Better With B

By David Blyweiss, M.D.

In the constellation of vitamins, D has been the rising star for the past several years. But, amid the D mania, a quieter movement has emerged as researchers and nutritionists become aware of the critical need for B vitamins, especially among those who suffer from headache, fatigue, mood, stress and menstrual disorders.

The truth is, B vitamins are real multi-taskers and are involved in many critical processes. They are sparkplugs in everything from energy metabolism to detoxification to mood to immunity and gut health. This is why it’s so important to make sure we aren’t running low.

Who is most at risk? Those over age 65, who are less efficient at absorbing vitamin B-12 through ordinary digestion because of a decrease in the acidity of the stomach. Vegetarians, who often miss out on major sources of B-12 in their daily meals are also at a higher risk. And smokers and drinkers can find themselves deficient in B-6. But you don’t need to fall into one of these groups to suffer a deficiency. Anyone who is under stress or feasts on junk food can also experience low B levels.

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The B vitamins are vital to the metabolism of all our cells and, in particular, the cells of the nervous system. Together with vitamin C, they help maintain an efficient adrenal response to stress. Epidemiological studies have linked low blood levels of folate, vitamins B-6 and B-12 to a higher prevalence of depression. Other studies suggest that even subclinical levels of B-12 among women and folate among men—levels that might be checked off as normal on an ordinary blood test—may contribute to depression.

A recent British study also associated lower levels of B vitamins with psychological distress. B-vitamin deficit has been linked to anxiety and, especially, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). All this makes sense in light of the unbroken link between the neurotransmitters, methylation and the Bs.

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But it’s not just folate, B-6 and B-12 that matter. Thiamin (B-1) insufficiency has a marked effect on the central nervous system. In fact, a thiamin-deficient person may experience fatigue, memory loss, depression, headache and muscle weakness. More severe deficiencies can result in neurological and cardiovascular problems, as well as anorexia and weight loss.

The B vitamins also play an important role in maintaining a healthy heart. A number of studies show that folic acid, B-6 and B-12 lower levels of the amino acid homocysteine. Though the mainstream medical community has yet to sign on, research suggests that high homocysteine levels lead to fatty deposits on the endothelium (the thin layer of cells that line the interior of blood vessels), as well as blood clots.

Even high cholesterol can be treated with Bs. Studies have consistently shown niacin to be nearly as effective in lowering cholesterol as statins. A recent study reported that niacin reduced levels by an average of 23 percent compared with 32 percent for Lovastatin—a finding that was particularly notable because niacin also raised “good” cholesterol levels better than the drug, produced fewer side effects and did not deplete coenzyme Q10.

Long ago, B vitamins were considered a single vitamin—just as vitamins C and D are today. But now scientists understand the Bs as a complex of chemically distinct vitamins often found in the same foods and frequently functioning together as a group.

The B vitamins consist of 11 nutrients that have similar roles in acting as coenzymes in production of energy and in the metabolism of proteins, fats and carbohydrates. But, those 11 nutrients are divided between the eight classic Bs—B-1, B-2, B-3, B-5, B-6, B-7, B-9 and B-12—and the three nutrients that are considered honorary B vitamins because they meet some but not all of the requirements of a classic B: para-amino benzoic acid (PABA), inositol and choline. While they each play different roles in the body, they work together for an overall benefit.

Keeping a steady supply of B vitamins in the body requires ingesting them daily, because unlike fat-soluble A and D vitamins, water-soluble Bs are not stored by the body. Any Bs not promptly absorbed are washed away. This is why, along with eating a diet high in B-rich foods—brewer’s yeast, egg yolks, fish, green leafy vegetables, legumes, meat, mushrooms, nuts, seeds and whole grains—it’s important to take supplemental Bs. But, unless you have a specific need for one particular B, you don’t need to take each one separately. Look for a high-quality B-complex that provides at least 50 mg. each of the entire family of nutrients in just one pill.


McNulty H. Homocysteine, B-vitamins and CVD. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 2008;67:232-237.

Sánchez-Villegas A. Association between folate, vitamin B(6) and vitamin B(12) intake and depression in the SUN cohort study. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics. 2009;22:122-133.

Sibley CT. Abstract 685: Comparative Effect of Statins vs. Niacin on MRI Measured Regression of Carotid Atherosclerosis in a Randomized Clinical Trial: The NIA Plaque Study. Circulation. 2009;120:S376

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