Eight is enough when it comes to the B vitamins, as there are eight in all, though the more notable ones are B6, B12, niacin and folic acid.
While the first three are known for cardiovascular benefits and the latter gained notoriety when the FDA mandated its fortification in breads because it can prevent neural tube defects (most commonly spina bifida and anencephaly) in developing fetuses, as a whole the B vitamins are known for energy and stress prevention.
In 1998, the US and Canada introduced public health measures requiring all grain products to be fortified with folic acid. Since then there has been a 15-50 percent reduction in neural tube defects, and some 51 countries now require mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid.
“When we’re talking stress, the B-complex vitamins are among the best nutrients you can take to counter its effects,” writes RoseMarie Gionta Alfieri in the User’s Guide to Stress-Busting Nutrients (Basic Health Publications, 2004). “You can think of them as your frontline defense against stress. These vitamins perform a variety of important metabolic functions that include maintaining blood-sugar levels, as well as maintaining the health of your hair, skin, eyes, circulatory system, and brain function. Many of the B vitamins are also involved in energy production, helping convert fats, proteins, and carbohydrates into energy.”
For cardiovascular health, the big three of B6, B12 and folic acid work in conjunction in keeping homocysteine levels in check. High homocysteine levels are associated with coronary heart disease and stroke. Results from several human trials indicate that combinations of vitamin B12 and folic acid with or without vitamin B6 decrease homocysteine levels in people with vascular disease or diabetes and in young adult women.1-7
B12 is a water-soluble vitamin found in meats and dairy. It helps maintain healthy nerve cells and red blood cells, the flip side being that deficiencies can result in anemia. Elderly people in particular might be concerned with deficiencies because they have trouble absorbing all sorts of vitamins. In supplements, you’ll usually find it in the methylcobalamin form. Less likely is the preferred form as far as absorption goes, which is methylcobalamin.8
And this brings us to folic acid, because folic acid can mask a vitamin B12 deficiency. About 300 micrograms of vitamin B12 would take care of anemia. And about 1,000 micrograms, or one milligram, should be the maximum amount of daily folic acid in order to keep that unwanted B12 masking at bay.9
Niacin, meanwhile, is one of the only substances – natural or pharmaceutical – that is effective against cholesterol by both lowering the bad LDL cholesterol as well as raising the good HDL cholesterol.10
The final B vitamin we’ll discuss is choline because it is important for brain health as a precursor for biosynthesis of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.11 Choline improves memory, and choline deficiency impairs memory performance in rats.12 Lack of choline is associated with anxiety, but not with depression.13,14
So if you are questioning whether you should be or not to be, if you’re interested in heart health, cognitive health or energy, then by all means, B!
9. Institute of Medicine. Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes: Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Vitamin B12, Pantothenic Acid, Biotin, and Choline. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1998.