B vitamins are probably the most mysterious vitamins out there.
After all, how many other supplements can you get injected into your bum when you’re feeling “low energy?” And it seems like there are a lot of different forms of B, but most of us have only heard of B6 or B12. To make everything a little more confusing, some go by their “B” name and others go by names like folate and biotin. So what’s the deal with the big B?
What do B vitamins do?
Basically, the B vitamin family helps the body process food (carbohydrates in particular) and convert it into energy, or glucose. B vitamins also play a key role in red blood cell formation, and are often called the “anti-stress vitamins” because they support healthy immune system function and improve the body’s resiliency. All B-complex vitamins, also called the B vitamin family, are water-soluble meaning that the body can’t store them, so any excess ends up getting eliminated through sweat or urine. That means we constantly need to replenish our stores through food or supplements.
Forms of vitamin B
The first form of B to be discovered, hence the name B1, or thiamine, plays a huge role in making new cells because it creates ATP, which those baby cells use for energy. It’s also an important nutrient for those who eat a lot of carbohydrates—especially simple carbs—because it helps break down and metabolize them. So carbo-loading runners, make sure you’re getting enough thiamine! B1 deficiency doesn’t happen often—many of the foods we eat are fortified with it, and it’s present in both animal and vegetable sources. But when it does, symptoms can be nasty, including headache, nausea, fatigue, and depression.
Like all B-complex vitamins, riboflavin helps with energy production. But it mostly works as an antioxidant, protecting cells from free-radical damage and reducing the risk of cancer, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses. B2 also acts like an assistant to B6 and folate—which our bodies can’t fully use in all of their forms (more on that later) until B2 transforms them into usable compounds.
Riboflavin has also been studied for its potential to reducing migraine headaches, although there’s not enough significant research available to confirm its effectiveness. Most people get enough riboflavin in their diets, but it’s common to see B2 deficiencies in alcoholics and the elderly because they’re unable to absorb it.
Niacin is essential for healthy skin and digestive function, but it’s commonly used to stabilize cholesterol levels—B3 increases HDL cholesterol (the good kind), and decreases LDL levels. And those dealing with the frustrations of acne can use niacin topically or take a B3 supplement to help prevent and treat blemishes. Deficiency of niacin is very rare, because it’s found in so many different food groups.
B5 (Pantothenic acid)
Pantothenic acid gets its name from the Greek word pantothen, which literally means “from everywhere.” Excellent nomenclature, considering that traces of B5 are found in pretty much every food group. That’s a good thing, because this little vitamin is integral in the production of stress and sex hormones, like testosterone, as well as adrenal gland function. The body needs pantothenic acid to create red blood cells and convert food into energy, as with many of the B vitamins.
B6 and B12 are two of the most popular forms of B-complex vitamins, which explains why they probably sound familiar to you. B6 is especially useful for its immune- and energy-boosting properties and plays a key role in the formation of antibodies, which fight off infection and disease. Our bodies also need B6 to maintain stable blood-glucose levels and break down protein from food. If you haven’t already picked up on it, B vitamins are really good at helping our bodies access different types of energy from food and keeping our blood healthy—and B6 is no different. It actually assists in the production of hemoglobin, the substance that carries oxygen to red blood cells.
Some studies have also found that B6 reduces inflammation, which could be beneficial for inflammation-triggered diseases like arthritis.
Also known as vitamin H, biotin is an elusive little compound, which is why it’s sometimes considered a B-complex vitamin and other times is ignored. In fact, it took about 40 years of research to finally properly categorize biotin as a vitamin. Biotin acts as a coenzyme, supporting other enzymes’ actions. It’s specifically useful for helping the body metabolize proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Biotin is a recognizable vitamin because there are beauty products that claim it can help hair and nails grow more quickly. While there’s evidence that might back this up, B7 can only be absorbed through digestion.
B9 (Folate or folic acid)
Here’s one you’ve certainly heard of, and you definitely need to make sure you’re getting your daily value. Folate is naturally derived from plants and animals, and folic acid is the synthetic form of it, but both forms are equally important for proper brain function and mental health. Studies suggest that B9 can keep depression at bay and even prevent future memory loss. And it’s so important to neurological health and development that pregnant women are often prescribed folic acid supplements. It’s pretty common to be deficient in B9, especially for those who have digestive issues that keep them from absorbing all the nutrition in their food.
Finally! The B you’ve been waiting for—vitamin B12. Don’t write it off because it’s a celebrity favorite (Rihanna reportedly gets a shot of it after late night partying). B12 is the Stephen Curry of the B-complex. It assists left and right, and it’s an MVP in its own right. B12 works with B9 to form red blood cells and utilize iron, in turn supporting wound healing and muscle growth. And B12, B6, and B9 all work together to balance homocysteine, an amino acid that’s been linked to heart disease when found in elevated levels in the blood.
It’s common for vegans and vegetarians, or really anyone who doesn’t eat a ton of meat or dairy, to be deficient in B12. Side effects include extreme fatigue, numbness, nervousness, shortness of breath, and tingling in the fingers and toes.
Do you need to supplement with B vitamins?
At the end of the day, most forms of vitamin B can be found in both plant-based and carnivorous diets, so as long as you’re eating balanced meals, you probably don’t need to supplement with all of the B-complex vitamins.
However, there isn’t any harm in taking B vitamins if you think you may be deficient in them, namely B9 and B12, as the body eliminates excess vitamins if it can’t use them. And if you’re going through a particularly stressful time or need an immune boost, eating foods rich in B vitamins like leafy greens and legumes could help you cope. If you think you might have a deficiency, give your doctor a ring and ask if they’ll test your levels to be certain that a supplement is the right choice for you. If you do decide to up your vitamin B levels, check out our selection at Thrive Market where you can find vitamins and supplements for 25 to 50 off!
Illustration by Foley Wu