True story: The vast majority of Americans have diets that fall short on one or more important nutrients. And it’s easy to miss the signs that our bodies are crying for more.
Many daily woes—from poor sleep to constant brain fog—can signal that we need more B vitamins, in particular. Here, two dietitians discuss the red flags.
B Vitamins: The Basics
The B vitamins are unique in that there are a whole lot of them! The B family includes:
- vitamin B1 (thiamin)
- vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
- vitamin B3 (niacin)
- vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)
- vitamin B6
- vitamin B7 (biotin)
- vitamin B9 (folate or folic acid)
- vitamin B12
“The [B vitamins] have unique functions in the body, but all relate to energy metabolism, red blood cell formation, and other vital cellular processes,” says dietitian Monica Auslander Moreno, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition.
B12 And B6
Two of the most-talked-about of the B vitamins, B6 and B12, also happen to be the two B vitamins people fall short on most often.
About Vitamin B12
“Vitamin B12 helps with blood formation and brain and neurological function,” says dietitian Jessica Crandall Snyder, R.D.N., of VitalRD in Denver, CO. “It helps us to convert iron-rich foods into red blood cells, maintain hormones, and break down protein. Basically, it’s the worker bee that helps make sure we absorb nutrients, specifically iron, properly.”
Good sources of vitamin B12 include:
- nutritional yeast
- fish (trout, salmon, tuna)
- dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese)
In the U.S., many foods—like breakfast cereals—are also fortified with B12.
About Vitamin B6
In addition to supporting immune function, B6 also plays an important role in our brain function, specifically related to mood and sleep. According to Crandall Snyder, B6 helps the body produce the ‘feel-good’ hormones serotonin and norepinephrine, as well as the ‘sleep hormone’ melatonin.
Good sources of vitamin B6 include:
- organ meat
Like B12, vitamin B6 is also added to many packaged foods.
People At Risk For B Vitamin Deficiencies
Thankfully, serious B vitamin deficiencies are pretty rare in first-world countries like the United States.
“Deficiencies in the developed world are only common in very poor eaters, the malnourished, alcoholics, people with malabsorptive disorders, and vegetarians and vegans,” says Auslander Moreno.
Because we get vitamin B12 from meat, vegetarians and vegans are particularly at risk for deficiency. (According to Auslander Moreno, folate can be a concern, too.) Additionally, people with autoimmune diseases that affect the intestines—like Crohn’s and celiac disease—often end up with B vitamin deficiencies because of impaired ability to absorb them.
“Pregnant nursing moms are advised to take supplemental B vitamins because of increased fetal and neonatal needs,” Auslander Moreno adds.
Signs You Need More Bs
Whether you fall into one of these at-risk populations or not, consuming too few B vitamins can leave you with a slew of symptoms.
1. You Feel Fatigued
Though all of the B vitamins influence our ability to turn the food we eat into usable energy, B12 insufficiency, specifically, can leave you feeling constantly exhausted.
Since B12 helps make red blood cells, which transport oxygen throughout your body, you’ll likely feel tired and weak if you’re short on it, says Crandall Snyder.
2. You’re Anemic
Since low vitamin B12 impacts your red blood cells, it can contribute to anemia, a condition in which a lack of healthy red blood cells affects the transport of oxygen throughout your body, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Common symptoms of B12 Deficiency Anemia include weak muscles, fatigue, and irritability.
3. Your Hair Is Falling Out
Without adequate vitamin B12, the cells throughout your body—including hair follicle cells—don’t receive all of the nutrients they need. Without the proper nutrients, these cells essentially starve, hindering hair growth.
4. You Can’t Sleep
Research has long shown that vitamin B12 plays a critical role in the production of melatonin, which your body produces to help you fall asleep. Fall short on it and you might find yourself counting sheep.
5. You’re Feeling Blue
Since vitamin B6 plays a role in our transmission of the ‘feel-good’ hormone serotonin, it can have a major impact on our mood.
In fact, research identifies the vitamin as key for mood regulation—and has linked low levels of vitamin B6 with an increased risk of mood issues.
6. Your Memory Falters
Perhaps one of the biggest giveaways of B vitamin issues: declines in cognitive function. (After all, they’re involved in all sorts of normal brain functions—including the process through which brain cells produce energy.)
Unsurprisingly, many people dealing with vitamin B insufficiencies experience general brain fog, trouble focusing, and difficulty remembering things.
In fact, though scientists still have more to learn, research has identified a link between vitamin B12 deficiency and impaired cognitive function. “As we get older, we have a decreased ability to absorb these nutrients, which can cause pretty significant problems,” says Crandall Snyder.
How To Boost Your Bs
If you’re concerned about lacking B vitamins, your doctor can check for any deficiencies with a simple blood test. From there, you and your doc can discuss how to up your intake of B vitamins.
For a high-quality, third party-tested supplement option, try The Vitamin Shoppe brand B-Complex.