Breaking Down the Vitamin B’s

The vitamin B complex is indeed a complex grouping of nutrients, ultimately all geared towards converting food into energy for the body to use, but individually essential for various other bodily functions. Scattered among the different foods and supplements we consume on a regular basis, we come across a variety of what seems to be the same foundational vitamin B. However, there are actually eight different types of the vitamin. Though they all work together to promote healthy functioning of the nervous system, use of fats and proteins, and healthy skin, eyes, hair and liver, each type has its own individualized purpose that makes it a necessary component of the whole complex (1).

B1 (Thiamin)

Vitamin B1 is also known as thiamin (or thiamine) and is B1 simply because it was the first B vitamin to be discovered (2). Like all vitamins in the B complex, thiamin is water-soluble and therefore not able to be stored in the body when there is excess. Thiamine’s crucial role is its production of hydrochloric acid, which is what helps the body to digest nutrients and especially reap all the benefits from the other B vitamins. It is essential that we consistently consume a sufficient amount of thiamin in our diets because a whole series of problems can arise when there is a B1 deficiency in the body. Common symptoms of a B1 deficiency include muscle weakness, fatigue, irritability, confusion, abdominal discomfort, and poor arm/leg coordination. Deficiencies are associated with and are likely to arise in those suffering from alcoholism, anorexia, gastrointestinal malignancies, and issues with nutrient absorption. This is mainly because thiamin can be found naturally in wholegrain cereals, yeast, lean pork, seeds, seafood, liver, and legumes, so in low-income areas where diets consist highly of milled or polished rice, it is common for B1 deficiencies to occur since the vitamin is lost in the processing (3).

B2 (Riboflavin)

Vitamin B2, or riboflavin, functions as an antioxidant to fend off free radicals, or particles that may be damaging to the body. This helps prevent further contribution to the aging process, as well as potential development of heart disease and cancer. As mentioned before, the vitamins in the B complex work together to achieve the same ultimate goal, and one example of this is the necessity of riboflavin to help change vitamin B6 into forms the body can use in order for the body to grow and produce red blood cells (4). Conveniently, B2 naturally occurs in the same wholegrain sources as B1. In addition to those, though, B2 is also found in dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cottage cheese, as well as green leafy vegetables and egg whites. Because of the wide variety of sources from which riboflavin can be naturally found and consumed, B2 deficiencies are rather rare. Only those who drink excessive amounts of alcohol or refrain from dairy products are most susceptible to deficiency, with symptoms including inflamed or cracked/redness in the tongue and around the mouth, anxiety, inflamed eyelids with an increased sensitivity to light, hair loss, cornea redness, and skin rash. Therefore, it is important, but not difficult, to maintain healthy levels of vitamin B2 in our diets (5).

B3 (Niacin)

Different from the rest of the B complex vitamins, B3 is the most heat-resistant and therefore not much is lost when cooked, making it very easy to meet your B3 requirements through diet alone. However, overdosing on B3 can be toxic, and therefore it is recommended that you don’t consume more than the Recommended Daily Allowance outside of your doctor’s supervision. B3 is also referred to as niacin, and its main job outside of converting carbohydrates to glucose is helping the body in producing different sex and stress-related hormones, as well as promoting good circulation. Signs that you may have a B3 deficiency include indigestion, fatigue, vomiting, depression, and canker sores, but severe deficiencies are result in more extreme symptoms like diarrhea and even dementia. Luckily, B3 is found in all kinds of food – meat, fish, dairy, whole grains, nuts, mushrooms, and any food containing protein – so it is usually easy enough to maintain healthy levels of niacin (1).

B5 (Pantothenic acid)

Pantothenic acid is the B5 of the vitamin B complex, and its additional services to the body include helping to maintain a healthy digestive tract, enabling the body to use the B2 (riboflavin) it obtains, and synthesizing cholesterol. Though there is not sufficient evidence at this time to prove it, sometimes B5 is referred to as the “anti-stress” vitamin, as it may aid in the body’s ability to withstand stress. “Pantos” is actually the Greek root for “everywhere” because pantothenic acid is indeed found in just about every food (though a good amount of it will be lost if the food is processed rather than fresh) (6).

B6 (Pyridoxine)

Vitamin B6, or pyridoxine, makes its extra bodily contribution through its influence on brain processes and development, as well as immune system functioning and steroid hormone activity. It is found alongside thiamin and riboflavin in the same natural food sources. Though it is yet to be proved, there is evidence pointing towards B6 helping in the treatment of both carpal tunnel syndrome and premenstrual syndrome. However, if planning to use vitamin B6 to treat these conditions, it is important to talk to a doctor first because the consequences of overdosing are very dangerous and could potentially lead to irreversible nerve damage (5).

B7 (Biotin)

Biotin, or vitamin B7, is unique in that it is almost impossible to have a deficiency of it. That’s because the bacteria in our intestines naturally produce enough B7 to even exceed our body’s daily requirements of it. Aside from its vital roles in metabolizing proteins/fats/carbohydrates and processing glucose, B7 helps promote the health of our hair, skin, and nails. For that reason, it is actually found in a lot of hair and cosmetic products, but the nutrient cannot actually be absorbed by the hair or skin. All that being said, it is not necessary to seek out any supplemental biotin, for your body will naturally take care of that on its own (7).

B9 (Folate)

Though all the vitamins in the B complex mentioned so far are rather easy to obtain and maintain per the body’s requirements, vitamin B9, or more commonly referred to as folate (folic acid), is often prescribed as supplements in addition to the variety of foods in which it’s found, especially to pregnant women. This is because folate plays an essential role in forming red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body, helping to develop the fetal nervous system, and facilitate cell growth. Increasing the pregnant woman’s folic acid intake will decrease potential risks in the unborn baby, such as spina bifida. It is usually a safe bet to prescribe pregnant women supplementary vitamin B9 because it is essentially non-toxic, but consuming more than 1,000 mg a day over an extended period of time will cause issues for anybody (5).

B12 (Cyanocobalamin)

The last vitamin to join the B complex is none other than cyanocobalamin, or more simply, vitamin B12. B12’s job is to maintain the insulating sheath, called myelin, around nerve cells, mental ability, and red blood cell formation. There is a close connection between vitamin B12 and the aforementioned B9 because they are dependent on each other to carry out their intended functions. Just about anything that comes from an animal will contain vitamin B12, so vegans and babies being breastfed by vegan mothers are the most at-risk for B12 deficiencies. With that in mind, it is important for vegans to supplement their diets with B12 in order to avoid the fatigue, loss of weight and appetite, depression, anemia, and nerve degeneration that comes from a lack of sufficient B12.

Wrap-Up

It can be hard to keep track of what all the different B vitamins do, especially when they aren’t even the only type of vitamin working away to keep your body strong and healthy. That’s why we’ve also provided an easy-to-read chart, breaking down the B complex for your convenient reference in addition to the more in-depth discussion on each contributing vitamin. Though this information and quick reference guide serve as a rightful guide in the direction of a healthy and informed lifestyle, it is always important to see a doctor if you have any concerns with your vitamin intake or your health in general.

vitamin B chart

References (click to show/hide)

  1. Higdon, Jane, Ph.D. "Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Research for Optimum Health." Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University. Oregon State University, Sept. 2002. Web. 05 June 2014. <http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/vitamins/thiamin/>.
  2. Nordqvist, Christian. "What Is Vitamin B7 or Vitamin H? What Is Biotin?" Medical News Today. MediLexicon International, 22 Mar. 2011. Web. 05 June 2014. <http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/219718.php>.
  3. "Vitamin B - Better Health Channel." Better Health Channel. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 June 2014. <http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Vitamin_B?ope >.
  4. "Vitamin B1 (thiamine)." University of Maryland Medical Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 June 2014. <http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/vitamin-b1 thiamine>.
  5. "Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)." University of Maryland Medical Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 June 2014. <http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/vitamin-b2 riboflavin>.
  6. "Vitamin B3 (Niacin)." University of Maryland Medical Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 June 2014. <https://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/vitamin-b3-niacin>.
  7. "Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid)." University of Maryland Medical Center. University of Maryland Medical Center, n.d. Web. 05 June 2014. <http://umm.edu/health/medical-reference-guide/complementary-and-alternative medicine-guide/supplement/vitamin-b5-pantothenic-acid>.

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