Ask the Dietitian: The Benefits of Vitamin B

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In the second of a five-part series focusing on vitamins, we speak with Sheah Rarback about B vitamins. Sheah is a registered dietitian nutritionist with the University of Miami Health System.

UMiami Health News:  Sheah, there are eight forms of this vitamin: B-6, B-12, biotin, folate/folic acid, niacin, pantothenic acid, riboflavin, and thiamine. Overall, why are they important?

Sheah Rarback: The B vitamins are the catalyst that converts food into fuel in the body. They keep your bodily functions moving along. Contrary to popular opinion, you can’t compensate for a bad diet and boost energy by taking B vitamins. The B’s need food in order to create energy.

Besides providing energy, each B has other functions. For example, riboflavin’s antioxidant properties fight free radicals that cause cancer. Thiamine boosts immunity. Biotin promotes healthy hair, skin, and nails. B-6 helps protect heart health. Folic acid is important for pregnant women because it prevents birth defects. Niacin raises good cholesterol levels. Pantothenic acid balances blood sugar. B-12 helps your nervous system function normally.

UMHN: What signs indicate that I might be vitamin B deficient?

SR: A normal, healthy person is unlikely to develop a deficiency. However, it can occur in alcoholics, malnourished individuals, and in people with certain kidney diseases or gastrointestinal conditions such as celiac or Crohn’s disease. Also, ongoing use of antacids and certain birth control pills can interfere with vitamin B absorption. Prolonged stress can also drain your B reserves.

The elderly are more likely to develop a B-12 deficiency and anemia. Often, the confusion and forgetfulness associated with a B-12 deficiency mimic Alzheimer’s disease, so it’s wise to check their B-12 levels.

Depending on the vitamin, other signs of deficiency may include fatigue, lowered immunity, pale skin, and irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, dizziness, hair loss, and skin rashes.

Vegans and vegetarians are now less likely to lack B-12, since so many foods are now fortified with B-12, including foods marketed to these groups. Many nut milks are fortified with B-12 and nutritional yeast, which is used as a tasty condiment or ingredient, is a rich source of B-12.

UMHN: Can I be tested for vitamin B deficiency?

SR: A blood test will spot vitamin B deficiencies, but it’s not included in routine bloodwork. If you have specific concerns, you must ask to be tested.

UMHN: What are the best food sources of B vitamins?

SR: It depends on the vitamin, but in general:

  • B-6: garbanzo beans, potatoes, bananas, fish, chicken
  • B-9 (folic acid): fruits, leafy green vegetables
  • B-12: Meat, eggs, milk, nutritional yeast
  • Biotin: Bananas, cauliflower, carrots, liver, salmon, soy flour, cereals, yeast
  • Niacin: cereal grains, milk, meat, tortillas, yeast
  • Pantothenic acid: avocados, brown rice, broccoli, beans (except green beans), cashews, eggs, lentils, peas, whole grains, lean meat, poultry, fish
  • Riboflavin: fruits, green leafy vegetables, whole grain cereals and breads, fish, meats, dairy products
  • Thiamine: beans, cauliflower, lentils, spinach, sunflower seeds, whole grain or enriched cereals, peas, nuts, beef, pork

UMHN: I could use an energy boost! What is your opinion of vitamin B supplements and B-12 injections?

SR: Unless you are deficient, taking supplements or shots doesn’t provide extra benefit.

UMHN: If I eat a balanced diet and take a daily multivitamin, will I generally get enough vitamin B? Since B vitamins are water-soluble, there’s no danger of getting too much of these vitamins, right?

SR: Again, a well-rounded, healthy diet helps cover your nutritional needs. Some people who take excessive doses of B vitamins do experience problems. As a registered dietitian, I thoroughly assess each patient to know what medications, supplements, or over-the-counter medicines they take and what health conditions they have. That provides a complete picture of the person’s health and helps me tailor dietary and nutritional recommendations. It may seem reasonable to seek vitamin advice at a health food store, but without doing a complete assessment, store employees cannot understand each person’s individual needs.

The Takeaway: B vitamins convert food into energy and provide a host of health benefits, from helping your heart to calming your nervous system. To get the most bang for your buck, eat a well-balanced diet versus swallowing supplements. If you have frequent skin rashes, hair loss, shortness of breath, confusion or fatigue, you may want to request a blood test for vitamin B deficiency.


Nancy Moreland is a contributing writer for the UMiami Health News Blog. She has written for several major health care systems and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her writing also appears in the Chicago Tribune.