B complex is one of the most purchased supplements. So it’s odd that one of the common question about B complex is, “What is it?” which is often followed by, “What does it do?”
B vitamin trivia
All together, there are 8 B vitamins which are collectively known as B complex (that’s the answer to the first question). They are B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, and B12.
Originally, B complex was thought to be singular: just “vitamin B”. Later, it was discovered there were many components to it. That’s where all the different numbers come from.
But 4 are suspiciously missing from the sequence. Namely, B4, B8, B10, and B11. They were once thought to be B vitamins, but were later removed because they don’t meet the definition of a vitamin. In other words, you don’t have to get the “missing” B vitamins from your diet.
Foods high in B vitamins
The best sources of B vitamins are:
- Whole grains
- Meat (salmon, chicken, beef—especially liver)
- Eggs and dairy
- Legumes (beans and lentils)
- Dark, leafy greens (spinach, collard greens)
- Fruits and vegetables (broccoli, avocados, citrus fruits)
B12 solely comes naturally from animal-based sources. If you are a vegan, you need to eat whole grains fortified with B12 or take a plant-based B12 supplement. Most B12 supplements are vegan-friendly, but it’s worth checking before just blindly ingesting it.
What are the benefits of B vitamins?
All B vitamins assist in the process of metabolizing macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat, and protein). Beyond this though, B vitamins specialize in certain aspects and work together in others.
Benefit #1: Energy Production (B6, B7, B9, B12)
Counter to popular belief, vitamin B12 and niacin (mainstays in many energy drinks) do not produce energy in the same way caffeine does.
Rather, B vitamins help produce cellular energy from your food by breaking down carbs to glucose. Glucose is your body’s main source of energy, so this is where the claims about energy come from. Carbohydrates are quickly metabolized, so they provide the quickest form of energy.
If you’re not eating many carbs, B vitamins move on to the next best source for cellular energy: fat. Fat is turned into ketones to be used for energy. When this happens, it’s called ketosis and is the basis of the ketogenic diet.
The vast majority of protein is metabolized into amino acids which are then used for protein synthesis. From amino acids, protein can be broken down further and used for energy. However, this is typically only done if you’re lacking carbs and fats. It is most likely to occur during extreme exercise.
Benefit #2: Mood (B6, B9, B12)
Vitamin B6 is a rate-limiting factor in the production of serotonin, a hormone that can help regulate your mood. If you’re deficient in B6, you won’t be able to produce as much serotonin despite having high levels in the other nutrients required to make it.
Vitamins B9 and B12 also contribute to a healthy mood, but vitamin B6 is the most important of the three.
Best time to take B vitamins
The best time to take B vitamins is right when you wake up—before you eat anything.
The reasons are simple. B vitamins are water soluble, so you don’t need to eat them with food.
The second aspect (before you eat anything) is because B vitamins help breakdown food into energy. Since you probably haven’t eaten in at least 6 hours, your B vitamin levels may be low.
Can I take too many?
Again, this answer is related to the solubility of the vitamin. Fat soluble vitamins can build up in your system if you’re not using them. Since B vitamins are water soluble, your body uses them quickly and any excess is removed as waste. As such, it is very unlikely you’ll take too many at any given time.
However, if you are taking multiple supplements that contain B vitamins (like a B complex and multivitamin), it is best to take them at different times. This will help ensure you’re able to get the most out of your B vitamins.
Are B vitamins safe?
Generally speaking, B vitamins are safe. Very rare cases have been known to occur, but they are typically seen with synthetic versions like folic acid (the synthetic version of vitamin B9).
B vitamins have been known to interact with certain medications. If you are currently taking medication always consult your physician or healthcare provider prior to taking any dietary supplement.
Do I really need a B complex supplement?
B vitamins are present in a lot of foods—as mentioned previously.
However, up to 16% of Americans between the ages of 20 and 59 are marginally deficient in vitamin B12.
Any of the following virtually guarantee you need to take a B complex supplement:
- You avoid dairy and whole greens
- You’ve had weight loss surgery
- Frequently drink alcohol
- Drink more than 4 cups of coffee a day
If you’re vegan, you need to supplement with vitamin B12 because it’s only present in animal-based foods.
The odds of you being deficient in one or more of the B vitamins are high. If you eat a varied diet spread evenly throughout the day, your chances of being deficient are significantly reduced. But since your B vitamin levels are sure to be low when you wake up, it’s still in your best interest to supplement first thing in the morning.