How to know if you are low on vitamin B and which best vitamin B supplements and foods to choose? Nutritionist Charlotte Faure Green has all the answers
The family of eight B vitamins is a hard-working one. They are essential for keeping our bodies and minds performing optimally. Our bodies are unable to make most B vitamins, so that means eating plenty of B-rich foods (read on to find out which ones) and considering supplements – we've listed the best vitamin B supplements to shop below.
They come into their own at times of stress and partying, which can sap the body of B vitamins. Pregnancy and exclusion diets such as veganism are particularly good reasons to consider vitamin B supplements, ditto if you regularly drink alcohol and as you get older. Vegans can be short on B12, and government advice in pregnancy is to supplement with folic acid (B9) to avoid birth defects.
“B vitamins are closely involved in energy production alongside transporting nutrients, managing the nervous system, and supporting brain function,” says registered nutritionist and medical scientist Dr Federica Amati
The pressures of modern life in general, mean that we might all do well to keep our vitamin B levels topped up, says registered nutritionist Charlotte Faure Green. “The world seems to be on fire right now and it’s understandably taking a toll on our collective nervous systems. Stress, anxiety, and lack of sleep are nutritionally ‘expensive’, and we need to replenish more through our diet.”
On top of that, stress reduces our digestive function so it compromises our ability to extract what we need from our food.
“Years of working in anxiety and stress nutrition have made me very tuned in to vitamin B insufficiencies, and at this time I can see an increased need for the wider population to supplement their Bs,” says Faure Green.
Which foods have B vitamins?
Plenty, is the good news. Animal sources are the richest: beef, offal, salmon, eggs and dairy are all packed with Bs, but so are leafy green veg, grains, avocados, legumes and bananas.
“The best way to get B vitamins is from our food as they work synergistically with other nutrients found in whole foods,” says Amati, who is passionate about the need for getting B vitamins from your diet as they, and complementary nutrients, all support each other. If you do take B vitamin supplements, she advises to always take them with a meal to maximise the synergistic effects with other nutrients.
How to know if you are lacking in B vitamins?
The NHS usually only test for folate (aka folic acid, B9) and B12, says Faure Green. “So it may be hard for many to know which B vitamin levels need assistance.” Fortunately, taking a supplement as an ‘insurance policy’ – when you’re run down or particularly stressed, for example – is relatively risk-free. This is because B vitamins are water-soluble, which means that the body, on the whole, easily gets rid of what it doesn’t need. “A multi-B is usually your best bet if you go the ‘insurance policy’ route because B vitamins tend to work best in synergy with others,” she says.
Why are B vitamins important?
Because they keep us alive and sane, to be honest. While they work best together, each has a different function. Our nutritional experts outline their main benefits:
Vitamin B1 (thiamine). Supports a healthy nervous system, helps produce hormones and releases energy from carbs. Critical for good eye health. Find it in: Fresh and dried fruit, eggs, wholegrain bread, peas, liver, and fortified breakfast cereals.
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin). Helps break down fats, medications and steroid hormones and convert other B vits, important for good iron status and reduces the likelihood of migraines. Find it in: Rice, eggs, milk and fortified breakfast cereals
Vitamin B3 (niacin, nicotinic acids, nicotinamide). A building block of NAD+, which is responsible for over 400 reactions in the body, including cell communication. Closely linked to appetite and good mental health. Helps maintain healthy skin. Where you’ll find it: Eggs, meat, fish and wheat flour.
Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid. Needed to make coenzymes, proteins and fats as well as being used by cells for energy and metabolism. Collaborates with riboflavin and helps regulate the production of the stress hormone cortisol: the calming one. Where you’ll find it: Almost all meat and vegetables. Tuck into beef, broccoli, eggs, porridge, chicken, potatoes and tomatoes
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine. Crucial for brain development protein metabolism and healthy red blood cells. Plays an important role in immune function and the production of feel-good hormones. Where you’ll find it: Pork, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, potatoes, wholegrains vegetables, soya beans, peanuts and fortified breakfast cereals.
Vitamin B7 (Biotin). Needed for the regulation of DNA at the cellular level, breaking down fats, carbohydrates, and the proteins for nails, skin and hair. Where you’ll find it: In many foods at very low levels.
Vitamin B9 (folate, folic acid). Essential for healthy nervous system development in embryos (so in pregnancy), DNA replication, cell division and metabolism of vitamins and other micronutrients. Where you’ll find it: in small amounts in broccoli, spinach, asparagus, peas, Brussels sprouts chickpeas, liver and fortified breakfast cereals.
Vitamin B12 (cobalamin). Helps to create new red blood cells and is involved in brain and neurological function as well as nutrient metabolism. Animal foods are a good source as B12 is bound by muscle protein, but our gut microbes produce it too. Assists in metabolising folic acid. Where you’ll find it: Meat, salmon, cod, seaweeds, milk, cheese, eggs and fortified cereals.
4 things that mean you need to take a B vitamin supplement
Supplementing one or more B vitamins is recommended more or less as standard if...
- If you’re pregnant or trying to conceive: B9 (folate, folic acid) Government guidelines state that women hoping to conceive or in the early stages of pregnancy should take 400mg of folic acid a day. It needs to be taken at least three months before conceiving, and throughout the first trimester, to help prevent birth defects. There are a few exceptions (such as women with a BMI over 30 or with coeliac disease so do consult with your doctor first.
- If you are vegan: B12 “Being vegan requires careful dietary planning and vitamin B12 supplementation,” says Amati. “You could get B12 from plants but you’d need to eat a diet very rich in things like nori, spirulina, chlorella, mushrooms and fortified nutritional yeast, and few people do,” says Faure Green.
More Gloss: Best supplements for vegans
- If you’re drinking alcohol: B complex Drinking alcohol creates free radicals that damage cells throughout the body. Knocking back the booze also depletes many B vitamins from the system and decreases B12 absorption. "Getting enough B vitamins and other nutrients is obviously crucial to lessen this effect, says Faure Green. “With regular alcohol consumption, I would recommend a B complex.” Take that thought with you into the party season! Faure Green says many alcoholics are also deficient in B3. Studies even show patients have spontaneously stopped drinking with B3 supplementation. There is, she says, also a genetic disposition to a higher B3 requirement in some – certain genes may make people experience worse hangovers and more serious depletion of NAD+ of which B3 is a building block.
If you’re really suffering after the night before, why not try An Effect Doctors The Deluxe Recovery Intravenous Drip, £275? It re-infuses lost B12 and other B vitamins, fast, to quell nausea, headaches and inflammation.
- As you get older: B complex (especially B12) We need to look after our B vitamin levels as we get older, as according to a study, B vitamin deficiency in older age has been linked to an increased risk of degenerative diseases, particularly cardiovascular disease, cognitive diseases and osteoporosis. We’re less able to absorb B12 from food but it’s actually easier to absorb from supplements, so popping this as a pill might not be a bad idea.
Do B vitamins help with hair growth?
The hair growth supplement market is booming, with biotin (B7) touted as a miracle hair growth vitamin. “There is little other than anecdotal evidence to suggest that vitamin B7 supplementation will rectify a deficiency,” cautions Faure Green. "Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence, however, so some may benefit,” she says.
How do B vitamins help with depression or low mood?
“Vitamin B6 is required in serotonin production, and therefore may alleviate some of the mood disorders associated with adrenal overload, menopause and chronic fatigue,” says Faure Green. Because so many of the other Bs (B1, 3, 9…) are involved in keeping the nervous system strong and healthy, a B complex is often recommended for people under great emotional and mental strain.
What are the symptoms of too much vitamin B?
This is not something to worry too much about. Fatigue, nerve damage and anaemia are linked to an excess of B vitamins if it does occur, but due to the Bs being water-soluble, they don’t build up in the body and any excess is easily excreted. “Most B’s can be taken over the minimum consumption levels except folic acid because excessive levels can mask B12 deficiency,” says Faure Green.
Taking very large amounts of B6 from supplements for over a year can cause nerve damage, with people losing control over bodily movements. It’s rare, but don’t overdo it.
Neon yellow pee, which if you take B vitamins, you’ll be familiar with, is not an overdose warning: “this is unused riboflavin being urinated out,” says Faure Green. “It’s not dangerous.”
Are liposomal B vitamins or methylated B vitamins better?
Faure Green says that “liposomal B vitamins are thought to be superior – it means the nutrients have been wrapped in a little pocket of fat cells which may improve absorption in the body, particularly if there is compromised gut function.”
Methylated B vitamins are also thought to supercharge absorption, but Faure Green advises caution, especially in anxious patients. “Methylation is a natural process that helps regulate detoxification, DNA and energy production, and fat metabolism, among other biochemical processes,” she explains. How well we methylate, she says, is dependent on genetics and other nutrients present in the body.
You’d have to be genetically tested to find out how well you methylate, “so the tendency is to reach for methylated B vitamins instead,” she says. But this means your system may be overwhelmed by a sudden high-dose methylated B complex or nutrient, and that, says Faure Green, can worsen anxiety in some people. So, “I tend to avoid methylated B vitamins in anxious clients if I am not aware of their genetic status.”
Morning or night: when is best to take B vitamins?
Do B vitamins keep you awake? Dr Sophie Shotter tells us that's not the case, and that most B vitamins are 'neutral' when it comes to sleep while some, notably B5, actually help calm the system down. "The only one that could be an issue for sleep is vitamin B12, so I take that in the morning. I take a B complex at night," she says.
Find the best vitamin B supplement for you
Best vitamin B and nutrient supplement for hormone health: Equi Original Formula, £49.50 for a 30-day supply
A favourite of Dr Federica Amati, this nutrient powder (mix a teaspoon a day in a glass of water) combines the Bs with adaptogenic herbs such as ashwagandha alongside iron, iodine, probiotics, Cordyceps mushroom, vitamins C and D and more for all-round physical, mental and emotional support. All come in handy to dampen the side-effects of menopause and PMT.
Best fast-acting vitamin B supplement: Altrient Liposomal Vitamin B and Mineral Complex, £54.99 for a 30-day supply
Thirty sachets of orange jelly that you down like a shot; it’s not (at all) delicious but it delivers a highly-bio-available (thanks to liposomal technology) blend of all the Bs plus zinc, selenium and chromium. Great for a morning-after boost or just as a really efficient B-Complex.
Best vitamin B and iron supplement to beat fatigue: Feroglobin Capsules, £5.85 for a 30-day supply
Slow-release iron spiked with folic acid, B6 and B12 to support the formation of red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body and keep you feeling fit and energised.
Best vitamin B supplement for adrenal support: Strong Nutrients Chill Pill, £37.95 for a 4-6 week supply
Known by some as the ‘happy vitamin’, B5 “nourishes the adrenals and ensures the body can deal with stress in a strong and natural manner,” says the manufacturer. Delivering three times the recommended daily allowance of pantothenic acid a day, these capsules promise a dramatically elevated mood, better sleep and a stronger immune system. Take six at night.
Best vegan and budget vitamin B complex: Healthspan High Strength Vitamin B Complex, £9.95 for a 3-month supply
All the Bs at substantial levels alongside additional nutrients such as inositol to support energy levels, psychological function and a well-functioning nervous system. Great value and vegan to boot.
Best vitamin B supplement for mental focus and energy: Motion Nutrition Power Up, £27.98 for a 30-day supply
A morning supplement to tackle tiredness with B6 and methylated B12 plus iron, plus it revs up mental performance and energy levels with B5, biotin, lion’s mane mushroom and minerals.
Best vitamin B supplement for thicker hair: Hair Gain Hair Gummies, £29.99 for a 30-day supply
Two tasty gummies a day team pea shoot powder with biotin, B5 and B3 to boost the proteins that make up hair. Zinc, selenium and vitamins C and E are in there as well to fortify your follicles.
Best vitamin B supplement for menopause: Centred J.D.C.I.M Menopausal Supplement, £32 for a 30-day supply
This delivers all the Bs at high levels alongside vitamins A, C, D, amino acids, iron, ashwagandha, maca, minerals and seaweed to bring calm, hormone balance, energy and plenty of protein generation. Stress and changing hormone levels in menopause have a huge effect on hair (Centred is founded by a hairdresser) so this is one to go for if menopausal hair fall is your issue, or you could do with general menopause support.
Best vitamin B spray for party animals: Better You Boost B12 Daily Oral Spray, £11.95 for a 48-day supply
With excessive alcohol intake responsible for decreasing B12 absorption, this oral spritz supplement is great for recovery as one study has found that B12 uptake is improved if sprayed onto the soft tissues of the mouth. At 1200 micrograms, it delivers 500 times the RDA of B12 (which is 2.4 micrograms), so the dosage is rather impressive.