What are the benefits of B vitamins?

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Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
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02 July 2019

Why do we need B vitamins?

B vitamins are absolutely essential for our health and wellbeing and, while we usually refer to them as a collective, each individual B vitamin has a variety of roles to play within the body. Today, I'm going to be looking at a few of the many functions B vitamins perform within the body, including their role in:

  • Regulating our energy levels
  • Producing red blood cells
  • Supporting our nervous system
  • Breaking down food

In addition to focussing on how they support our health, I'm also going to explore when it might be necessary to look at increasing our intake of certain B vitamins, what foods you can source them from and when you should consider taking a B complex supplement.

How many B vitamins are there?

In total, there are eight essential B vitamins that your body relies on. Below, I've mentioned each one by name, as well as how much of them you should be getting in one day.

B1 (Thiamine) 0.8-1mg
B2 (Riboflavin) 1-1.3mg
B3 (Niacin) 13-17mg
B5 (Pantothenic acid) 13-17mg
B6 (Pyridoxine) 1.2-1.4mg
B7 (Biotin) 30-50mcg
B9 (Folic acid) 0.2mcg
B12 (Cobalamin) 1.5-2.4mcg

What do B vitamins do?

There are eight essential B vitamins that your body relies on but, as I've mentioned, most of us tend to refer to the nutrients as a collective. Not everyone is aware of the role each individual B vitamin plays within the body, which can lead to some confusion. Here, I'll going to take a look at four essential bodily functions and discuss which B vitamins are involved.

Breaking down food

If you're familiar at all with the digestive processes that take place within the body, then you'll know that the process of breaking down our food actually begins in our mouth with the secretion of saliva, which contains a combination of enzymes to help breakdown various components of food. The act of chewing also helps to signal to your stomach to prepare for the arrival of food, ensuring a nice flow of gastric juices to help digest your food here too!

Certain B vitamins also have a role to play here too: vitamins B1, B2, B6 and B7 all assist with the breakdown of various food molecules ranging from carbohydrates to fats to amino acids. As I will soon discuss, this is extremely important when it comes to regulating your energy levels and fighting fatigue symptoms.

Regulating energy levels

As I've just discussed, B vitamins can help to breakdown certain food groups into more digestible and useful forms. Their role doesn't stop here though – B vitamins can help to convert your food into glucose, a simple sugar which your body can then utilise as a fuel source. However, two specific B vitamins are absolutely vital for healthy energy levels – vitamin B12 and vitamin B9.

Respectively known as cobalamin and folate, as I will soon discuss, you need these two nutrients to produce healthy red blood cells. The main function of red blood cells is to transport oxygen rich blood around the body – if this isn't happening efficiently, then certain areas of your body, such as your muscle tissue, brain or even your heart, won't receive the supply of oxygen that they need to thrive, quickly leading to fatigue symptoms or even anaemia.

Producing red blood cells

Vitamins B12 and B9, as I've mentioned, are essential for the production of the red blood cells that send oxygen-rich blood around our body. You need both to prevent the development of pernicious and megaloblastic anaemia. Unfortunately, especially when it comes to vitamin B12, deficiencies can be quite common, particularly amongst those who adhere to a vegan or vegetarian diet, or suffer from poor digestion.
If you want to learn more about what can happen if you're not getting enough vitamin B12, I'd suggest taking a look at my blog, 'Struggling to stay awake? You could need more vitamin B12!'.

Supporting the nervous system

Finally, it would be impossible to talk about the benefits of B vitamins without discussing their crucial role in supporting your nervous system.
The nervous system is composed of a complex network of cells and nerves that relay messages to your brain and spinal cord. When you experience stress, for example, your nervous system will relay messages to your brain to increase the flow of blood to your heart, lungs and muscles in preparation for either fight or flight.

Certain B vitamins help to support your nervous system by synthesising neurotransmitters, chemicals that can transmit signal across your body. Vitamin B6, or pyridoxine, is one of these vitamins, alongside vitamin B12, which helps to maintain myelin, a fatty substance that helps to insulate and protect our nerves.

When might I need more B vitamins?

Earlier I mentioned what your intake, on average, of all eight essential B vitamins should be; however, there will be circumstances when you seriously need to look at upping your intake of a particular B vitamin. I've listed a few examples below and explained why increasing your intake might be necessary here.

If you're pregnant or breastfeeding then, naturally, your nutritional needs increase. In the case of B vitamins, vitamin B9, folic acid, becomes a top priority. You need plenty of vitamin B9 to support your baby's development, so, during pregnancy, you'll need around 400-600mcg a day and around 500mcg a day, if you plan on breastfeeding. However, please note that dietary folate, rather than folic acid in supplement form is thought to be better absorbed in the body, so this is the preferred from wherever possible.

Which foods are rich in B vitamins?

  • Whole grains – barley, brown rice, whole grain bread, whole oats, buckwheat
  • Red meat – beef, liver
  • Leafy green vegetables – spinach, kale, broccoli, collard
  • Nuts – almonds, walnuts, cashews
  • Eggs
  • Legumes – lentils, chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans
  • Nutritional yeast

Should I try a B complex supplement?

You should be able to get all the B vitamins you need from your diet but, sometimes, as I mentioned earlier, it might become necessary to try a supplement. If you're pregnant, for example, suffer from poor digestion or are going through menopause, it might be a nice idea to incorporate a B complex supplement into your day to day routine to help ensure you're hitting your recommended daily intake.

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