If there’s one thing we could all use a little more of, it’s some extra energy throughout the day – especially during the holidays! You’ve probably heard of increasing your B-Vitamin intake to increase your energy level, but digging a little deeper you find B1, B6, B12, etc. So how many of these B’s are there, how are they different and how do you get more of them for increased energy? Let’s break down what they are, why they’re important, and how to harness the energy of these nutrients by whole foods and supplements.
The B-complex vitamins – essential for so many important functions in the body, yet poorly understood by many outside (and even inside) the food and health industry. Unlike other vitamins, there is no singular nutrient that represents Vitamin B as there is with other alphabetical vitamins (think Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and so on). The B-complex vitamins are numerous, and to make it more confusing, some are more commonly referred to by their scientific name instead of the numerical one. Let’s take a look at each one:
Vitamin B1 = Thiamin
What it does: Thiamin is essential to produce ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is the major energy currency of the human body. It’s used for things like carbohydrate, fat, and protein metabolism, as well as playing an important role in brain function because it is used to make neurotransmitters. Deficiency is rare in the U.S., but can affect the nervous system and cardiovascular system.
Food sources: Yeast or yeast extract, pork, eggs, oatmeal, flax, brown rice, and vegetables like asparagus, kale, and cauliflower.
Vitamin B2 = Riboflavin
What it does: Riboflavin plays a variety of roles in normal metabolism – many chemical reactions rely on enzymes to work, and riboflavin helps out with that by serving as an important cofactor. Think of it as a VIP pass: the enzyme standing in line to get in might get there eventually, but the cofactor makes sure it happens, and happens quickly. Deficiency can lead to symptoms of the mouth, eyes, and skin, and may stunt growth in children.
Food sources: Milk is a big one, along with cheese, legumes, leafy vegetables, mushrooms, and almonds.
Vitamin B3 = Niacin (or niacinamide)
What it does: Like Vitamins B1 and B2, B3 or niacin is important for supporting normal metabolism and producing energy the body can use. It participates in many of the same types of chemical reactions, as well as processes where DNA is involved. Lack of this nutrient can lead to headaches, tiredness, anemia, and lesions of the skin or mouth.
Food sources: Whole grains are a great source. It’s also found in meat, fish, and eggs, plus a variety of fruits and vegetables.
Vitamin B5 = Pantothenic acid
What it does: As carbon-based lifeforms, moving carbon atoms around the body is necessary, and that’s where Vitamin B5 comes into play. It’s also involved with enzymes and the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Deficiency can result in a variety of symptoms, but could include fatigue, irritability, or sleep disturbances or restlessness.
Food sources: Only small amounts are found in most foods, but some higher sources include whole grains, avocados, and broccoli.
Vitamin B6 = Pyridoxine, pyridoxal, or pyridoxamine
What it does: “Vitamin B6” actually refers to a group of nutrients, but they all work similarly to each other in that they are used in carbohydrate, fat, and protein metabolism. They also help our red blood cells transports oxygen around the body. Deficiency results in anemia because of this, but could also show up as sores on the mouth or tongue, conjunctivitis (affecting the eyes), or confusion.
Food sources: Milk, eggs, beef, and many types of fruits and vegetables like bananas and avocados.
Vitamin B7 = Biotin
What it does: Biotin supports cell growth and helps with metabolism of fats and protein. It’s also an important cofactor for moving carbon dioxide (CO2) around the body. Deficiencies are rare because the body actually produces biotin in the large intestine!
Food sources: There aren’t many good food sources, but you can find it in egg yolks, leafy greens (especially Swiss chard), and peanuts.
Vitamin B9 = Folic acid or folate
What it does: This one goes by many names, but folic acid and folate are the two most common and can be used interchangeably. It’s important for processes for DNA and acts as a cofactor in many reactions in the body. Women, especially those of childbearing age, need this nutrient to prevent birth defects in the brain and spinal cord during pregnancy and avoid anemia. Other signs of deficiency include headaches, irritability, and forgetfulness or confusion.
Food sources: Most often, folic acid or folate is found in fortified grain products and supplements. Natural food sources include beef (especially the liver), legumes, eggs, and nuts and seeds.
Vitamin B12 = Various cobalamins (usually methylcobalamin or cyanocobalamin)
What it does: Last, but certainly not least, the B12 vitamins are important for…you guessed it, Carbohydrate, fat, and protein metabolism and DNA function! It also plays a role in producing neurotransmitters in the brain. A lack of this nutrient can lead to anemia, degeneration of the spinal cord, or depression in some people. Try finding an energy supplement containing Methylcobalamin, aka Active B12, which is the most natural form of B12 and is already in it’s “ready to use” form and needs NO converting by your body.
Food sources: Meat, seafood, milk, and other animal products are the best sources. Some fermented foods and fortified products also contain it.
When looking at this list, it’s apparent how important these nutrients are for normal energy and metabolism! After all, B-complex vitamins are used by nearly every cell in our bodies in some way, shape, or form. When it comes to symptoms like fatigue, irritability, restlessness, or just an overall sluggish feeling, it could be related to low levels of some of these B-complex vitamins. Incorporating more foods with these nutrients into your diet or supplementing with a high-quality multivitamin or an energy supplement (specifically one designed to provide mental focus and support physical energy) could help you get back on the road to feeling reenergized again.
About the Author:
Cara Harbstreet is a Registered Dietitian currently completing a Master’s degree at the University of Kansas Medical Center. She’s a KC-area native, and enjoys all things nutrition and health related. With an interest in translating clinical research to sound nutrition advice, she loves digging into the science of nutrition – a healthy dose of skepticism and endless curiosity means there’s always something new to learn! When she’s not hitting the running trails around the city, she can usually be found testing a new recipe, burying her nose in a book, or daydreaming about her one-day vegetable garden.