it is sometimes referred to as cobalamin.

In terms of its role in the body, B-12 is essential for DNA synthesis, protein and fat metabolism, production of red blood cells, and neurological function. Its role in red blood cell production helps prevent anemia. In fact, one of the more serious complications brought on by B-12 deficiency is anemia; presenting symptoms such as fatigue.

Most people who ascribe to vegetarian or vegan dietary lifestyles must supplement with B-12 to avoid deficiency. B12 has also shown surprising benefits for its role in cardiovascular health. Elevated homocysteine levels have been associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Since B12 is involved in homocysteine metabolism, research has shown that B12 supplementation has the ability to reduce cardiovascular disease risk by lowering homocysteine levels.

Sources of Cobalamin

  • Beef liver, beef, turkey
  • Clams, salmon, and tuna
  • Milk, yogurt, cheddar cheese

Recommended Dietary Allowance: Men (19 and older); 2.4 mcg daily | Women (19 and older); 2.4 mcg daily, 2.6 – 2.8 mcg for those pregnant or breastfeeding.

In Summary: Why You Should Take B Vitamins

As you can see, the role of B vitamins cannot be overstated. Although thought of as less than other nutrients, B-complex vitamins do boast numerous essential health benefits for the body; especially in energy metabolism and cellular health.

These benefits are not only helpful to our bodies, but are in fact essential. Though deficiencies are rare in most cases, they can lead to serious health issues. If getting these nutrients through dietary means is not possible, many B-complex supplements are made in combination, available through a daily multivitamin.

Healthy Directions Staff Editor