Vitamin B So Complex: We Break it Down for You

This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Varun B R, MBBS, MD (Internal Medicine), MRCP (UK), CCEBDM

According to recent studies, approximately 75% of India’s population shows signs of vitamin B12 deficiency. Given the size of the problem, it’s no wonder that vitamin B is quickly becoming the new darling of health and nutrition enthusiasts. 

As a key player in several biochemical processes, vitamin B deserves our full attention. But getting the science right can be challenging with so much information out there.

The leading causes of vitamin B deficiency are smoking, alcohol consumption, use of antiacid medications, and, of course, eating habits, including vegetarianism. 

Facts about Vitamin B12. 90% of all B12 supplements produced worldwide are fed to livestock

As our awareness of the risks and benefits associated with vitamin B grows, so does the market for vitamin B supplements. In 2020, the market value of B complex and B12 vitamin products in India amounted to a whopping 281 million US dollars. 

Today, vitamin B supplements are available in various forms, including injectable jabs, tablets and nasal sprays. B vitamins are added to your morning cereals, plant-based milk and even your shampoo. The question is: are these products the best way to prevent deficiency? How safe and effective are they? 

Let’s get to it!

What is vitamin B complex?

What’s known as vitamin B is actually a group of eight different vitamins.  

While commonly referred to as vitamin B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9 and B12, you are likely to encounter these vitamins on the ingredient lists of multivitamin supplements, fortified food and beverages, and even skincare products, under their scientific names:

  • Thiamine (B1) 
  • Riboflavin (B2) 
  • Niacin (B3) 
  • Pantothenic acid (B5)
  • Pyridoxine (B6)
  • Biotin (B7) 
  • Folate (B9) 
  • Cobalamin (B12)

All B vitamins are water-soluble. This property allows them to easily enter the bloodstream and support our body in various biochemical processes, including energy metabolism, cell growth, and immune functions.

However, unlike fat-soluble vitamins, water-soluble vitamins cannot be stored by the body. Their levels must be replenished regularly through food since any unemployed amount will quickly exit the body through urine and sweat.

A “miraculous” elixir… 

B vitamins play so many vital roles in the body that it’s hard to keep track of all of them. Let’s have a look!

1. Energy metabolism

One of the primary functions of B vitamins is energy metabolism. Thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), and cobalamin (B12) are all involved in different steps of converting the food we consume into energy. 

But be aware that contrary to popular opinion, B vitamins do not produce energy but help the body to absorb it from food. In other words, popping a pill of vitamin B will not boost your energy levels.

2. Brain health and nervous system functions

Several B vitamins are essential for maintaining a healthy nervous system and promoting proper brain function. Cobalamin (B12) is known as “the nerve regenerator” because it is crucial in regenerating nerve fibres and repairing nerve damage, while pyridoxine (B6) contributes to producing serotonin and dopamine

Serotonin and dopamine are very important chemicals, commonly known as “happy hormones” because of the role they play in mood regulation. However, contrary to some claims, vitamin B6 is not an antidepressant. The use of B vitamins in the treatment of mental disorders is still under study and there is no conclusive evidence as to its effectiveness. 

3. DNA synthesis and cell division

Folate (B9) is crucial for DNA synthesis and cell division. It is especially important during pregnancy as it contributes to preventing defects in the growing baby. 

4. Skin and hair health

Biotin (B7) is often associated with healthy skin, hair, and nails. It plays a role in the metabolism of fatty acids and amino acids, which are essential building blocks for healthy skin and hair cells.

5. Immune system support

Several B vitamins contribute to a healthy immune system. For instance, pyridoxine (B6) helps produce antibodies and immune cells, while cobalamin (B12) is involved in forming white blood cells, which are essential for immune defence.

6. Red blood cell formation

Cobalamin (B12) and folate (B9) are crucial for the formation of red blood cells. A deficiency in these vitamins can lead to anaemia, characterised by fatigue, weakness, and a reduced ability of the blood to carry oxygen.

7. Cardiovascular health

Niacin (B3) is known for its role in supporting cardiovascular health. It helps improve blood lipid profiles by increasing high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels and reducing low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels.

The vitamin B complex does sound like a miraculous elixir, but remember that vitamins work in tandem with other nutrients. They can’t do much on their own.

How much vitamin B do you need?

While vitamin B intake may vary based on individual needs, age, health conditions, and other factors, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has issued general recommendation:

Recommended Dietary Allowance for Vitamin B

It’s always a good idea to consult with your doctor for personalised recommendations regarding your vitamin B intake, especially if you have specific health concerns or dietary restrictions.

Where can you find vitamin B?

B vitamins are commonly found in a variety of foods. 

Food Sources of Vitamin B

Keep in mind that vitamin B (water-soluble vitamins) are sensitive to heat and light. Cooking methods that involve high temperatures or prolonged cooking times can cause a significant loss of vitamins. To preserve the nutritional value of your food, choose cooking methods that minimise vitamin loss, such as steaming, blanching or grilling.

Cooking methods to avoid loss of vitamins in food

The quality of the food is also an important factor to consider. Over-processed animal products are significantly lower in nutritional value than unprocessed products.

Are you getting enough vitamin B?

When the body does not have an adequate supply of one or more B vitamins, it develops deficiencies. Since deficiencies in B vitamins can lead to several health problems and symptoms, it’s important to check your vitamin levels through regular blood tests.

While vitamin levels can vary depending on factors like age, gender, and specific testing methods, as a general guideline, your blood test results should be within these ranges:

Normal range for Vitamin B levels

While vitamin B12 is part of routine testing, vitamins B6 and B9 are tested only in case of specific concerns, such as malabsorption or anaemia.

Remember that while blood tests can provide valuable information, they should be considered alongside your medical history, eating habits and lifestyle choices to determine what causes a vitamin B deficiency and how to treat it. Interpreting blood test results in consultation with your doctor is the best way to ensure you receive an accurate diagnosis.

In the absence of symptoms or underlying health conditions, a yearly test is sufficient. In case of known deficiencies, testing your vitamin levels once every six months is recommended.

How often should you check your vitamin levels?

What are the main causes of vitamin B deficiency?

Identifying the underlying cause of a vitamin B deficiency is essential for appropriate treatment and prevention. Let’s have a look at some of the primary risk factors.

1. Inadequate dietary intake

A diet that lacks foods rich in vitamin B complex can lead to deficiencies over time. This is especially true for individuals with limited access to diverse and nutritious foods. 

Yes, vegans and vegetarians are more likely to develop deficiencies, but meat-eaters should also pay attention to their vitamin B levels.

2. Poor absorption 

Medical conditions like celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, gastrointestinal surgery, and gastrointestinal disorders can impair the body’s ability to absorb B vitamins from the digestive tract.

3. Medications

Some medications can interfere with the absorption and metabolism of B vitamins. For example, certain anticonvulsant drugs, proton pump inhibitors used to treat acid peptic disease, and diabetes medications may affect vitamin B absorption.

4. Age

Elderly individuals may be at a higher risk of vitamin B deficiencies due to reduced stomach acid production, which can impact the absorption of specific B vitamins like Cobalamin (B12).

5. Alcohol consumption

Excessive alcohol consumption can interfere with the absorption of several B vitamins, particularly Thiamine (B1), and contribute to deficiencies.

6. Pregnancy and lactation

Pregnant and breastfeeding women have increased needs for B vitamins to support foetal and infant growth and development. Inadequate intake during these periods can lead to deficiencies and congenital disorders.

7. Medical treatments

Certain medical treatments can increase the demand for B vitamins, leading to deficiencies. Examples include patients on dialysis and certain types of cancer treatments.

8. Vegan or vegetarian diets

While plant-based diets can be healthy, strict vegan or vegetarian diets may lack sufficient cobalamin (B12), which is mainly found in meat products. Without proper supplementation or fortified foods, deficiencies can occur.

9. Malabsorption syndromes

Various malabsorption syndromes, such as tropical sprue and certain genetic disorders, can impair the absorption of B vitamins.

10. Genetic factors

In rare cases, genetic mutations can affect the body’s ability to metabolise or utilise specific B vitamins, leading to deficiencies.

What are the symptoms of vitamin B deficiencies?

Because different B vitamins serve distinct functions, vitamin B deficiencies can manifest in various ways. Some common symptoms are:

  • fatigue and weakness, 
  • numbness or tingling in hands and feet, 
  • changes in skin complexion.

Other health conditions can also cause these symptoms, so a proper diagnosis is crucial. If you suspect a vitamin B deficiency based on your symptoms, health history, or lifestyle choices, it’s important to consult with your doctor and follow up with appropriate tests.

Severe cases of vitamin B deficiency can lead to serious health conditions. For example, Thiamine (B1) deficiency can cause Beriberi and niacin (B3) deficiency can result in Pellagra

How to treat deficiencies?

Do you want to hear the unpopular answer first? Sticking to a nutritious diet and a healthy lifestyle is the best way to keep your vitamin levels where they should be. 

However, if underlying medical conditions or dietary restrictions make it challenging to meet vitamin B requirements, your doctor may recommend supplements. 

Let’s have a look at the most popular supplements on the market. 

1. B complex supplements

B complex supplements contain a combination of several B vitamins. They are available in various formulations and are often used to support overall energy metabolism, nervous system health, and healthy skin, hair, and nails.

2. Specialised formulations

Specialised formulations offer a combination of B vitamins and other nutrients, minerals, or herbal ingredients to target specific health goals, such as stress management, energy support, or cognitive health.

3. Single vitamin supplements

Single vitamin supplements contain only one specific B vitamin, such as Cobalamin (B12). They may help address specific deficiencies or health concerns related to that particular vitamin.

4. Intravenous (IV) or injectable

Intravenous (IV) or injectable B vitamins provide direct administration of B vitamins into the bloodstream. This type of supplement is often used for severe deficiencies or underlying medical conditions.

Vitamin B supplements are generally safe and well-tolerated. However, like any dietary supplement, there is a potential for side effects, especially if taken in excessive amounts or without proper medical guidance. 

While water-soluble vitamins have a lower risk of toxicity than fat-soluble vitamins, high doses of supplements can still lead to side effects, such as nausea and upset stomach, allergic reactions, and skin reactions. 

Moreover, consuming excessive amounts of vitamin B supplements may alter blood test results. Biotin (B7) interference can be especially problematic as it can return falsely low levels of troponin, an important biomarker in the diagnosis of heart attacks. Make sure to inform your doctor about your supplement consumption to avoid a misdiagnosis.

Facts about Vitamin B

With so many choices out there, it may be difficult to know which supplement is best for you. Your doctor can help assess your specific nutrient needs, recommend appropriate formulations, and determine the correct dosages based on your health status and goals.

The bottom line

If you can’t meet your recommended intake of vitamin B, supplements can help, but they shouldn’t become a substitute for healthy eating habits. Eating a balanced diet rich in whole food truly is the best way to prevent deficiencies.

If you aren’t sure where to start, Even can help. As members, you have unlimited access to doctors and nutritionists who can help you assess how to make up for vitamin deficiencies in ways that suit your lifestyle and medical history. If you aren’t a member yet, you can sign up here.