As you try to make sure you’re getting enough of this essential nutrient, it’s important to remember that there are actually eight types of B vitamins, each with its own function—together, they make up what’s called the vitamin B complex. “It’s also important to remember that if you’re over 50, you may need a supplement. As we age, it becomes more difficult to absorb B vitamins because our stomachs may not be able to fully absorb them. People who are pregnant, have chronic health conditions, take long-term medications, drink too much alcohol, and eat a meat-free diet are more likely to be deficient in B vitamins,” says Whiteson.
Note that if you are deficient in B vitamins, you may experience a range of symptoms depending on which type of B vitamin you are deficient in. Each of the eight B vitamins works differently and has different symptoms of deficiency, but Whiteson says if you’re deficient in one of the B vitamins, you may be deficient in other B vitamins.
Here, Alexandra Bandier, MS, RD, CDN, founder of Senta Health, breaks down the main signs that your body may be low on each type of B vitamin.
Be aware of the symptoms of vitamin B deficiency
B1 – Thiamine
Why is it necessary: “Growth, Development and Energy Metabolism.”
food source: “Whole grains, meat, fish and pork.”
Deficiency symptoms: “These 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 is it necessary: “Cell Function, Development and Energy Metabolism.”
food source: “Eggs, lean meats, organ meats, dairy and grains.”
Deficiency symptoms: “Skin disorders, swelling of the mouth and throat, sores at the corners of the mouth, swollen/cracked lips, and reproductive problems.”
B3 – Niacin
Why is it necessary: “To keep your skin looking healthy and your digestive and nervous systems working smoothly.”
food source: “Many grains in the US are fortified with niacin. Chicken breast, marinara sauce, turkey breast, salmon, tuna, brown rice and peanuts are particularly high in niacin.
Deficiency symptoms: “Deficiency is rare, but a severe deficiency can lead to pellagra, which you can see in sun-exposed areas with brown discoloration and a rough burn to the skin. A bright red tongue is also associated with pellagra.”
B5 – pantothenic acid
Why is it necessary: “Helps convert your food into energy, especially breaking down fats.”
food source: “Shiitake mushrooms, sunflower seeds, chicken breast, tuna, avocado, milk, potatoes and eggs.”
Deficiency symptoms: “Some B5 is found in almost all plant and animal foods. That’s why shortages are rare.”
B6 – pyridoxine
Why is it necessary: “Essential for more than 100 enzyme reactions involved in metabolism and helps maintain a healthy nervous and immune system. Pregnancy and early childhood B6 is needed for normal brain development.
food source: “Fish, potatoes, organ meats, beef, starchy vegetables and chickpeas.”
Deficiency symptoms: “Deficiency is accompanied by microcytic anemia, scaly lips and cracks at the corners of the mouth, swelling of the tongue, depression, confusion and a weakened immune system. Elderly people, people with impaired kidney function, and people with malabsorptive autoimmune diseases are at risk of deficiency.
B7 – biotin
Why is it necessary: “You’ve probably heard of biotin as an essential nutrient for healthy skin and nails! Biotin is not just a good-looking nutrient, it helps convert the food we eat into energy.
food source: “Cooked eggs, fish, meat, seeds, nuts and sweet potatoes.”
Deficiency symptoms: “Hair loss, rashes on the body and brittle nails may occur. But here’s the catch—biotin deficiency is rare in the US, so if you have these symptoms, it’s unlikely to be due to biotin deficiency. In fact, studies of whether biotin can improve hair health for people who are not deficient in biotin have had mixed results – some improved, others not.
B9 is folic acid
Why is it necessary: “Among other things, folate is essential for healthy cell growth – it’s needed to make DNA!”
food source: “Dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, etc.), meat, brussels sprouts, avocado, beans, peas, broccoli, and liver.”
Deficiency symptoms: “The main symptom of folate or B12 deficiency is megaloblastic anemia, which can cause weakness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, shortness of breath, and headaches. Folic acid deficiency can cause pain or sores on the tongue. Women of childbearing age and pregnant women can develop neural tube defects. Folic acid needs increase dramatically during pregnancy and often the diet cannot meet these needs.
B12 is cobalamin
Why is it necessary: “Vitamin B12 has many important functions in the body, including helping to make DNA and red blood cells. It is also required for the development and function of your central nervous system.”
food source: “Meat, fish, eggs and milk. You can also find vitamin B12 in fortified cereals and yeast.
Deficiency symptoms: “Symptoms of B12 deficiency can include a swollen tongue, fatigue, palpitations, pale skin, weight loss, pins and needles in the hands or feet, blurred vision, and weight loss. Some studies have even found a link between B12 deficiency and depression.
The ultimate solution to vitamin B deficiency
It’s best to check with your doctor before starting any new supplement or nutritional protocol, but unless you’re severely deficient, it’s recommended that you approach food first.
“On a macro level, animal foods are your best source,” says Dana Ryan, director of sports performance, nutrition and education at Herbalife Nutrition. “For example, three ounces of beef gives you 100 percent of the daily value. However, you’ll still want to limit red meat to once or twice a week and get your B vitamins from other sources like salmon or tuna, both of which provide more than your three-ounce daily intake. Dairy products also give you two percent milk in one cup, about half of your daily needs.”
Whiteson also notes that the limited food options for vegetarians still include nutritional yeast, Marmite, fortified soy, almond milk, plant-based meats, fortified cereals, tempeh and nori seaweed. “Each of these will help meet your B vitamin needs in a delicious way,” she says.