Vitamin B is not a single vitamin, but rather the B vitamins are a group of water-soluble nutrients that are vital for many aspects of cellular metabolism, serving as enzymes and coenzymes in a variety of biological systems. The main 8 B vitamins are often not synthesized by the body alone so they must be obtained through an outside source, and they must be replenished often as many of them are excreted through the renal system in a matter of hours or days.
Without the B vitamins, the body falls prey to a whole host of deficiency symptoms affecting the metabolism, digestive tract and cardiovascular and nervous systems. Basically, if your body is a machine, without B vitamins, everything falls apart and stops working correctly.
Because of the role they play in those vital systems, the B Vitamins are extremely relevant to people who are interested in cognitive enhancement, biohacking, nootropics and general physical health fitness. In one sense, the B vitamins are like “natural nootropics.” Without proper nutrition and a good baseline level of health, the body and mind will never function optimally regardless of how many nootropics or stimulants you throw at it.
Today’s post will feature an overview of these nutrients and their various forms (vitamers), whether you are at risk for being deficient, and cover food sources and supplements that contain each B vitamin.
- 1 Vitamin B1 – Thiamine
- 2 Vitamin B2 – Riboflavin
- 3 Vitamin B3 – Niacin, Niacinamide/Nicotinic Acid
- 4 Vitamin B5 – Pantothenic Acid
- 5 Vitamin B6 – Pyridoxine
- 6 Vitamin B7 – Biotin (Vitamin H)
- 7 Vitamin B9 – Folic Acid, Folate
- 8 Vitamin B12 – Cobalamin, methylcobalamin, cyanocobalamin
- 9 Choline
- 10 Conclusion and recommendation
- 11 Sources for this post
Vitamin B1 – Thiamine
Thiamine (or thiamin) is a B vitamin found commonly in plant foods, and found in nature synthesized by plants, fungi and bacteria. It is degraded by wet heat and ultraviolet light.
Food sources: Beef liver, yeast/yeast extract, whole grains, seeds and legumes — Sunflower seeds, flaxseed, beans, lentils, brown rice, and so on. Used to fortify many foods.
Main function: Vitamin B1 is involved in circulatory health and the metabolism of carbohydrates. Utilized by the body to synthesize the neurotransmitters GABA and Acetylcholine. Therefore its availability will affect both nervous system health and emotional state. Thiamine is also used to create Hydrochloric acid which is secreted by the stomach, so this must suggest a role in digestive health.
Deficiency symptoms: Fatigue, irritability, constipation are minor deficiency symptoms. Beriberi (a thiamine deficiency disease that is the “starvation” of the nervous system) is one severe deficiency condition that few people should encounter unless they are malnourished or are unable to absorb thiamine.
Dosage: The RDA for Thiamine is 1.5 milligrams. One study suggests that daily doses of up to 50 mg can increase mental acuity.
Side effects: None recorded.
Notes: Thiamine is abundant enough in foods naturally and in enriched foods that supplementation of this is not necessary for most people except for those who consume a lot of tannin-rich beverages like coffee, tea or wine.
- Sulfites are thiamine antagonists, and you will find these in many commercial alcohol preparations. Aging people, those who consume a lot of the aforementioned beverages and alcohol are most at risk for this deficiency.
- According to my source (at bottom), thiamine supplementation can purportedly prevent motion sickness for air and sea travel and repel insects. This may make for an interesting experiment.
Vitamin B2 – Riboflavin
Riboflavin is a B vitamin found in both plant and animal-based foods. It is stable under most conditions except ultraviolet light.
Food sources: Organ meats, lean meats, fish, eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese; Yeast, leafy greens, asparagus, whole grains and nuts. Used to fortify many foods.
Main function: Vitamin B2 aids in cell respiration and is required to transform Vitamin B6 and B9 into bioactive coenzyme forms, and to make niacin from tryptophan. It is also needed for protein and fat metabolization, is responsible for maintenance the mucous membranes in the digestive tract and throughout the body, and increases absorption potential of iron and Vitamin B6. It is also needed for healthy eyes, hair, skin and nails.
Deficiency symptoms: A whole host of skin, eye and mouth-related issues are noted. Dermatitis, hair loss, mental slowness and photosensitivity related to Riboflavin deficiency have been reported. One indication of deficiency is a sensation of burning feet. Iron deficiency anemia is another effect.
Dosage: RDA is 1.2 mg, higher oral doses are harmless but do not seem to have any significant benefit.
Side effects: When consumed in sufficient quantities, the excess is excreted and makes your urine neon yellow-green. No significant or dangerous side effects noted.
Notes: This B vitamin is fairly easy to come by.
- Like Thiamine, Riboflavin intake should be increased if alcohol is being consumed frequently.
- Riboflavin intake should also be increased in elderly individuals, women on prescription birth control, and in people with chronic digestive or immune system issues as these groups are most at-risk for deficiency.
Vitamin B3 – Niacin, Niacinamide/Nicotinic Acid
Vitamin B3 or niacin is the name for two compounds, niacinamide and nicotinic acid. Its two active forms in the body are NAD and NADP. It is one of the most stable and most common B vitamins.
Food sources: Meat, especially organ meats, fish; seeds, grains and nuts; leafy greens.
Main function: Vitamin B3 is needed to metabolize energy from food sources, and required for synthesis of hormones and growth. Also required for DNA synthesis. Maintains skin health, nervous system health, secretion of sex hormones, and digestive health including secretion of stomach acid and bile.
Deficiency symptoms: Mild deficiency leads to a decrease in metabolism and decrease in tolerance to cold temperature. Other deficiency symptoms include depression, irritability, weakness and fatigue, headaches, all the way up to pellagra (a series of severe and chronic symptoms including a skin disorder from long-term niacin deficiency)
Dosage: RDA is up to 18 mg with the tolerable upper limit being 35 mg per day (to avoid side effects)
Side effects: High doses (200 mg+) of nicotinic acid cause flushing – dilation of the blood vessels and lowered blood pressure. While flushing is normally harmless, larger doses of niacin can lead to itching, skin irritation, hyperglycemia, stomach ulcers and damage to liver.
Notes: Like vitamins B1 and B2, vitamin B3 is easy to come by in most foods. It is stored in the liver and the excess is excreted in the urine.
- While niacinamide and nicotinic acid are different and are eventually metabolized by the body into NAD and NADP, both have differing effects.
- Niacin (nicotinic acid form) can help lower LDL cholesterol and boost HDL.
- Barring individuals with extremely poor diet or one without bioavailable niacin (non-nixtamalized corn for example), individuals with chronic alcoholism are most at risk for being deficient.
- Diabetics should be wary of supplementing niacin in any form due to its potential effects on blood glucose.
Vitamin B5 – Pantothenic Acid
Vitamin B5 or pantothenic acid is a vital metabolic nutrient present in just about every living cell, even those of yeasts, fungi, and plants. In humans it’s also found in every cell and in plasma and lymph. It is stable under conditions of heat and oxidation but pH extremes can destroy it. While common in modest amounts in most foods, cooking tends to destroy some of the pantothenic acid content. (which may be why a tender blue-rare steak is so damn good – more of the nutrients are still intact)
Food sources: Produced by gut bacteria; found in beef, organ meats, eggs, pork; fresh vegetables, grains, nuts and legumes; yeast and mushrooms
Main function: Serves many biological roles. Pantothenic acid is required for hormone secretion throughout the body, maintaining nearly every vital system from nerves to muscles to skin. Important for supporting adrenal health and metabolism, and is also implicated in fatty acid synthesis.
Deficiency symptoms: Fatigue, insomnia, depression, nausea, increased sensitivity to insulin, nerve issues like numbness, tingling or burning
Dosage: RDA is 5 mg
Side effects: Not particularly toxic, but side effects are known to occur in doses over 10 g per day
Notes: Implicated in the production of neurotransmitters like acetylcholine. This is not a vitamin you want to be deficient in if you are taking nootropics or doing anything related to cognitive enhancement.
Vitamin B6 – Pyridoxine
Vitamin B6, pyridoxine, is another crucial nutrient for mental and physical health. Similar to the other B vitamins, it is stable under most conditions except UV light, alkaline pH and food processing or cooking.
Food sources: Liver, eggs, chicken, fish; carrots, peas, walnuts and wheat germ; brewer’s yeast
Main function: Vitamin B6 is well known for maintaining a balance between sodium and potassium in the nerves. Serves as a coenzyme in the body to metabolize lipids, proteins and carbs. Required to produce epinephrine, serotonin and needed to convert typtophan to niacin (vitamin B3). Also required to reduce prolactin levels and by consequence DHT. Needed to absorb vitamin B12, zinc and magnesium, and is also needed to produce stomach acid.
Deficiency symptoms: Similar to B2 and B3 deficiency. Poor mood, physical weakness anxiety and insomnia. Other apparent deficiency symptoms are ridged nails, acne, skin issues and bone and joint problems. Severe symptoms include anemia and seizures.
Dosage: RDA is 1 to 2 mg daily
Side effects: High doses, especially above 50 mg per day can create neurological issues.
Notes: Vitamin B6 is excreted by the body in about 8 hours after absorption. It’s depleted by taking antidepressants or contraceptives, or by fasting and following certain restrictive diets.
- Individuals who consume high amounts of protein should definitely supplement B6.
- B6 can purportedly help hair and nails grow more quickly and more healthy.
- It’s also supposed to be great for workout recovery, so this is a key vitamin for athletes.
Vitamin B7 – Biotin (Vitamin H)
Biotin is another vitamin in the B complex family. Like the others, it is very stable under just about any condition. It was discovered in the early 20th century when it turned out that a substance found in raw egg white had the ability to cause deficiency symptoms for biotin, unknown at the time. Avidin, a protein in the egg white, prevents absorption of biotin in the egg yolk. Cooking deactivates avidin.
Food sources: Produced by lactobacillus in probiotic foods and in the digestive tract; found in beef liver, egg yolk, chicken, salmon, cheese; leafy greens and nuts; brewers yeast and mushrooms
Main function: Required for synthesis and metabolism of fatty acids and glucose, is a key component of several enzyme systems in the body, and is required for growth. Biotin is a key player in the Kreb cycle. It’s generally needed to maintain healthy skin, bone marrow, genitals, hair, skin nails and nerves.
Deficiency symptoms: Depression, fatigue, numbness and tingling, hair loss, rashes near eyes, nose, mouth and genitals.
Dosage: There is no established RDA, but an Adequate Intake level is 35-60 micrograms per day
Side effects: No reported negative side effects even at ridiculous high doses. Many biotin supplements contain 5000 mcg doses.
Notes: Is best absorbed with adequate B5 and Vitamin C intake.
- Biotin may make a great adjunct therapy for individuals with Type 2 Diabetes due to its ability to reduce fasting blood glucose levels.
- Biotin can purportedly help hair and nails grow faster and improve skin health, especially if skin is prone to dryness and flaking.
- Avoid eating raw egg white alone, frequently and over a very long period of time. Supplement with extra biotin sources if this is a problem for you.
- Unfortunately biotin cannot prevent hair loss that is not related to biotin deficiency.
Vitamin B9 – Folic Acid, Folate
Vitamin B9, or folic acid is a common B vitamin found in leafy green vegetables. It’s no coincidence that folate and folic acid get their name from the Latin word for “foliage.” Folic acid is not the biologically active form until it is converted into its active forms in the body. Folate is relatively common, somewhat stable, but is vulnerable to UV light, high heat, oxidation and acidity.
Food sources: Used to fortify staple grains in many nations whose people do not get enough folate. It exists naturally in green vegetables like broccoli; starchy vegetables, certain legumes and fruit; brewer’s yeast; beef liver
Main function: Required for cellular generation and maintenance and for DNA/RNA synthesis and integrity.
Deficiency symptoms: Depression, anemia, diarrhea, tongue inflammation, skin cracking around mouth Deficiency in pregnant women can lead to birth defects in the developing baby.
Dosage: RDI is 400 micrograms
Side effects: No major ones, but chronic high doses can mask B12 deficiency.
Notes: People who drink a lot of alcohol, those who suffer from celiac, and those deficient in vitamin B12 are at risk of folate deficiency.
- Between iron, vitamin B12 and folate, a deficiency of one of these vitamins may be covered up by an excess of the other(s). Make sure you aren’t overdoing it.
- There is a difference in the absorption of supplemental versus natural folate. In this case you can get an effective dose in just half the amount by eating a supplement source of folate instead of its natural form.
Vitamin B12 – Cobalamin, methylcobalamin, cyanocobalamin
The cobalamins are forms (vitamers) of Vitamin B12, including methylcobalamin and cyanocobalamin.
Cyanocobalamin is the synthetic form of Vitamin B12 and is not utilized by the body as well or as effectively as methylcobalamin. Vitamin B12 in general requires Intrinsic Factor produced in the intestines to absorb it, and also requires adequate levels of vitamin B6, calcium and iron in the body.
Bacteria are the only creatures who are capable of producing cobalamin. No higher-order creature can produce it on their own.
Food sources: Liver, beef, poultry, dairy, fish, shellfish; Raw eggs; raw fermented food including kombucha
Main function: Required for cellular metabolism, synthesis of fatty acids and regulation and production of DNA
Deficiency symptoms: Depression, poor memory, “pins and needles” sensations, schizophrenia-like effect on brain, cognitive impairment. People with poor digestive systems will have a hard time absorbing this vitamin.
Dosage: Only microgram doses of B12 are needed by the body, but most supplemental doses are in the milligrams because of bioavailability issues.
Side effects: No severe side effects noted, even at doses on the high end.
Notes: Vegans, vegetarians and alcoholics are in greater need of this nutrient.
Choline used to be considered Vitamin B4 along with adenosine and carnitine, but not anymore. Choline can be synthesized by the body in limited amounts, but optimal function requires outside sources of choline.
Beef, liver, egg yolk, fish; Sunflower lecithin, wheat germ, veggies like broccoli; Brewer’s yeast,
Main function: Serves to form the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, but functions throughout the body in organs such as the kidneys. It’s required to maintain overall health.
Deficiency symptoms: Unlikely to be deficient, but disease of the liver (fatty liver), cardiovascular and renal systems are implicated.
Dosage: “Adequate Intake” is about 500 mg per day.
Side effects: A maximum suggested dose is 3.5 mg in a day. More than that may result in emission of a fishy odor, depression, nausea, diarrhea and possible epilepsy.
- Supplements of choline are typically added to nootropic stacks to aid in brain metabolism and cognitive function.
- Choline may also be obtained through lecithin sources.
Conclusion and recommendation
The reason the B vitamins were called B vitamins is because they were all thought to be one water soluble vitamin. After many decades of research, this is clearly not the case. As you can see, a lot of them have similar but unique functions and work together for bodily health.
You should be taking a B complex supplement if you aren’t already. You’re bound to be missing some of these in your everyday diet since no diet is perfect.
A B complex supplement contains most of the above B vitamins and occasionally a few other similar but non-essential substances like inositol and choline.
Here are the B complex supplements I typically recommend:
In my next post I will explain more about B vitamin supplements and which ones may be covered individually for special reasons.
Sources for this post
- Linus Pauling Institute at OregonState.edu
- Molecular structure images from Wikipedia