The B vitamins are actually a group of vitamins, called the B complex vitamins, which perform similar functions, and are often found together in the same foods. There are eight of them and they are all subtly different.
Pretty much all Vitamin Bs play a role in cell metabolism – converting your food into energy, and in some cases storing it so it can be used by your muscles when needed.
The B vitamins are often known collectively as the ‘stress vitamins’, because they play a role in regulating stress hormones and sex hormones, helping to stabilise mood, support learning and memory and calm the nervous system. They are involved in the production of neurotransmitters, and therefore essential for brain development and function.
Other important areas of health are immunity, healthy digestion, adrenal function, red blood cell production, and the production and repair of DNA and RNA. B vitamins are involved in maintaining the health of skin, hair and nails, bone growth and muscle function. Some of the Bs also help to control inflammation and oxidation, supporting the health of the heart and arteries, promoting healing, and supporting mitochondrial health.
Collectively they help the body to utilise other vitamins, including other B vitamins. The B vitamins are water soluble (as opposed to fat soluble, like some vitamins), so they are not stored well by the body and need to be consumed regularly.
Individual roles of the B vitamins, and the foods they are found in:
B1 is essential for nerve transmission, converting starch and sugar into energy, muscle function, healthy digestion, as well as cell growth and function.
Foods containing B1: whole grain products, brewer’s yeast, wheat germ, rice bran, beef, pork, trout, black beans and other legumes, mussels, tuna, milk, oranges, nuts, and seeds.
Riboflavin is an antioxidant. It also helps the body convert B6 into a useable form and helps promote niacin production, red blood cell production, healthy eyes and skin. It calms the nervous system, converts food into energy, and is essential for cell function and growth.
Foods containing B2: dairy products, eggs, fortified breakfast cereals, buckwheat, beef liver, chicken, clams, mushrooms, almonds, dark green vegetables.
B3 (niacin from nicotinic acid, or nicotinamide)
B3 is involved in converting food into energy. It reduces the risk of heart disease, helping to balance cholesterol. It is also responsible for building and repairing DNA, the production of sex and stress hormones, healthy skin and digestive system, and helps the body use other B vitamins.
Foods containing B3: eggs, salmon, tuna, broccoli, leafy vegetables, carrots, tomatoes, kumara, avocados, whole grains, nuts, dairy, mushrooms, chicken, beef, turkey, lamb, organ meats.
Involved in the production of sex and stress hormones, and supports adrenal function. Like most B vitamins, it’s needed for the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates and fats, and is involved in the synthesis of a coenzyme that helps break down fatty acids. B5 is also required for the production of red blood cells, the production of healthy cholesterol, and helps the body to effectively use B2.
Foods containing B5: found in many different foods, so deficiency is uncommon. Especially in whole grains, eggs, meat, avocado, legumes, yoghurt, mushrooms, dark green vegetables, organ meats, potatoes, chicken.
Especially important for brain health, B6 is involved in the production of neurotransmitters, and therefore healthy brain function and development. Responsible for hormone production, it is important for maintaining mood and memory, and helps the body store energy produced from carbohydrates and proteins. Vitamin B6 is required for dozens of enzyme reactions in the body, for healthy nerve function throughout the body, and for immunity (especially as we grow older). Symptoms of deficiency include depression and short-term memory loss, as well as lack of concentration and muscle weakness.
Foods containing B6: chickpeas, beef liver, tuna, salmon, chicken breast, brewer’s yeast, bananas, carrots, spinach, peas, potatoes, whole grains, potatoes, turkey, milk products, eggs, sunflower seeds, beef.
Important for bone growth and healthy hair, skin and nails. It helps manage glucose levels, and maintain a healthy digestive system. B7 also converts food into energy, is essential for making fatty acids, for metabolism of carbohydrates and fat, and is a cofactor for many enzymes.
Foods containing B7: Supplementation is often recommended during pregnancy, but otherwise sufficient amounts are found in most diets, including in organ meats, barley, brewer’s yeast, corn, egg yolks, milk, royal jelly, soy, sardines, wheat germ, avocado, whole grains, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, cheese, chicken, fish, legumes, mushrooms, almonds, pork, beef, potatoes, and spinach.
Important for regulating levels of amino acid associated with heart disease and stroke. Especially important during pregnancy, in particular to ensure normal brain and spine development. Responsible for red blood cell production, nerve function, and DNA production and repair. Deficiency in adults can lead to forgetfulness and irritability.
Foods containing B9: Spinach, beef liver, green vegetables, legumes, yeast, mushrooms, asparagus, bananas, melons, lemons, oranges, peanuts, avocado, salmon, whole grains, fortified cereals and mushrooms.
Involved in the production of red blood cells, as well as DNA, RNA, and neurotransmitters. B12 is particularly significant for the brain and nervous system, and is essential for maintaining and developing nerve cells and myelin (the insulating layer around nerve cells). It’s also important for the metabolism of proteins. Deficiency can cause memory loss, fatigue and anaemia, among other symptoms.
Foods containing B12: mainly animal products, including organ meats, shellfish, beef, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy products, and some fortified cereals.
B Vitamins as Supplements
Usually it makes sense to take the entire range of B vitamins together, and most multivitamins or B complex supplements do include the whole range. However, there are times when you might take individual B vitamin supplements, for example, B12 if you are taking Metformin for type 2 diabetes, or a stomach acid medication, both of which can cause B12 deficiency.
We developed Multiva, a multivitamin for kiwi men & women that includes Vitamin B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, and B12 – among many other essential nutrients.