B vitamins are a group of water-soluble vitamins. This means they can't be stored by our bodies (anything over what our body needs is flushed out in our urine), and our levels of them must be kept topped up by eating a balanced diet.
What are B vitamins?
There are eight types of vitamin B. Most of them help us turn food into energy and also maintain a healthy nervous system, but some have additional benefits.
Thiamin helps keep the nervous system healthy and helps release energy from food. Sources of thiamin include fruit, eggs and liver. A deficiency can cause nausea, weakness, cramping and loss of appetite, however, deficiency is not very common.
Riboflavin helps maintain normal skin and vision. Sources include milk, eggs and rice. Ultraviolet light destroys riboflavin, so keep foods containing B2 out of direct sunlight. B2 deficiency is rare, but symptoms include a sore throat, lip sores and scaly patches on the face.
Niacin also helps maintain normal skin. Sources include meat, fish, wheat, eggs and dairy products. B3 deficiency (pellagra) is rare, but symptoms include loss of appetite, weakness, tummy ache and vomiting.
Pantothenic acid (B5)
Important to release energy from food, B5 is found in most meats and vegetables, and in eggs and porridge. B5 deficiency is not common, but symptoms include fatigue, chronic stress and depression.
B6 helps keep red blood cells healthy. Sources include meats, vegetables, dairy products, fish and wholegrain cereals. Symptoms of B6 deficiency include scaly skin, skin discolouration and a sore tongue, but again, it's rare.
B7 helps maintain normal skin and hair. It's not clear whether we benefit from taking in extra B7 from our diet or supplements. As B7 is created by bacteria that occur naturally in the bowel, we may generate enough.
Known as folate, it's important for blood health, as well as supporting growth and development in unborn babies. Sources include broccoli, sprouts, spinach, peas, asparagus and chickpeas. Folate deficiency can lead to anaemia – a shortage of red blood cells or red blood cells which don't work as they should, which can cause paleness and tiredness.
B12 helps us generate red blood cells. Sources include meat, fish, dairy products and eggs. Vegans can be prone to B12 deficiency, and symptoms include yellow skin, sore tongue and anaemia.
Do I need B vitamins supplements?
Most of us get enough B vitamins from our diet, which often includes fortified foods, like breakfast cereals.
But from time to time, some of us might need extra B vitamins. These are available as supplements, either in complex form (all eight B vitamins) or as individual vitamins.
If you're pregnant or trying for a baby, you're advised to take a daily 400 microgram (mcg) folic acid supplement from the time you start trying to get pregnant up to week 12 of pregnancy. This supports healthy development in unborn babies.
Because B12 isn't found in fruit, vegetables or grains, people who eat a vegan or vegetarian diet can be prone to B12 deficiency, and may need to take a B12 supplement – although many brands of cereals and plant milks like oat, nut and soy are fortified.
Consult your pharmacist for advice on supplements if you're concerned your diet may be lacking in nutrients. If you think you have a deficiency, you should contact your Doctor.
- Eat a balanced diet to supply all the vitamin B you need
- If you're pregnant or trying to conceive, consult your pharmacist about folic acid supplements
- If you're vegan or vegetarian, you may benefit from a B12 supplement