If you have trouble losing body fat, feel sluggish and unmotivated, or struggle with stress or illness, then you may benefit from increasing your B vitamin intake. Although downing energy drinks filled with B vitamins or getting B injections probably aren’t necessary (or the best idea), it’s entirely possible your B intake isn’t all that it could be. This article will tell why you the B vitamins are vital for peak health and performance with pointers on how to get them.
What They Are
The B vitamins are eight essential nutrients that you must ingest from food—your body can’t produce them on its own. This is important because due to multiple reasons like poor absorption, genetic differences, excess stress, a high-carb intake, or a western diet, many people aren’t getting enough.
B1 (Thiamine) is an anti-stress vitamin that protects the immune system and plays a vital role in metabolism of glucose. Eating a diet high in carbs increases the need for thiamine—a condition that is called “high-calorie malnutrition” by scientists.
B2 (Riboflavin) has antioxidant effects, helping to eliminate particles that damage cells from the body. It’s also necessary for red blood cell production and oxygen transport—both key for athleticism.
B3 (Niacin) allows the body to make various sex and stress-related hormones in the adrenal gland. It also helps fight inflammation and raises HDL cholesterol (the beneficial kind).
B5 (Pantothenic acid) is involved in metabolism and plays a role in breaking down fats and carbs. Like B3, it’s also responsible for the production of steroid hormones such as testosterone, estrogen, and cortisol.
B6 (Pyridoxine) plays a role in mood and sleep patterns because it helps the body produce serotonin, melatonin, and norepinephrine.
B7 (Biotin) is involved in controlling blood glucose levels and preventing diabetes. It's also known as the “beauty B,” playing a role in healthy hair skin and nails.
B9 (Folate) is best known for preventing neurological birth defects, but it also helps prevent memory loss and reduce depression.
B12 (Cobalamin) works with B9 to produce red blood cells and with iron to create hemoglobin, the oxygen carrying protein. B12 is also necessary for a healthy metabolism, helping the body convert fats and proteins into energy.
Why You Need Them
#1: Support Daily Detoxification
A lot of people buckle down once a year and do a juice fast or detox program in an effort to make penance for less than stellar eating habits. This approach completely misses the fact that for successful detoxification, you need your body to be doing it everyday.
After all, you’re exposed to environmental toxins all the time and you need to give your body all the help possible to eliminate them. Say you breathe in a chemical like benzene, which is found in cigarette smoke and car exhaust. The first step in eliminating it from your body is that a B vitamin attaches to the benzene and “mobilizes” it. Next, the most powerful antioxidant we have, glutathione, attaches to the benzene, neutralizing it so that it can be eliminated through the gut without damaging cells.
Besides being essential for phase 1 of the detox process, B vitamins are also methyl donors, which allow the body to recycle glutathione. Studies consistently show that low glutathione is linked to chronic disease, cancer, frequent illness, and poor mental health.
#2: Improve Hormone Balance
Due to the pervasive presence of chemicals in our daily lives, it’s common for both men and women to experience elevated chemical estrogen levels. Chemical estrogens are compounds found in products like plastic, shampoo, cosmetics, and cleaning products that bind with estrogen receptors in the body and essentially increase our estrogen levels.
Vitamin B6, B12, and B9 promote the removal of estrogen down a pathway that is less likely to cause cancer. Effective removal of estrogen will help with fat loss because higher estrogen levels correlate with higher body fat. It will also reduce disease risk and limit other complications linked with altered hormone levels such as psychological problems. Plus, the enzyme aromatase, which turns testosterone to estrogen in the body, is higher if you have more body fat.
#3: Improve Your Body’s Ability To Burn Fat
When people think of “fat burning” nutrients, they often turn to carnitine, taurine, coffee, hot peppers, and green tea, but none of those will be as beneficial if you don’t get enough B vitamins.
For example, thiamine (vitamin B1) plays an important role in both carbohydrate and fat metabolism. Thiamine diphosphate is a cofactor for enzymatic reactions that enable pyruvate (from glucose) and fat to enter the Krebs cycle to be burned for energy. In fact, high-calorie malnutrition occurs in people who eat diets high in simple carbs who don’t get the thiamine they need, even when many of these foods are fortified.
One expert explains that when deficiency of B vitamins like thiamine is long-term, as in the case of the high-carb western diet, fortification with synthetic vitamins may not help because the enzymatic pathways in the body down which these nutrients act are damaged or atrophied.
#4: Protect Your Brain
Although supplementing with B vitamins are not going to create the heightened alertness or energy that caffeine does, they do play a principle role in cognition and protecting your brain from aging. Folate and B12 deficiency are both associated with depression, low mood, and reduced interest in social activity. One study found that supplementing depressed people with 50 mg of methylfolate daily was as effective as the anti-depressant trazodone in improving depressive symptoms.
Older people are at much greater risk of deficiency because folate concentrations in the blood and brain spinal fluid fall, whereas plasma homocysteine levels rise, which increase heart disease risk and contribute to the aging process.
For example, in a Swedish study, subjects with folate or B12 deficiency doubled their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. On the otherhand, supplementing with folic acid in the elderly improved mood and cognitive function and “patients were strikingly transformed into independent competent people.”
#5: Boost Athletic Performance & Power
Besides helping you achieve optimal hormone levels for athleticism, the B vitamins enable a healthy nervous system. Vitamins B6, 9, and 12 play a role in the synthesis and circulation of neurotransmitters that enhance power output and training drive. They also play a role in nerve cell integrity that allows for a faster message to pass from the brain to the muscle. This is critical for peak power and athletic performance.
How To Ensure You Get Enough?
Although it’s entirely possible to get all the B vitamins from the food you eat, many people are not doing so. As mentioned above, a high-carb intake increases your thiamine requirements, whereas, if you have a certain genotype that reduces your methylation capacities (about 40% of the population has this gene variation), you may not be getting B9 and B12 that the body requires. The following are tips to ensure you’re getting all the Bs you need.
Are you a vegan or vegetarian?
Vitamin B12 is only present in animal foods: meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. Many non-meat eaters benefit from supplementing, just make sure you’re getting B12 in the form of methylcobalamin, which is the form of B12 that occurs in the body. Many supplements use cyanocobalamin, which is not as bioavailable.
Do you have a high animal protein intake or supplement with BCAAs?
A high BCAA intake can deplete B vitamins because they are necessary for the production of enzymes like Branched Chain Keto Acid Dehydrogenase that is a limiting factor in BCAA metabolism. Vitamin B6, B1, B, B3, and B5 are especially affected. Besides animal products (especially liver), the top B containing foods are spinach, parsley and other leafy greens, broccoli, beets, asparagus, lentils, bell peppers, oranges, and cantaloupe.
Do you suffer digestive issues?
If your gut is not working like clockwork or you have bowel inflammation or low hydrochloric acid, the body won’t be able to absorb your Bs. As you age, gastric acid decreases so you are more likely to be deficient in B vitamins.
If your issue is poor absorption, simply supplementing or upping your B intake won’t help. Rather, you need to start healing your gut: Supplementing with digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid can help, as can increasing your intake of probiotics and fibrous vegetables.
Do you take medications?
Additional sources of bioavailable B vitamins include the following:
Legumes (lentils and beans): Folate, Biotin, Riboflavin, Thiamine
Nuts: Riboflavin, Thiamine
Starchy vegetables (sweet potatoes): Niacin
Avocados: Pantothenic acid, B6
Dark Chocolate: Biotin
Citrus: Folate, B6.
Meat and Fish: B6, B12, Biotin, Pantothenic acid, Riboflavin, Niacin
Eggs: Thiamine, Riboflavin, Niacin, Pantothenic Acid, Biotin, B12
Green Vegetables (leafy greens, broccoli, peas, asparagus, etc.): Folate, B6, Pantothenic Acid, Riboflavin, Thiamine