Benefits of B-Complex Vitamins
Written by Julia Kubala, MS, RD
B vitamins are a group of nutrients that play many important roles in your body. They are found in a variety of foods, so most people get the recommended amounts of these vitamins through diet alone.
However, certain factors may mean your body needs more B vitamins. These include age, pregnancy, dietary choices, medical conditions, genetics, medications, and alcohol use.
In these circumstances, supplementing with B vitamins may be necessary. Nutritional supplements that contain all eight B vitamins are referred to as B-complex vitamins or vitamin B complex.
B-complex supplements usually pack all eight B vitamins into one pill.
B vitamins are water-soluble, which means your body does not store them. For this reason, your diet must supply them each day. They have many important functions and are vital for maintaining good health.
Vitamin B complex supplements usually contain the following:
B1 (thiamine). Thiamine plays an essential role in metabolism by helping convert nutrients into energy. The richest food sources include pork, sunflower seeds, and wheat germ.
B2 (riboflavin). Riboflavin helps convert food into energy and also acts as an antioxidant. Foods highest in riboflavin include organ meats, beef, and mushrooms.
B3 (niacin). Niacin plays a role in cellular signaling, metabolism, and DNA production and repair. Food sources include chicken, tuna, and lentils.
B5 (pantothenic acid). Like other B vitamins, pantothenic acid helps your body obtain energy from food and is also involved in hormone and cholesterol production. Liver, fish, yogurt, and avocado are all good sources.
B6 (pyridoxine). Pyridoxine is involved in amino acid metabolism, red blood cell production, and the creation of neurotransmitters. Foods highest in this vitamin include chickpeas, salmon, and potatoes.
B7 (biotin). Biotin is essential for carbohydrate and fat metabolism and regulates gene expression. Yeast, eggs, salmon, cheese, and liver are among the best food sources of biotin.
B9 (folate). Folate is needed for cell growth, amino acid metabolism, the formation of red and white blood cells, and proper cell division. It can be found in foods like leafy greens, liver, and beans or in supplements in the form of folic acid.
B12 (cobalamin). Perhaps the most well-known of all the B vitamins, B12 is vital for neurological function, DNA production, and red blood cell development. B12 is found naturally in animal sources like meats, eggs, seafood, and dairy.
Although these vitamins share some characteristics, they all have unique functions and are needed in different amounts.
While another essential nutrient, choline, was formerly considered to be a B-complex vitamin and shares some similarities with them, it is in fact neither a vitamin nor a mineral.
Who Should Take a Vitamin B Complex?
Since B vitamins are found in many foods, you are most likely not at risk of developing a deficiency as long as you follow a well-rounded diet.
However, certain circumstances increase the need for B vitamins, making supplements necessary.
Women Who are Pregnant or Nursing
During pregnancy, the demand for B vitamins, particularly B12 and folate, grows. This is because they are needed to support fetal development.
In people who are pregnant or breastfeeding or chestfeeding — especially those who follow vegetarian or vegan diets — supplementing with a B-complex vitamin is crucial.
B12 or folate deficiency during pregnancy or while nursing can lead to severe neurological damage or birth defects in the fetus or infant.
As you age, your ability to absorb vitamin B12 decreases and your appetite declines, making it difficult for some people to get enough B12 through diet alone.
The body’s ability to release B12 from food so that it can be absorbed depends on adequate amounts of stomach acid.
However, it’s estimated that 10–30% of people over 50 don’t produce enough stomach acid to properly absorb B12. If you take medications to reduce stomach acid in order to treat acid reflux or heartburn, this can also inhibit your B12 absorption.
Deficiency in B12 has been linked to increased rates of depression and mood disturbances in older people.
Deficiencies in vitamin B6 and folate are also common in older adults.
Those with Certain Medical Conditions
People with certain medical conditions — such as celiac disease, cancer, Crohn’s disease, alcoholism, hypothyroidism, and anorexia — are more likely to develop nutrient deficiencies, including B vitamins.
Additionally, the MTHFR genetic mutation can affect how your body metabolizes folate, which can lead to a folate deficiency and other health concerns.
What’s more, people who have undergone certain weight loss surgeries are also more likely to be deficient in B vitamins.
In these circumstances, people are often advised to supplement with a B-complex vitamin to correct or avoid deficiencies.
Vegetarians and Vegans
Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal products like meat, dairy, eggs, and seafood.
Vegans and strict vegetarians could be at risk of developing a B12 deficiency if they don’t get enough of this vitamin through fortified foods or supplements.
A daily B-complex vitamin can help ensure that people who choose to follow diets that eliminate animal products are getting enough of these important nutrients.
People Taking Certain Medications
Commonly prescribed medications can lead to a deficiency in B vitamins.
For example, proton pump inhibitors, which are medications that lower stomach acid, can decrease the absorption of B12, whereas metformin, a popular diabetes drug, can decrease levels of both B12 and folate.
Birth control pills can also deplete several B vitamins, including B6, B12, folate, and riboflavin.
Health Benefits of Taking B Vitamins
While certain conditions make it necessary for some people to supplement with B-complex vitamins, research has shown that taking a B vitamin supplement may be helpful even for people who don’t have an increased need for these nutrients.
May Reduce Stress and Boost Mood
B-complex vitamins are often used to reduce fatigue and boost mood. Some studies suggest that B vitamins can lift your spirits and improve your cognitive performance.
A 33-day study in 215 healthy men found that treatment with a high dose B-complex and mineral supplement improved general mental health and stress and enhanced performance on cognitive tests.
Another study in young adults showed that supplementing with a multivitamin containing high levels of B-complex vitamins for 90 days reduced stress and mental fatigue.
May Reduce Symptoms of Anxiety or Depression
While B-complex vitamin supplements are not a cure for mental health conditions, they may help improve symptoms of depression or anxiety.
A study in 60 adults with depression showed that treatment with a vitamin B complex for 60 days led to significant improvements in depression and anxiety symptoms, compared with a placebo.
B vitamins may also enhance treatment response when given in combination with antidepressant medication.
One study found that supplementing with a vitamin containing B12, B6, and folic acid led to a more enhanced and lasting antidepressant response over 1 year, compared with a placebo.
Note that low blood levels of certain B vitamins, including B12, B6, and folate, have been linked to an increased risk of depression, which is why it’s important to rule out nutrient deficiencies if you are experiencing symptoms of depression.
The Bottom Line
Pregnant people, older adults, vegans, and those with certain medical conditions may benefit from taking a B-complex supplement.
Taking these supplements may also improve mood, cognitive function, and symptoms of depression.
Side effects are unlikely if you follow the recommended dosage, which varies depending on age, nutrient demands, sex, and health.