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I’ve been writing about dietary supplements for a little more than a decade. Through those years of research, the supplements on my shelf have shifted, changed with the seasons, and come and gone, but there is one that I began taking in the beginning and still take 12 years later—a B-complex. Why? Because I like to have energy. Because I like to be in a good mood. Because I like to know I’m doing what I can to protect my neurological health. Because the B vitamins are vital for, well… life.
Without the B’s we’d be a mess. We’d be chronically tired and have dementia-like symptoms, lose muscle mass and experience neurological problems, lose hair and have skin issues, suffer from diarrhea or constipation, depression, anemia, a weak immune system… you get the idea (these are all clinical symptoms of specific B-vitamin deficiencies).1 It sounds pretty awful doesn’t it? Even with suboptimal levels, you may experience some of these symptoms.
The B’s are water-soluble vitamins, which means our bodies don’t store them, so they must be replenished daily. There’s also a load of lifestyle factors that can deplete the B’s, including regular alcohol intake, excessive caffeine, intense exercise, chronic stress, age, common medications, poor digestion, poor gut health, any disease state, eating too many refined sugars and starches, and following a strict vegetarian or vegan diet. In other words, if you are a human living in the modern world, you probably need to take a B-complex supplement.
The B’s are a family of vitamins that include thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7), folate (B9), cobalamin (B12), choline, and inositol. Each B is unique, but they work closely together and have interrelated functions, and adequate amounts are critical for optimal brain and body health. The B vitamins have so many important jobs in the body—they convert food into energy, they are key players in the creation and proper functioning of cells and are critical in preventing birth defects, they maintain healthy skin, they keep the nervous system intact and functioning as it should, they help make certain neurotransmitters and hormones, and they are involved in DNA production and repair. They are also required for proper methylation, a biochemical process that is responsible for detoxification, immune function, healthy mood, controlling inflammation, and more. Let’s take a deeper look at some of the ways the B vitamins can support your best health.
Some of the more unsettling symptoms of a deficiency, even a marginal deficiency, in the B’s are neurological in nature and include memory loss and confusion, tingling and numbness in the limbs, loss of motor control, and dementia. The B vitamins are critically important for the structure and function of the central nervous system and low levels can increase the risk of cognitive impairment and neurological disease. Some of the B’s are critical for building and maintaining the myelin sheath, the protective, insulation-like covering of our nerves that allows nerve cells to send and receive messages via electrical impulses. Deterioration of the myelin sheath can lead to muscle weakness, vision loss, pain, and cognitive dysfunction and is one of the leading causes of neurological disease.2
The B vitamins are also needed to maintain healthy homocysteine levels, important because high levels of homocysteine have been associated with a greater risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and brain shrinkage (and cardiovascular disease). Supplementation with folic acid, B12, and B6 has been shown to reduce homocysteine levels and brain shrinkage in regions specifically vulnerable to Alzheimer’s, slowing cognitive decline.3 4 5 In addition to building the myelin sheath and keeping homocysteine levels in check, multiple B vitamins are needed for glucose metabolism in the brain (i.e., allowing cells to burn glucose for energy); a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease is the brain’s inability to use glucose for fuel.6 7
Taking care of our mental health has become a priority these days, and there is no better foundational supplement to support your overall mental wellbeing than a B complex. The B vitamins are so important for normal brain function that they all have dedicated transport mechanisms to carry them across the blood-brain barrier, and the brain has multiple ways to ensure their levels remain high. B vitamins are required to make important neurotransmitters like GABA, dopamine, and serotonin, in addition to S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe), a compound that supports healthy moods.8 9 10 Thiamin is required for the healthy structure and function of neurons and for the production of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which plays a major role in memory and learning, and reduced levels are common in cases of Alzheimer’s.11 12 According to Glenn Catalano, MD, a psychiatrist at the University of South Florida College of Medicine, a B12 deficiency is a commonly overlooked cause of mental health issues such as depression, and anxiety.13 Research has found that those with depression tend to have low levels of both B12 and folate.14 15
Don’t think of the B vitamins as a quick energy “fix” like a shot of caffeine. They are not. Rather, they are necessary for sustained energy production at the cellular level, in our mitochondria, helping convert carbohydrates, protein, and fat from the food we eat into energy. One or more of the B vitamins are involved in every single aspect of generating cellular energy—including in the brain—and a deficiency in any of them will negatively affect mitochondrial health and function and normal energy production. You know that afternoon slump that seems to inevitably hit after lunch? Or the brain fog you experience where it seems your brain just. won’t. work. The B’s can help.16 17 18
Supporting our bodies’ normal detoxification processes have become critical in our toxic world, and healthy detox is dependent on healthy methylation, which is dependent on the B vitamins. Methylation is a biochemical process that is required for just about every single process that goes on in the body, including detoxification. Via methylation, our livers are able to convert toxins to water-soluble compounds to be excreted from the body, but if methylation becomes dysfunctional, toxins can build up, potentially leading to disease. The B vitamins are also required for the body to make glutathione, a powerful antioxidant that plays a major role in detoxification. A study published in 2017 showed a real world example of how the B vitamins can protect us from toxins: Researchers investigated the effects of B vitamin supplementation in subjects exposed to air pollution in Toronto, Canada and found that four weeks of supplementation with vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid reduced genetic damage caused by air pollution and protected mitochondrial DNA from the negative effects of pollution.19 20 21 22 23
Though they may not be as exciting as some newer, trendier supplements, the B vitamins are vital to life (and this article has really only scratched the surface). Because they are not stored by the body and are depleted by so many common lifestyle factors, they should be a foundational supplement on everyone’s list. I know they’ll stay on mine… for life!