B Vitamins in a Nutshell

Essential to combat stress
by Lynn Siprelle

Food should be your first source for B vitaminsB vitamins. You hear about them all the time, but what do they actually do? It's not too far a stretch to say that the B vitamins keep your body running properly. Just about all of the body's functions rely on B vitamins to perform, from the brain to the heart to just about every other organ in the body.

B vitamins are especially important when we're stressed. If you're under chronic stress, look into taking extra B vitamins. John takes Nature's Way B-Stress every day, and we notice it when he doesn't.

Here's a quick look at the B vitamins, what they do, and how to get them. (Remember, don't take this article as any kind of diagnostic gospel; talk to your health provider before adding any kind of supplement to your diet--even something as innocuous as B vitamins.)

Thiamine, or B1, is the B vitamin that the body needs to keep all of its cells functioning correctly. The nervous system, in particular, depends on it. It's especially important for memory and general mental health and is one of the B vitamins needed to convert food into energy.

Thiamine deficiencies are primarily brought on by alcoholism or over-consumption of coffee or tea (we're talking about a LOT of coffee or tea, folks, don't panic). Thiamine is water-soluble; the body can't store it, so you need to get a constant source of it. The current RDA for thiamin is only 1.2 mg/day, but studies show that taking as much as 50 mg/day can increase your mental acuity.

Good sources of thiamine include:

  • Green peas
  • Spinach
  • Liver
  • Beef
  • Pork
  • Navy beans
  • Nuts
  • Pinto beans
  • Bananas
  • Soybeans
  • Whole-grain and enriched cereals and breads
  • Yeast
  • Rice bran
  • Legumes

Riboflavin, or B2, is the B vitamin that is essential for converting the food we eat to energy. You cannot break down and use proteins, fats and carbohydrates without this B vitamin, and our red blood cells need it to function as well. If you take a B supplement, riboflavin is what turns your urine that bright yellow color!

Because riboflavin has a low solubility, it's easy to become deficient in it, though someone who is deficient in riboflavin is almost always also deficient in a number of other vitamins as well.

Good sources of riboflavin include:

  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Liver
  • Legumes like soybeans
  • Yeast
  • Almonds
  • Asparagus
  • Okra
  • Yogurt
  • Eggs
  • Fish

Niacin, or B3, is the B vitamin responsible for more than fifty bodily processes. It helps remove toxins from the body and is a major aid to the making of hormones, including steroid hormones, sex hormones and stress-related hormones. Niacin deficiency leads to pellagra, a nasty disease that used to run rampant in the American South where corn--the only grain low in niacin--was the staple food.

Niacin helps balance "good" and "bad" cholesterol levels, and is sometimes prescribed for hyperlipidemia--too much fatty acid in the blood. At pharmacological doses, niacin can cause flushing, itching, rashes, and even cardiac arrhythmias. But this is in very large doses indeed. The RDA for niacin is 1.3 mg/day, which a prescribed dose can be as high as 6 g/day--almost 600 times the RDA.

Good sources of niacin include:

  • Organ meats
  • Mushrooms
  • Chicken
  • Salmon and tuna
  • Leafy vegetables
  • Milk
  • Nuts
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Yeast
  • Avocados
  • Eggs

Pantothenic acid, or B5, is critical to life--not just human life, ALL life. It works with several other B vitamins for a number of essential processes including breaking down fats, proteins, and carbohydrates into energy and is also the B vitamin that is needed to form vitamin D, a variety of hormones, and red blood cells.

Small amounts of B5 are found in almost all foods, in fact its name comes from the Greek meaning "from everywhere." It's very nearly impossible not to get enough B5. Higher amounts of pantothenic acid are found in:

  • Organ meats
  • Salmon
  • Milk
  • Whole grains
  • Eggs

Pyridoxine, or B6, balances sodium and potassium in the body--a critical balance. It is the B vitamin largely responsible for changing amino acids into more than five thousand proteins needed by the body. And it is the B vitamin needed for the body to make serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline--enzymes without which we can become depressed or anxious. B6 is also critical to making hemoglobin, the part of your red blood cells that carries oxygen to your tissues, and is crucial to the immune system. It's also part of a system that can make niacin if your body is deficient in it.

Good sources of B6 include:

  • Chicken
  • Fish
  • Pork
  • Liver
  • Kidney
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts
  • Legumes

Biotin, or B7, is one of the B vitamins necessary for converting food to energy and for cell growth. Biotin helps regulate blood sugar, and has been the subject of diabetes studies. Often recommended for strengthening nails and hair, biotin can be found in many cosmetics.

Biotin deficiencies are rare. Beneficial bacteria in your gut manufactures biotin, for starters! Good sources of biotin include:

  • Liver and kidney
  • Dairy products
  • Oysters
  • Lobster
  • Salmon
  • Yeast
  • Cauliflower
  • Chicken breast
  • Egg yolk

Folic acid, or B9, is the essential B vitamin for aiding in cell growth and division, especially during pregnancy. This B vitamin is also necessary to make natural chemicals which control the appetite, moods and quality of sleep. It is also the best B vitamin for helping lower the chances of suffering a heart attack or stroke by keeping the arteries open. It's often prescribed to heart patients, and as one, I take it every day by prescription.

If you're pregnant or trying to get pregnant, you should be making sure you get enough folic acid every day. It's critical to the prevention of birth defects.

Good sources of folic acid include:

  • Lentils and chickpeas (garbanzos)
  • Leafy greens like collards
  • Papaya
  • Peas
  • Broccoli
  • Oranges
  • Strawberries

Cobalamin, or B12, is one of the B vitamins used in turning food into energy. This B vitamin is also vital in forming the protective covering of nerve cells and to keep red blood cells healthy, and help prevent heart disease. It's also believed to help with insomnia.

Deficiency of B12 is extremely common. If you are vegetarian or vegan you are almost certainly B12-deficient if you don't supplement somehow, because B12 is almost exclusively found in animal products. A B12 deficiency can translate into depression, and if left unchecked can cause nerve damage.

If you supplement, look for methylcobalamine, aka methyl B12. It's more expensive than the more commonly found cyanocobalamine, but it is easier to absorb. Methylcobalamine is one of the two B's I take every day (the other being folic acid), both for my heart.

Good sources of B12 include:

  • Meat, especially liver
  • Shellfish
  • Egg yolks (the whites actually inhibit absorption)
  • Milk, cheese and yogurt

Pretty big nutshell, huh? :) Make sure you're getting the proper amount of B vitamins every day, especially if you're under stress, pregnant or trying to get pregnant.


Shaun's picture

I've been meaning to write about the integrative medicine program I am in for living with depression. I just met with the nutritionist yesterday, and she said I need to take a B Complex -- even though I take a pretty comprehensive multivitamin now. (She also recommened another vitamin I know Lynn is in favor of -- Vit. D)


silverbear's picture

I take a B-50 supplement before each night shift. That, plus green tea, plus micromeals like yogurt and berries, keep me going like the Energizer Bunny for 12 hours.

(Okay, and medicinal doses of chocolate, too :D )

Andrea's picture

FWIW, I recently had my annual exam and my ob-gyn was strongly pushing Vitamin D for a variety of reasons. She wanted to insure that I was getting enough D one way or another. I was already taking it for the lack of sun here in the North and the mild seasonal symptoms I experience. So what B should I be taking? My multi has 2 mg of B6 and 6 mg of B12. What about the other B's? Does a B-complex include all of them?

Lynn's picture

aka 12, 9 and 6 (hmm, a pattern!) are the big ones--and that pattern is interesting, because 3 is also one you can have a deficiency of--niacin. Food sources are always best, but if you can't get enough in food I'd suggest a good B combo. Pure Encapsulations is always my favorite vitamin maker of any kind of vitamin, along with Rainbow Light--the former because ALL you get are the vitamins, no fillers, and the latter because their vitamins are food-based. Neither are cheap.

Lynn Siprelle, Editor

Lynn's picture

It's like almost my favorite vitamin! ;)

Lynn Siprelle, Editor

Lynn's picture

I haven't been sleeping well, and as I did the research for this I realized it's because I ran out of B12 a while ago. d'oh!

Lynn Siprelle, Editor

Guest's picture

Low vitamin B levels can also be found among individuals who have gastric bypass surgery (aka weight loss surgery). It can cause them to develop "foot drop" aka slimmer's paralysis and if not taken care of, can lead to permanent neuropathy.

Add new comment