In your effort to make sure you're getting enough of this very key nutrient, it's key to be mindful that there actually are eight types of B vitamins, each with their own function—together, they form what is called the vitamin B complex. “It's also important to keep in mind that you may be more likely to need supplementation if you’re age 50-plus. With age, it becomes harder to absorb vitamin B, as our stomach may not be as efficient in absorbing it fully. Those who are pregnant, have certain chronic health conditions, take certain long-term medications, drink excessive alcohol, and eat a strictly meat-free diet are also more prone to vitamin B deficiency,” says Whiteson.
On that note, if you are deficient in B vitamins, you may experience a range of symptoms depending on which type of B vitamin you’re lacking. Each of the eight B vitamins operates differently and has different signs of deficiency, but according to Whiteson, if you’re deficient in one B vitamin, you are likely deficient in other B vitamins.
Here, Alexandra Bandier, MS, RD, CDN, founder of Senta Health, breaks down the key signs your body may be low in each type of vitamin B for us.
Vitamin B deficiency symptoms to be mindful of
B1 – Thiamin
Why it’s needed: “Growth, development, and energy metabolism.”
Food sources: “Whole grains, meat, fish, and pork.”
Signs of a deficiency: “Can include weight loss, confusion, short-term memory loss, peripheral neuropathy—meaning numbness and tingling in the feet or hands—and muscle weakness.”
B2 – Riboflavin
Why it’s needed: “Cellular function, development, and energy metabolism.”
Foods sources: “Eggs, lean meats, organ meats, milk, and whole grains.”
Signs of a deficiency: “Skin disorders, swelling of the mouth and throat, lesions at the corners of the mouth, swollen/cracked lips, and reproductive problems.”
B3 – Niacin
Why it’s needed: “To keep your skin looking healthy and your digestive system and nervous system running smoothly.”
Food sources: “In the U.S., many grains are fortified with niacin. Chicken breast, marinara sauce, turkey breast, salmon, tuna, brown rice, and peanuts are particularly high in niacin.”
Signs of a deficiency: “Deficiency is rare, but a severe deficiency leads to pellagra, which you can spot by brown discoloration on areas exposed to sun and a rough-sunburned look to the skin. A bright red tongue also accompanies pellagra.”
B5 - Pantothenic Acid
Why it’s needed: “Helps turn your food into energy, especially by breaking down fats.”
Food sources: “Shiitake mushrooms, sunflower seeds, chicken breast, tuna, avocado, milk, potatoes, and eggs.”
Signs of a deficiency: “Some B5 is present in almost all plant and animal foods. Therefore, deficiency is rare.”
B6 – Pyridoxine
Why it’s needed: “Crucial for more than 100 enzyme reactions involved in metabolism and helps you maintain a healthy nervous and immune system. For pregnancy and early infancy, B6 is needed for normal brain development.”
Food sources: “Fish, potatoes, organ meats, beef, starchy vegetables, and chickpeas.”
Signs of a deficiency: “Deficiency is associated with microcytic anemia, scaling on the lips and cracks at the corner of the mouth, a swollen tongue, depression, confusion, and a weakened immune system. Older people, people with poor kidney function and people with malabsorptive autoimmune disorders are at risk for inadequacy.”
B7 – Biotin
Why it’s needed: “You’ve probably heard of biotin as the nutrient needed for healthy skin and nails! Biotin is much more than just a nutrient for looking good though—it helps turn the food we eat into energy.”
Food sources: “Cooked eggs, fish, meat, seeds, nuts, and sweet potatoes.”
Signs of a deficiency: “Can include thinning hair, rashes on the body, and brittle nails. There’s a catch here, though—since biotin deficiency is rare in the U.S., it is unlikely that if you do have these symptoms, it’s because of a biotin deficiency. And actually, the studies on whether or not biotin can promote hair health, for people with no biotin deficiency, have mixed results—some showing improvements and others none.”
B9 – Folate
Why it’s needed: “Among other things, folate is necessary for healthy cell growth—it’s needed to make DNA!”
Food sources: “Dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, etc.), meat, brussels sprouts, avocado, peas, kidney beans, broccoli, and liver.”
Signs of a deficiency: “The main sign of a folate or B12 deficiency is megaloblastic anemia, which can cause weakness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, shortness of breath, and headache. Folate deficiency can also cause soreness or ulcerations on the tongue. Women of childbearing age and pregnant women should pay close attention to folate intake to reduce the risk of neural tube defects. During pregnancy, folate needs increase significantly and often diet alone cannot meet these needs.”
B12 – Cobalamin
Why it’s needed: “Vitamin B12 has many important functions in the body, including helping to make DNA and red blood cells. It is also required in the development and function of your central nervous system.”
Food sources: “Meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. You can also find B12 in fortified grains and yeast.”
Signs of a deficiency: “Signs of B12 deficiency can appear as a swollen tongue, fatigue, heart palpitations, pale skin, weight loss, pins and needles in hands or feet, blurry vision, and weight loss. Some studies have even found associations between B12 deficiency and depression.”
Final takeaway on vitamin B deficiency
Before starting any new supplement or food protocol it’s always best to check with your doctor, but a food first approach is usually preferred in the absence of a severe deficiency.
“On a macro level, animal foods will be your best source,” says Dana Ryan, PhD, the director of sports performance, nutrition, and education at Herbalife Nutrition. “For example, three ounces of beef will give you 100 percent of your daily value. However, you still want to limit red meat to one to two times per week and get your vitamin B from other sources such as salmon or tuna, both of which will give you more than your daily requirements from just three ounces. Dairy products will also give you some with a cup of two percent milk giving you about half of your daily needs.”
Whiteson also notes that, among the limited food options for vegans, there is still nutritional yeast, marmite, fortified soy, almond milk, plant-based meats, fortified cereals, tempeh, and nori seaweed. "Each of these will help you meet your vitamin B needs deliciously," she says.
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