The B vitamins are a group of nutrients that scientists place together due to their interrelated functions. They assist the body in producing energy from food and play a role in metabolism, growth, and development.
There are eight B vitamins in total, including:
- B1 (thiamin)
- B2 (riboflavin)
- B3 (niacin)
- B5 (pantothenic acid)
- B6 (pyridoxine)
- B7 (biotin)
- B9 (folate)
- B12 (cobalamin)
They occur naturally in various foods, and some people also choose to take a daily B complex supplement. This article explains some of the most notable vitamin B benefits and how to ensure you’re getting enough.
B Vitamins for Improved Energy Metabolism
Many people take vitamin B complex for energy. Indeed, these nutrients are essential for extracting energy from food. They do this by acting as coenzymes, meaning they enhance or are necessary for enzymatic activity.
Enzymes are catalysts and speed up chemical reactions within the body. Their many functions include breaking down carbohydrates, protein, and fat into smaller molecules that our cells can utilize. Many of them rely on the B vitamins to work efficiently, for example:
B1: Thiamin forms part of a coenzyme that helps to break down glucose. It also metabolizes branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) to support endurance during physical training.
B2: Riboflavin forms two coenzymes that help extract energy from glucose, fatty acids, and amino acids. They also have antioxidant effects, protecting cells from the oxidation that occurs during energy production.
B3: Niacin acts as a coenzyme in over 200 different metabolic pathways. It facilitates the metabolism of carbohydrates and fatty acids, especially during periods of increased energy expenditure.
B5: Pantothenic acid is a vital component of coenzyme A. It is involved in many different metabolic reactions that extract energy from fatty acids.
B6: Pyridoxine influences over 100 different enzymes. It is involved in amino acid metabolism and works closely with B9 and B12. It also plays a role in hemoglobin synthesis, thus promoting oxygen transport throughout the body.
B7: Biotin acts as a coenzyme in over 40 different reactions. It is primarily involved in the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. It also helps the body to create glucose from amino acids when energy is in high demand.
B9: Folate is involved in DNA synthesis, amino acid metabolism, and the maturation of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.
B12: Cobalamin also plays a role in the formation of blood. Its functions overlap significantly with vitamins B6 and B9.
Supporting Brain Health and Mental Function
B vitamins play a fundamental role in energy production, and the brain uses a vast amount of energy. In fact, this complex organ accounts for approximately 20% of our metabolic needs.
Therefore, the importance of vitamin B for brain health cannot be overstated. Each vitamin has a distinct role, which we will summarize in detail below:
B1: Thiamin is necessary for producing the precursors to several neurochemicals. It also plays a role in modulating the acetylcholine system. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that allows the nervous system to communicate with muscles. It is also involved in learning and memory.
B2: As well as being necessary for many enzymatic reactions, riboflavin aids iron absorption and use. It also has antioxidant functions and influences thyroid hormone regulation.
B3: Niacin is heavily involved in energy production and oxidative reactions. It is necessary for DNA metabolism and repair, cellular signaling, and modulating inflammation.
B5: Pantothenic acid helps to synthesize cholesterol, amino acids, phospholipids, and fatty acids. These chemicals are all integral to the structure of our brain cells. Vitamin B5 is also involved in neurotransmitter and steroid hormone synthesis.
B6: Pyridoxine is necessary for synthesizing several vital neurochemicals. They include dopamine, serotonin, GABA, norepinephrine, and melatonin.
B7: Biotin is primarily involved in producing glucose, providing much-needed fuel for brain cells.
B9 and B12: Folate and cobalamin have closely interrelated functions in the brain. They are necessary for converting amino acids into serotonin, melatonin, dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. They are also vital for healthy fetal development.
Vitamin B and Mood
Some people believe that B vitamin supplementation can also impact one’s mood. A 2019 review found some evidence to support this.
It included 18 studies involving the use of at least three B vitamins for at least four weeks. The review found that 11 of the trials had positive results. They included improvements in overall or specific aspects of mood.
However, although the results suggested supplementation could potentially reduce stress, there were no significant improvements in depression or anxiety symptoms.
Supports Male and Female Fertility
B vitamins also play a key role in the male body. B9 and B12 may be especially important.
Research has shown that these nutrients influence sperm parameters in men with specific genetic traits, specifically, methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) polymorphisms. This piece of genetic code appears to affect fertility significantly.
B12, in particular, appears to increase sperm count and motility while reducing DNA damage.
There are several theories about how it does this. Among others, they include:
- Increasing reproductive organ functionality
- Reducing toxicity and oxidative damage to sperm
- Reducing inflammation-induced semen impairment
However, these theories are mainly unconfirmed, and the results of clinical trials on vitamin B for men are mixed.
It also seems that B vitamins could affect female fertility. A 2008 study found that multivitamin use was correlated with lower rates of ovulatory infertility. The study’s authors suggest that B vitamins, especially folate, are of great importance.
Furthermore, certain B vitamins are essential for DNA synthesis and, therefore, egg production. Folate also plays a role in maintaining healthy menstrual cycles. Vitamins B6 and B12 also appear to influence female fertility. Interestingly, approximately half of women with fertility issues also have low vitamin B12 levels.
B Vitamins for Pregnant and Breastfeeding Women
Another significant benefit of vitamin B for women is during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Folate is particularly important during pregnancy due to its role in fetal development. It helps to prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly.
Folate deficiency can also pose a risk to pregnant women, increasing the risk of anemia and peripheral neuropathy. Therefore, the CDC recommends all women of reproductive age take 400mcg of folic acid (a synthetic version of folate) daily. They should also eat plenty of folate-containing foods.
The CDC recommends all women of reproductive age take 400mcg of folic acid daily.
Vitamin B12 is another essential nutrient during pregnancy, and deficiency can lead to several problems for both mother and baby. They include developmental abnormalities, increased risk of miscarriage, preeclampsia, and low birth weight. Meanwhile, B6 plays a role in fetal brain development.
It is also critical to consume enough B vitamins while breastfeeding, especially B1, B2, B6, and B12. These nutrients pass from mother to child via breast milk. This is a significant issue since vitamin deficiencies can lead to slow growth and development in the baby. Breastfeeding can also cause further vitamin depletion in the mother.
Supports Skin Health
In some cases, vitamin B deficiency can cause skin disorders. For example, B6 deficiency can cause a non-specific, itchy rash or inflamed lips and tongue.
Meanwhile, B12 deficiency has been associated with various skin symptoms. They include hyperpigmentation, vitiligo, hair changes, and inflammation at the corners of the mouth. Therefore, it may be helpful to take vitamin B complex for skin health in some circumstances.
Additionally, there could be several advantages to using vitamin B directly on the skin. Niacinamide, a form of vitamin B3, is a common ingredient in cosmetic preparations. It has antioxidant properties, and its potential benefits include:
- Improving the barrier function of the skin
- Decreasing yellowing and hyperpigmentation
- Relieving redness and blotchy skin
- Reducing fine lines and wrinkles
Research also suggests that topical vitamin B application could assist wound healing. A 2018 study tested several different combinations of B vitamins on skin cells. The results showed that specific combinations enhanced skin cell growth and promoted wound closure. However, research into this subject is in its early stages. Therefore, further study is necessary to confirm these findings.
How to Maximize the Benefits of Vitamin B
Taking a vitamin B complex supplement is a convenient way to meet one’s nutritional needs each day. However, many experts have suggested that supplementation is less effective than deriving vitamin B from food.
It appears that the body can absorb and utilize nutrients from food more efficiently than synthetic alternatives. There is also a lower risk of experiencing adverse reactions.
However, some people may struggle to get enough B vitamins from natural sources. Examples include people with malabsorption conditions, such as celiac or Crohn’s disease, or alcohol use disorder. Furthermore, vegetarians and vegans may find it challenging to consume sufficient B12 as it generally derives from animal sources.
Many different foods contain one or more B vitamins. Some of the best vitamin B sources include:
- Dairy products
- Leafy greens
- Peas and beans
- Fortified foods (breakfast cereals, bread, etc.)
Since vitamin B is good for so many different aspects of health, people should aim to eat a variety of these foods each day. The recommended daily intake for each B vitamin can be found on the USDA website.
Vitamin B Complex Side Effects
B vitamins are water-soluble, so the body excretes whatever it does not need. Therefore, vitamin B side effects are rare.
However, there is a risk that taking high doses of some B vitamins for a long time could be harmful. For example, a 2017 study discovered that male smokers who took high-dose vitamin B6 (20mg/day) or B12 (55mcg/day) for over ten years had a 3–4 times higher risk of lung cancer than those who did not.
Anyone considering taking vitamin B complex should consult a physician or dietician before use.
There is also a risk that taking high doses of vitamin B9 could mask a B12 deficiency, also known as pernicious anemia. Finally, some experts are concerned that synthetic folic acid could increase the risk of cancer, depression, and cognitive impairment.
Therefore, anyone considering taking vitamin B complex should consult a physician or dietician before use. It is also critical not to exceed the maximum daily dose.
Summary on Vitamin B Benefits
The B vitamins have numerous functions within the body, and it is essential to get enough of these nutrients each day. However, some experts have suggested that natural food sources are safer and more effective than taking vitamin B complex.
That said, it may be difficult for some people to get enough vitamin B from their diets. Individuals should seek advice from a healthcare provider to determine whether supplementation is appropriate for them.