Getting your fill of B vitamins is as simple as eating a balanced diet - or is it? Based on findings by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it might not be as easy as you think.
Results show that a majority of Americans aren't eating enough fruits and vegetables, which are the primary natural sources of most B vitamins that are vital for a number of the body's functions.
"B vitamins are essential for energy production; metabolism of carbohydrates, fat and protein; and promotion of healthy skin, liver and nervous system function," says Dr. David Hall, a double board-certified internal medicine and pediatrics doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group.
The eight B vitamins are:
- Cobalamin (B-12)
- Folate (B-9)
- Pyridoxine (B-6)
- Riboflavin (B-2)
- Thiamine (B-1)
- Niacin (B-3)
- Pantothenic acid (B-5)
- Biotin (B-7)
Who is at risk for B-12 vitamin and folate deficiency?
Dr. Hall says that the most common B vitamin deficiency in the U.S. is vitamin B-12, which primarily comes from animal products, such as fish, milk and eggs. "Vegetarians and vegans are most at risk of B-12 deficiency due to little or no intake of animal products," he says.
If you have decreased or poor intestinal ability to absorb B-12, you may also be at risk of deficiency. "Patients with pernicious anemia, pancreatic insufficiency, gastric bypass or chronic gastrointestinal issues such as Crohn's disease may also have impaired ability to absorb B-12. Among those who are 65 years or older, issues such as gastric atrophy, long-term acid blocking medication or chronic alcohol use can cause deficiency," Dr. Hall adds.
And if you are an older adult, have poor nutrition or abuse alcohol, you may also experience folate deficiency. Folate, or vitamin B-9, occurs naturally in food, whereas folic acid is the synthetic form of this vitamin.
Filling the nutritional gap with vitamin B supplements
Dr. Hall recommends that if you are at risk of poor intake or absorption of B-12 or folate, you should have your levels measured. "Those with low levels would not only benefit from supplements, but may also avoid complications associated with B-12 or folate deficiency."
He says that large doses of B-12 in the standard oral pill form — 1,000 to 2,000 micrograms per day — have been shown to be just as effective as injectable and dissolvable forms in most people with vitamin B-12 deficiency.
"Also, individuals following a vegan diet who do not consume B-12-fortified foods (such as cereals) should be supplemented with vitamin B-12 at the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of 2.4 micrograms a day," he adds.
Dr. Hall stresses the importance of folate among all women of childbearing age. "Folic acid is critical for the formation of the spinal cord and nervous system of developing embryos. Women who plan to become pregnant should take prenatal vitamins containing folic acid, which reduces their child's risk of having a neural tube defect," he says.
As far as the average person taking a B-complex vitamin, Dr. Hall says there is no strong evidence that this type of supplement is beneficial. "However, if an individual has obvious dietary deficiencies, such as low vegetable intake or poor dietary variability, it is not unreasonable to take a B-complex supplement to fill in the gaps."
One of the best ways to avoid many nutrient deficiencies, including B-vitamin deficiency is through a balanced, healthy diet. For adults, this includes a daily amount of five fruits and vegetables, plus nuts, seeds and some animal products.
"Fruits and vegetables generally have a multitude of other micronutrients and anti-inflammatory compounds that work with their vitamin content to promote optimal health," says Dr. Hall.