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I Can’t Keep All the B Vitamins Straight. Which One Matters the Most?

Is there a way to make it as simple as one, two, B-three?

When I first began paying attention to vitamins and investigating their significance, I was really only concerned with two of them: vitamin C and vitamin B. Supplementation with vitamin C was something that had been instilled in me ever since I was in kindergarten, and my mother doled out a daily chewable vitamin C tablet alongside each morning’s breakfast cereal. To my understanding, it was the vitamin for warding off sickness and boosting immunity. 

On the flip side, my familiarity with vitamin B grew out of more ignominious circumstances. When I jockeyed the front desk of Bally Total Fitness, I routinely opened the club at 7 a.m. for my customary back-to-back 12-hour shifts every Saturday and Sunday. This was in addition to working at another full-time job and attending school during the remainder of the week, meaning that the most exhausted version of me that ever existed was in need of a morning pick-me-up on each of those miserable weekend mornings. Fortunately, Bally had a refrigerator that sat 50 feet from its front desk, and its contents included the Bally Blast energy drink. I spent a great deal of time sipping from those cans and staring at the list of ingredients contained within them, enabling me to rapidly digest the fact that there were several vitamin Bs, several of which were listed under alternative names that sounded significantly more medicinal.

Because of this connection with my first much-beloved energy drink, I innately believed vitamin B must somehow have been connected with energy production, which coincidentally happened to be true. However, the specific roles of the different vitamin Bs — eight in all — is something that escaped me.

Why are there so many B vitamins?

Per usual, it’s best to start at the beginning. Vitamin B1 is thiamine, which was isolated in 1910, and then fully identified in 1934. It was given the additional name of vitamin B because it was discovered to be the only known cure for beriberi disease.

After thiamine, the remaining B vitamins were identified in the order of their numbering: vitamin B2 (riboflavin); vitamin B3 (niacin); vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid); vitamin B6 (pyridoxine/pyridoxal/pyridoxamine); vitamin B7 (biotin); vitamin B9 (folic acid); and vitamin B12 (cobalamins). All of these vitamins — collectively known as the B vitamin complex — share the general traits of being water soluble and being involved in cell metabolism and red blood cell synthesis. 

What happened to vitamin B4, B8 and B10? 

You forgot about vitamin B11 as well. 

The gaps belong to nutrients that were once considered vitamins, but were downgraded from vitamin status because they failed to meet the definition of a vitamin — which is a nutrient that’s critical for growth that can’t be manufactured by the human body. The casualties of this B vitamin purge were vitamin B4 (adenine), vitamin B8 (inositol), vitamin B10 (para aminobenzoic acid) and vitamin B11 (salicylic acid).

It’s not that these nutrients can’t help you; they simply don’t meet the aforementioned definition.

So which of the authentic B vitamins is the most important?

Let’s evaluate them one by one. 

Vitamin B1 is responsible for breaking down carbohydrates and converting them into energy. Without it, you risk exposing yourself to the laundry list of ailments linked with beriberi disease, with symptoms ranging from weight loss and emotional disturbances all the way to heart failure and death. 

Vitamin B2 assists your body with breaking down fatty acids into energy, and helps to move energy through the electron transfer chain. Deficiency in it will be characterized by inflammation and degeneration throughout your body, but particularly evident in your lips, skin, tongue, mouth and reproductive organs.

Vitamin B3 helps your body to metabolize glucose, fat and alcohol. The absence of it can lead to side effects that are both physical and mental. The condition is called pellagra, and it can lead to the four Ds — dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia and possibly death.

Vitamin B5 enables your body to fully oxidize fatty acids and carbohydrates. The symptoms of vitamin B5 deficiency are relatively benign all things considered; you may experience acne or some bizarre sensations in your limbs, like unexplained tingling and numbing.

Vitamin B6 technically includes three different substances with the same basic function: pyridoxine, pyridoxal and pyridoxamine. They help your body to metabolize amino acids, and the absence of them results in dryness and scaliness in the oily areas of your head and scalp on the mild side, and full-blown epileptic fits on the severe side.

Vitamin B7 is critical in your body’s ability to metabolize lipids, proteins and carbohydrates. That said, a lack of it likely won’t result in anything more than impairment in the growth of hair and nails.

Vitamin B9 is most notable for helping your body’s regeneration in times when rapid growth is required. It was particularly essential during your youth, when your body was growing at an unprecedented pace. Without it, your red blood cells would be impaired due to a lack of oxygen, and they would continue to grow without dividing. This will result in abnormally pale skin, lack of energy, irritability and diarrhea. 

Finally, vitamin B12 is involved in the cellular metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins and lipids, and is required for the production of blood cells in bone marrow. The lack of it will result in the same category of problems caused by the absence of B9, along with all sorts of debilitating conditions that would compromise the senses and the motor system, potentially culminating in mania, psychosis and possible paralysis.

Whoa. That was heavy (and a lot). So again, which is the most critical?

Each of these B vitamins is mandatory if you wish to maintain the optimal functionality of your body. However, if we’re going to have a substantive discussion about the issue, we should start by highlighting the B vitamins that would result in the most cataclysmic damage to your body if you were forced to go without them. In that respect, the three vitamins likely to lead to the most crippling conditions in the wake of their absence are B1, B3 and B12. Try as I might, it’s difficult for me to imagine worse physical outcomes than paralysis and death.

Truly, there’s no reason why you should ever have to go without any of the B vitamins, because almost any animal-derived food product contains them. And even if you oppose the consumption of animal products on moral grounds, the vitamins comprising the vitamin B complex are contained within leafy vegetables, and fortified foods like cereals and breads. There’s always multivitamin supplements, too. 

The options are so plentiful, it’s almost hard to B-lieve.