Supplement Secrets: What is the Benefit of Vitamin B?

Pena, Katherine. “Benefits of Vitamin B”. Accessed May 2021.

What exactly is the benefit of vitamin B? Well, “B vitamins” is not exactly the most descriptive name for an essential nutrient, so let’s shed some more light on them. I’ll cover the benefits you’ll observe when you emphasize them in your diet, the foods you can eat to maximize intake, and finish with my thoughts on multivitamins in general, and whether they’re right for you. Although vitamin B sounds unassuming with just one letter, it actually makes up over half of the essential vitamins we need through its eight varieties. Vitamin B’s most basic function is to convert the other nutrients from the food you eat into a more usable form, energy. However, many other essential functions of the body cannot be performed adequately when there is an absence of B vitamins in your diet, such as red blood cell and hormone production, brain health, nerve, and cardiovascular function, plus good eyesight, appetite, and energy.

In the year 2017, I had some experiences that ignited my interest in becoming a self-taught connoisseur of the healing properties of food, and the relation between one’s body and mind. Whenever exams or a job interview were looming, I was a big consumer of midnight snacks like Top Ramen and takeout Mexican food just down the street. These snacks provided much-needed relief at the moment, but I noticed on each of those nights, my sleep quality was taking a turn for the worse. Ultimately, I realized it was my own actions that were becoming my greatest obstacles to success. I wanted to rest easy knowing that despite life’s greatest challenges being thrown at me, I could still feel confident knowing I was preparing myself for what was to come by optimizing my energy levels. There is likely no more of an efficient way to manage things like mood, motivation and ability to concentrate, than by consciously acknowledging how nutrient-dense your plates of food are. The foods you and I consume change how we associate with and perceive this world, and how we leave our footprint. A really great place to start, if you want to associate differently, is by incorporating more vitamin B into your diet.

Bountiful B Benefits

Nearly all 8 B vitamins serve critical roles in metabolic and detox pathways, lowering oxidative stress, food-to-energy conversion, and ensuring proper mitochondrial function. For instance, as you will see below, vitamins like riboflavin, niacin, and B5 act as coenzymes in the citric acid cycle, a process involving mitochondria that leads to energy production.

Pena, Katherine. “B-Vitamins in the Citric Acid Cycle”. Accessed May 2021.

In the remainder of this section, I will be covering each of the B vitamins separately, using the two names given to each B vitamin interchangeably. I will also include the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDI) for all the separate B vitamins for women aged 19-50, pregnant women, and those who are breastfeeding, as these are the groups that often encounter deficiencies. FDA-recommended daily values for men and those in other age groups can be found here. It is important to remember that these are just recommendations; different sources will give different daily values, and information is being updated all the time. But in any case, having a slight excess of any B vitamin is not associated with any health issues to date since it is water-soluble and passes through urine.

Image of hard-boiled egg, spinach, broccoli, potatoes, salmon, banana, and other vitamin B-rich foods on dinner table spread.
Thiamin (B1)

Thiamin’s recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is 1.1, 1.4, and 1.4 mg/day for women aged 19-50, pregnant women, and women who are breastfeeding, respectively.

The body needs thiamin because it plays a major role in metabolizing sugar into glucose for energy -an important process known as destructive metabolism- in addition to producing fatty acids and creating certain neurotransmitters and hormones for the nervous system and digestive health. As a result, your nerves, muscles, stomach and heart need a steady supply of B1.

You can find a respectable amount in whole grains, fortified cereals, nutritional yeast, black beans, soybeans, and nuts.

Riboflavin (B2)

Riboflavin’s RDA is 1.1, 1.4, and 1.6 mg/day for women aged 19-50, pregnant women, and women who are breastfeeding, respectively.

Riboflavin helps your body convert other B vitamins to their desired forms, and metabolizes food into energy by breaking down fat, protein, and good ol’ carbohydrates, increasing energy levels if sufficient in your diet. Blood cells, gut lining, and skin all depend on riboflavin to treat acne and keep your immune and nervous systems in tip-top shape.

Some of the more B2-bountiful options consist of fortified cereal, oatmeal, yogurt, milk, some mushrooms, and oranges.

Niacin (B3)

Niacin’s RDA is 14, 18, and 17 mg/day for women aged 19-50, pregnant women, and women who are breastfeeding, respectively.

B3 is mainly involved in cell metabolism and communication, skin health, and DNA expression and repair. However, another health benefit of vitamin B with Niacin is managing cholesterol levels in the blood, although high doses are needed and should be supervised professionally. Also of note is how your body converts niacin into NAD, a particularly useful coenzyme (a compound that helps enzymes convert food to energy several hundred times). B3 will also help with your sleep and wake cycle or your circadian rhythm. This is adversely affected by excess cortisol levels, a major cause of chronic stress.

To get the form of this B vitamin most ideal for use in the human body, you will have to choose either a meat-based diet or include cereals and milks that are fortified with it, as nuts and legumes contain a different, less efficient form. Niacin is found in orange and grapefruit juice, but you’d have to drink 8-9 cups a day to meet the RDA.

Pantethine (B5)

B5’s RDA is 5, 6, and 7 mg/day for women aged 19-50, pregnant women, and women who are breastfeeding, respectively.

Like living a stress-free life? B5 may be the answer you need as it calms adrenal glands, battling against chronic stress that accumulates over time based on high levels of cortisol, your fight-or-flight hormone. You will also require a good amount of B5 in order to break down carbohydrates and fats for energy, similar to the first three covered. Hormone, fat and coenzyme production, along with growth and development, round out the functions of B5. A benefit of vitamin B you will likely experience with B5 is a pronounced, perhaps renewed ability to stay energized throughout the day since B5 aids the food-to-energy process in several ways and fights stress.

You can find vitamin B5 in vegetables such as broccoli, avocado, kale, shiitake mushrooms and potatoes, but also in dairy, seeds and whole grains.

Pyridoxine (B6)

Pyridoxine’s RDA is 1.3, 1.9, and 2 mg/day for women aged 19-50, pregnant women, and women who are breastfeeding, respectively. Levels of B6, among other B vitamins, can be low for women, especially those who are pregnant or lactating, according to a study.

Likely the most important benefit of vitamin B when it comes to B6 is hormone regulation, as it leads to progesterone production and the breakdown of estrogen. Vitamin B6 is also important because of its role in over 100 enzyme reactions, amino acid metabolism, the building of red blood cells, and the healthy functioning of your immune and nervous systems. Although not fully substantiated, the potential health benefits of vitamin B6 indicated by recent research include a reduction in heart disease risk and relief from symptoms of PMS.

It’s also implicated in the production of feel-good brain chemicals like GABA for relaxation and serotonin for mood, but very high and consistent doses are required. Although more evidence is needed, B6 and many other B vitamins could serve as a low-risk, low-cost treatment for depression and anxiety, provided it’s not your only mental health strategy.

B6 is in many delicious treats like bananas, chickpeas, carrots, cheese, fortified cereal, lentils, milk, spinach, sunflower seeds, and whole-grain flour.

Biotin (B7 or H)

Biotin’s RDA is 30, 30, and 35 micrograms per day for women aged 19-50, pregnant women, and women who are breastfeeding, respectively.

The human body needs biotin for breaking down fats, carbohydrates, and protein, communication between cells, and the regulation of your DNA. Although there is some speculation that Biotin helps with psoriasis and supports strong hair, skin and nails, research is not sufficient at the moment.

A bit harder to find, levels of biotin are still prominent in foods like eggs, sunflower seeds and nuts like walnuts.

Folate (B9)

Folate’s RDA is 400, 600, and 500 micrograms per day for women aged 19-50, pregnant women, and women who are breastfeeding, respectively. If you are planning to become pregnant, consider paying particular attention to how much folate you are getting because the baby’s growth and development is reliant on it. Specifically, folate will ensure there are no birth defects in the brain or spine. It could be a smart move to supplement with a multivitamin containing either folate or folic acid, its synthetic form.

Folate mainly helps create red blood cells, aids in cell division and DNA replication, and metabolizes vitamins and amino acids to ensure the body is developing and processing nutrients efficiently.

Naturally occurring folate is found in dark leafy greens, asparagus, brussels sprouts, nuts, beans, and peas. Meanwhile, folic acid is often added to many fortified breads and cereals.

Similar to B6 and B12, folate could be helpful for anyone with Alzheimer’s or a related disease. Although research has not verified their role in promoting brain health, there is some evidence suggesting these three B vitamins can slow the decline of brain function associated with dementia by controlling levels of homocysteine, implicated in damage to one’s neurons, or brain cells.

On a related note, B6, B9 and B12 are likely the vitamins you’ll want to incorporate the most if you happen to find yourself on the MIND diet. If you’ve never heard this before, it’s essentially a diet for optimizing brain health, combining the Mediterranean diet (think brain-healthy fats from nuts, olive oil and fish) with the DASH diet (standing for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension).

Cobalamin (B12)

B12’s RDA is 2.4, 2.6, and 2.8 micrograms per day for women aged 19-50, pregnant women, and women who are breastfeeding, respectively. This is possibly the most well-known B vitamin and is found in energy drinks and a large variety of supplement forms. There are many ways to take it and it can even be injected by health care providers if you suffer from pernicious anemia, an age-related disorder affecting the red blood cells.

Vitamin B12 supports brain health, and low levels are associated with not only the symptoms of dementia but sometimes actual cerebral atrophy (basically, brain shrinkage). B12 is also a powerhouse for the normal production of red blood cells, maintains nerve cells and regulates DNA. Like B3, B12 will also help with your circadian rhythm, allowing the body a chance to heal from the chronic stress that caused it.

I want to bring extra awareness to vitamin B12 because of how many populations a deficiency in B12 can affect. A study from 2017 found B12 deficiencies were more common in certain populations: 62% of pregnant women had a deficiency, while 11–90% of older adults had a deficiency. Middle-aged and older adults don’t make enough stomach acid to absorb this vitamin from food in their diets, and deficiencies in people on vegan or vegetarian diets result from the lack of animal products in which B12 is normally found. It is crucial for these individuals to build B12 up in their liver. The deficiency, over time, lowers your levels of red blood cells, which is what leads to pernicious anemia. Symptoms of minimal B12 deficiency include confusion, depression, and memory problems, and can escalate to constipation, weakness, fatigue, and loss of appetite, weight and balance when B12 levels drop even more.

Foods you can experiment with on your next shopping trip to counteract this include plant-based milks, yogurts, breakfast cereals, some algae and nutritional yeast, the last being the most nutrient-dense by far. There are also more you can experiment with, even if you don’t eat meat. However, it will take several months of supplementation or dietary changes to significantly increase B12 levels in the body. A valid option for anyone looking for an extra boost, Amy Shapiro has some advice. A Registered Dietician and founder of Real Nutrition, she speaks about how the sublingual version of B12 makes for ideal absorption.

Infographic of 8 B vitamins and the most notable benefits associated with each one, on green backdrop with various images.

Pena, Katherine. “Benefits of Vitamin B”. Accessed May 2021.

Vitamin B-Rich Foods and Dishes

I’ll take a wild guess that many of you out there are either breakfast people or are pressed for time with your daily demands, so I’ll start this section off with two options to get your day off to a better-than-average start. Try concocting an open-face breakfast sandwich with whole wheat toast, topped with melted Swiss, smashed avocados, and a sliced hard-boiled egg or two. If you prefer your breakfast of choice in liquid form, then make this smoothie with papaya, banana and plant milk, adding yogurt or orange wedges as a topping to make all five ingredients contain vitamin B! Talk about an absolute steal!

It could be lunchtime, and you’re looking for an efficient way to continue with your B vitamin regimen. Salads have got your back. The great thing about salads is there is literally an endless number of ways their ingredients can be mixed and matched. Whenever I make a salad for myself using slight variations of my favorite ingredients, I can’t help but realize that I’ve made a whole new creation. The most vitamin B-boosting salad ingredients you can combine to dine are as follows:

  • Black beans
  • nutritional yeast
  • nuts (pistachios, macadamia nuts, walnuts, to name a few)
  • some mushrooms, including shiitake
  • oranges
  • avocados
  • kale
  • broccoli
  • sunflower seeds
  • chickpeas
  • carrots
  • Swiss cheese
  • spinach
  • chard
  • boiled eggs
  • asparagus
  • Brussels sprouts
  • algae
  • peas
Infographic of salad in a bowl with 7 ingredients such as spinach and walnuts, each high in a different B-vitamin.

Pena, Katherine. “Vitamin B Foods”. Accessed May 2021.

If you are a salad aficionado or even just an enthusiast, try one of these two vitamin B salad ideas that borrow from this list. The first is a somewhat simpler vegetarian salad with spinach and walnut vinaigrette, while the second is a tad more complicated with its ingredients, but utilizes nutritional yeast in the dressing to deliver a powerhouse of flavors and a plethora of healthy B vitamins, like B1 and B12, to boot.

Okay, so you’ve mustered the motivation to eat a nutrient-packed salad, and you need to have some reassurance that switching up your diet is worth it. At this stage, you might want to satisfy that sweet tooth with some sweet potato brownies with walnuts and a glass of fortified soy milk to wash it all down. Sweet potatoes are a good vegetarian source of B vitamins, including B1, B2, B3, B6, B7 and B9. Check to make sure the soy or other non-dairy milk you are using is fortified. It usually is, but it is always worth checking!

Vitamin B’s water-solubility allows any buildup to get safely removed from the body via urine, with the exception of B12 which gets stored in your liver. This means that as long as you are not pregnant or breastfeeding, the only concern with the amount of vitamin B consumed is whether you are getting enough. Thus, you should avoid boiling vitamin B-dense vegetables, for example, as what you’re looking for will actually be in the cooking water. However, you can still experience the benefit of vitamin B if you refrigerate your B produce and reserve the cooking water for use in another dish, to reduce vitamin loss.

Mixin’ It Up With Multivitamins

To date, there is still no agreed-upon metric that can be used to determine what a multivitamin is. The lack of proper oversight and FDA regulation gives free rein for different brands to market products that can vary wildly from each other in terms of nutrient content. Not only is the nutrient content of each product different from the next; the amount on the label could even differ drastically from what is included in the capsule.

With that being said, if you’ve ever thought about taking a multivitamin because you wondered if age could be contributing to a deficiency of some kind, it could be a terrific decision on your part. For example, “intrinsic factor” is a protein we all need to absorb the majority of B12 from various foods, and pernicious anemia can start to develop in middle-age when this protein is lacking. Vegans and vegetarians can also benefit from taking a B complex multivitamin in addition to a rich and varied diet, with several options available for supplementation.

Should anyone else consider taking them? That depends on if you are experiencing several symptoms of B vitamin deficiency. Check online or with your health provider if you are experiencing any of these. Brand trust is needed for reasonable assurance of the quality and quantity that is being provided. With B vitamins involved in a number of bodily processes, you want to avoid being lured in by the promises made on multivitamin labels. On the matter of which types of vitamin complexes to try, “I recommend a methylated or activated complex” says Brooke Scheller, a Certified Nutrition Specialist, that is “most readily absorbed over a normal B complex”. Additionally, if it “features transparent ingredients and sourcing information”, claims Registered Dietician Ali Heller, and is “third-party certified”, you can bypass the risks inherent in a market that is not FDA regulated, like quality assurance. She also recommends consulting your primary care physician before taking supplements, should you decide to try multiple kinds at once.

Woman in red sweater holding various supplements and vitamin complexes.

The most important thing to remember, should you choose to experiment with multivitamins in general as I once did, is they should never replace a hearty, well-rounded meal, only supplement it (hence the name). The healing and re-energizing nature of food is indisputable; if you eat enough raw vegetables or fruit, you can guarantee they contain certain milligram values of vitamins and minerals in their natural forms, and that they will have some positive effect on your body and mind given enough time. All healthy diets, even vegan ones, will give you plenty of B vitamins to choose from, with the possible exception of B12, where deficiency is related to one’s age more than anything.

The world demands so much from individuals these days. You are probably all too familiar with history merely repeating itself, and the way encroaching events like global warming tax your innate resolve to make an impact in the world. But even when you’re not feeling up to par on a particularly demanding day, and you feel swamped with a growing list of petty obligations, the solution you might be needing is quite accessible.

Vitamin B is a water-soluble nutrient that is essential precisely because it aids with so many things required for a healthy body and mind; hormones, metabolism, enzyme reactions, and red blood cells cannot fulfill their duties if your diet, age, or pregnancy restricts vitamin B intake. But you can celebrate knowing that accomplishing a high B-vitamin diet is neither challenging nor expensive, as a quick trip to the supermarket will present you with dozens of the B-rich foods I’ve mentioned throughout this article. In this increasingly complex global atmosphere, where stress can be an everyday occurrence and everyone is looking for that extra boost of energy, the need for vitamin B to help our bodies adjust to these demands has never been greater.

Take charge of your future and try a couple of the quick recipes included above. Tag your ingenious salad creations on Instagram @cookandculture. If you are seeking a fully optimized diet and vitamin B isn’t enough, see our related articles on other vitamins and minerals!

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Olivia deGregory

Written by Case van der Burg