Vitamin B—And Why It’s Important
As one of the most essential vitamins, the B’s are also the most confusing—because, well, there are a lot of them. Whether it’s folate (not to be confused with folic acid), or B12, they each serve a very distinct function. We asked Dr. Frank Lipman, of Eleven Eleven Wellness Center, to explain the difference, and the best ways to incorporate each one.
A Q&A with Dr. Frank Lipman
Are each of the B vitamins equally important?
The two most important B’s are B12 and Folate (Vitamin B9).
B12 is crucial to the proper functioning of your brain and nervous system, which means that it plays a vital role in mental clarity and focus, as well as in emotional balance and calm. It is also essential for the conduction of nerve signals and normal nerve function in general. Lack of B12 makes your body more vulnerable to physical and emotional stress—to the wear and tear that we usually associate with aging, but which I see more as lack of proper function.
Folate is a key defender against brain fog, irritability, depression, and other responses to physical and emotional stress. It helps you repair DNA and has significant anti-aging benefits too. It is also essential for pregnant women, as a deficiency can cause severe neurological birth defects. Vitamin B12 works together with folate in the synthesis of DNA and red blood cells.
Note: Although folate and folic acid are used interchangeably, it is important to know the difference. Folic acid is a synthetic type of B vitamin used in supplements and fortified foods, while folate is the natural form found in foods.
The other important B is B6. It is involved in over 100 cellular reactions throughout the body and is helpful in keeping various bodily functions operating smoothly.
What are the effects of low Vitamin B? What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of a deficiency depend on what type of Vitamin B you lack. The most common deficiency is B12 deficiency, which is actually relatively common. It causes lethargy, fatigue, weakness, anemia, memory loss, and neurological problems and even psychiatric problems.
But B vitamin deficiencies can cause all sorts of problems ranging from headaches, irritability, and confusion to anemia or a compromised immune system, to fatigue. Skin rashes, dry skin, cracks at the corners of the mouth, frequent bruising, and wounds that require a long time to heal can be symptoms. Muscle weakness, a lack of coordination, and numbness or tingling in the fingers and toes may also occur.
What foods are good for the B vitamins?
B vitamins are particularly concentrated in meat such as turkey, tuna, and liver. But other good plant sources for B vitamins include legumes, whole grains, potatoes, bananas, chili peppers, nutritional and brewer’s yeast, tempeh, and molasses.
Probably one of the most important things you can do food-wise to get B’s from your diet is to eat fermented foods. Gut bacteria synthesize and supply some of the B vitamins, so if you are not eating fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, or kefir, take a good probiotic daily.
Since Vitamin B12 is found primarily in meat and dairy products, strict vegetarians and vegans in particular are at risk for a deficiency. Vitamin B9 (Folate) can be found in many foods, from meats to grains to citrus fruits. Vitamin B6 can be found in fish, poultry, liver, potatoes, and non-citrus fruit.
Is it possible to consume too many B vitamins?
B vitamins are water-soluble and eliminated in the urine, so you just pee them out. Side effects are uncommon, although taking large doses of some of the B’s may cause temporary nausea, insomnia, and restlessness, but those pass soon. The exception to this is B6. High doses of B6 over a long period can result in neurological problems.
The B Vitamins are said to be important for Alzheimers and memory loss—why is that exactly?
This is probably because high levels of the amino acid homocysteine are linked to brain shrinkage and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s, and vitamins B6, B12, and folate are known to reduce levels of homocysteine.
Is it important to take extra B vitamins everyday? What will it improve? How much is an appropriate amount?
You’re getting some B vitamins in your multivitamin, but given the effective way B vitamins help protect your mind and body against all sorts of stress, I recommend taking more. I recommend everyone have their B12 levels measured, especially those folks who drink too much alcohol, are vegetarian, take acid-suppressing drugs (like Nexium), are over 60, have an inflammatory bowel condition, or generally have digestive problems. I am continually surprised how many folks are deficient, and do well with B12 shots or oral supplements.
My recommended minimum daily dose for the three important B’s for healthy people is: 400-800 mcg of methylated folic acid or folate, 400-800 mcg of Vitamin B12 (in the methylcobalamin form), and 50-75 mg of Vitamin B6. People with high homocysteine levels or any of the conditions mentioned above may need much more.
What is methylation, and why is it important to take methylated forms of folic acid and B12?
Methylation is a process that your cells perform billions of times each second. Without proper methylation, your body will not be able to respond properly to stress—either to physical stressors, such as toxins and challenging foods or to psychological stressors, such as life challenges and pressures. As a result, you’ll be more vulnerable to chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, autoimmune conditions, Alzheimer’s, and other neurological problems. Improper methylation also makes you more vulnerable to the decline in function that we usually associate with aging.
It is believed that about half of us have some type of genetic mutation that makes it difficult to methylate, so look for B vitamins with methylated forms of B12 and folic acid or look for natural folate for maximum benefit. You can get genetic testing (the MTHFR gene test) to find out whether you have one of these defective genes.
Is getting a Vitamin B IV drip—something that’s become so popular these days—the best way to get Vitamin B?
A typical “Meyer’s Cocktail,” which is a common intravenous shot of vitamins, contains a B complex mix. Make sure you are getting methylated B12 and folic acid in IV. They have become quite popular now, but I tend to use it for my patients who are tired, are coming down with a “cold” or “flu,” or who just need a boost.
Dr. Frank Lipman received his initial medical training in South Africa and emigrated to the United States in 1984. He became board certified in internal medicine after serving as Chief Medical Resident in his final year of residency at Lincoln Hospital in New York City. Becoming more and more aware of both the strengths and the weaknesses of his training, he began to study acupuncture, Chinese medicine, functional medicine, nutrition, herbal medicine, biofeedback, meditation, and yoga. He began to see that the polarization between western modalities and other healing philosophies merely negated positive attributes of both. He saw that true healing lay in a blend between the two. He now practices his unique blend of what he calls “Good Medicine,” combining all the systems in which he has trained.
Dr. Lipman is the author of three books: The New Health Rules, Total Renewal: 7 Key Steps to Resilience, Vitality and Long-Term Health, and Revive: Stop Feeling Spent and Start Living Again (previously released as Spent: End Exhaustion and Feel Great Again). He is very involved with non-profit work in South Africa and lectures throughout the world on health-related topics.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should never not be relied upon for specific medical advice.