Referred to as vitamin B complex, the eight B vitamins — B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12 — play an important role in keeping our bodies running like well-oiled machines. These essential nutrients help convert our food into fuel, allowing us to stay energized throughout the day. While many of the following vitamins work in tandem, each has its own specific benefits — from promoting healthy skin and hair to preventing memory loss or migraines.
So is it time to start stockpiling B complex? Not necessarily, says registered dietitian, Tanya Zuckerbrot. “Taking a B complex vitamin will not create heightened alertness or energy the way caffeine does,” says Zuckerbrot, author of The Miracle Carb Diet: Make Calories and Fat Disappear — with Fiber. The good news? “Chances are the average person is already getting plenty of B vitamins from the food they eat.” Read on to find out why each B vitamin is so important. And make sure you’re eating the right foods to get plenty of them in your diet.
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B1 helps the body make healthy new cells. It’s often called an anti-stress vitamin because of its ability to protect the immune system. When carbo-loading (either to prepare for a big race or just because pizza tastes that good), studies say this vitamin is necessary to help break down those simple carbohydrates.
Get it from: Whole grains, peanuts, beans, spinach, kale, blackstrap molasses and wheat germ
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This B vitamin works as an antioxidant to help fight free radicals (particles in the body that damage cells). It may also prevent early aging and the development of heart disease. And, riboflavin is important for red blood cell production, which is necessary for transporting oxygen throughout the body. Several studies suggest B2 can help stave off migraines, but more research is needed to be sure. And be careful, while sunlight does the body good, ultraviolet light reduces the riboflavin content in food sources. You should purchase milk, for instance, in opaque containers in order to keep this vitamin from breaking down.
Get it from: Almonds, wild rice, milk, yogurt, eggs, Brussels sprouts, spinach and soybeans
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One of the primary uses for niacin is to boost HDL cholesterol (i.e. the good cholesterol). And the higher a person’s HDL, the less bad cholesterol he or she will have in their blood. Vitamin B3 deficiency is very rare in developed countries, though alcoholism has been shown to lower B3 levels in some individuals. Niacin, used topically and ingested, has also been found to treat acne.
Get it from: Yeast, red meat, milk, eggs, beans and green vegetables
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B5 (Pantothenic Acid)
You can find small amounts of vitamin B5 in just about every food group — its name even says so. Pantothenic comes from the Greek word pantothen, meaning “from everywhere.” In addition to breaking down fats and carbs for energy, it’s responsible for the production of sex and stress-related hormones including testosterone. Studies show B5 also promotes healthy skin with the ability to reduce signs of skin aging such as redness and skin spots.
Get it from: Avocados, yogurt, eggs, meat and legumes
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Along with fellow B vitamins 12 and 9, B6 helps regulate levels of the amino acid homocysteine (associated with heart disease). Pyridoxine is a major player in mood and sleep patterns because it helps the body produce serotonin, melatonin and norepinephrine, a stress hormone. Some studies suggest vitamin B6 can reduce inflammation for people with conditions like rheumatioid arthritis.
Get it from: Chicken, turkey, tuna, salmon, lentils, sunflower seeds, cheese, brown rice and carrots
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Because of its association with healthy hair, skin and nails, this B vitamin also goes by “the beauty vitamin.” It may help people with diabetes control high blood glucose levels, too. This B vitamin is especially important during pregnancy because it’s vital for normal growth of the baby.
Get it from: Barley, liver, yeast, pork, chicken, fish, potatoes, cauliflower, egg yolks and nuts
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You may have heard another name for B9 — folic acid — which is the synthetic form used in supplements and fortified foods like cereal and bread. Studies suggest folate may help keep depression at bay and prevent memory loss. This vitamin is also especially important for women who are pregnant since it supports the growth of the baby and prevents neurological birth defects.
Get it from: Dark leafy greens, asparagus, beets, salmon, root vegetables, milk, bulgur wheat and beans
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This B vitamin is a total team player. Cobalamin works with vitamin B9 to produce red blood cells and help iron do its job: create the oxygen carrying protein, hemogloblin. Because you can only find vitamin B12 animal products, studies show higher rates of non-meat eaters with a deficiency. “But unless you are a strict vegan or vegetarian,” Zuckerbrot says, “it’s not hard to get enough of this vitamin in your diet.” For those who are deficient, it may be necessary to supplement the diet with B12.
Get it from: Fish, shellfish, dairy, eggs, beef and pork
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Originally published February 2014. Updated August 2017.
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