“B vitamins help provide energy by acting with enzymes to convert carbohydrates to glucose, and also are important in fat and protein metabolism,” says Elson Haas, MD, an integrative physician and author of Staying Healthy with Nutrition. In addition, he says, “They’re very important for the normal functioning of the nervous system and are often helpful in bringing relaxation or energy to individuals who are stressed or fatigued.”
The Bs are also necessary for healthy skin, hair, and eyes. And, adds Haas: “The general muscle tone of the gastrointestinal tract is enhanced with proper levels of B vitamins, allowing the bowels to function most efficiently.”
Who Needs More B Vitamins?
Anyone who is under stress, periodically fasts, is losing weight, doesn’t eat grains, is vegan, generally eats a poor diet, takes medications that deplete Bs, or has digestive problems that impair nutrient absorption—such as celiac disease, or gluten or other food intolerances—is likely to fall short.
Lack of Bs can lead to depression, irritability, skin problems, lack of energy, confusion, problems with digestion, constipation or diarrhea, numbness or tingling in the hands or feet, and even a swollen tongue.
What’s in a B Complex?
The B vitamins were once considered to be a single vitamin, because they occur in combination in nature. As individual Bs were identified, these eight became recognized as essential:
- B1: Thiamine
- B2: Riboflavin
- B3: Niacin, niacinamide, or nicotinic acid
- B5: Pantothenic Acid
- B6: Pyridoxine
- B7: Biotin
- B9: Folate
- B12: Cobalamin
A few other nutrients aren’t considered essential Bs, but are related, and one or more may be included in B-complex supplements. In scientific literature, these have occasionally been given a B-vitamin number but are customarily referred to by name only: choline (B), inositol (B), and PABA, or para-aminobenzoic acid (B).
Wondering what happened to vitamin B? Some European studies and supplement sites refer to folic acid as vitamin B, but the number is not used in the United States.
Different Forms of B Vitamins
Some Bs are available in different forms, which are found in various B-complex and multivitamin products.
Vitamin B12: Supplements may contain one or more forms of vitamin B. Cyanocobalamin is a synthetic form, and there are three natural forms that are identical to those found in food: methylcobalamin, adenosylcobalamin, and hydroxocobalamin. Supplements with a natural form are sometimes called “methyl B.”
Vitamin B9: Folic acid is the synthetic form of the vitamin, while folate is the natural form found in food. 5-MTHF, sometimes called “methyl folate,” is also a natural form, and is beneficial for people with digestive problems or a genetic inability to absorb the synthetic form.
Vitamin B6: Pyridoxal-5-phosphate (P-5-P) is the active form of the vitamin, considered to be better absorbed than pyridoxine.
Benfotiamine: A derivative of vitamin B, it raises blood levels of the vitamin more effectively than thiamine and may be especially helpful for nerve pain in diabetics.
Drugs that Deplete B Vitamins
Supplements can help to prevent or correct B-vitamin depletions caused by these drugs: