Can Vitamin B Boost My Brain Power?

Who wouldn’t like to improve their brain power – recall facts and figures more readily, solve challenging math equations, remember that grocery store list item or the exact date of an important event in the past?

Abandoning poor habits such as soda intake and developing new, healthier habits such as eating more fresh fruits and vegetables are popular resolutions with the advent of the new year. But what about starting a daily multivitamin or a B-complex? Vitamins are good for us all, right? What support is there for taking vitamins, what benefits can they offer and are they for everyone?

Let’s examine the vitamin B family. First, a few words about vitamins in general: They are compounds essential for normal body functioning that aren’t made by the human body but can be found in the foods we eat. In total, humans require adequate amounts of 13 vitamins: four fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K, which are stored in our body fat, meaning they stick around longer after ingested) and nine water soluble vitamins (those that the human body cannot store), which include vitamin C and the eight B vitamins: thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), vitamin B6, biotin (B7), folate (B9) and vitamin B12.

The B vitamins are typically manufactured by plants. The exception is vitamin B12, which is made by bacteria and is obtained from animal-derived foods such as fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk and milk products. Fortified breakfast cereals and some nutritional yeast products are also a readily available source of vitamin B12.

Here’s where the importance of the B vitamins comes into play.

It may surprise you to know that your brain is the most metabolically active organ in your body. While only accounting for about 2 percent of body weight, it accounts for over 20 percent of your body’s total energy expenditure. The importance of the B vitamins for brain function can be inferred by the different chemical pathways that each vitamin requires to be actively transported across what is known as the blood brain barrier and/or choroid plexus, a mass of vascular tissue in brain ventricles which produces a chemical barrier that protects the brain from being bombarded by just any compound in the body.

Each B vitamin has a specific, dedicated transport mechanism for getting the vitamin from the bloodstream into the brain. Once in the brain, specific cell uptake mechanisms guide the vitamin to exact tissue distribution, with the goal of maintaining very high vitamin B levels that are tightly regulated. It’s clearly a very well-orchestrated system.

As an illustration, the brain concentration of methyltetrahydrofolate (the main circulating form of folate in the blood, which is need to make DNA and other genetic material) is four times that seen in blood, and biotin and pantothenic acid concentrations can be up to 50 times that found in your blood.

So, is there evidence linking B vitamins to better brain power?

Let’s look more specifically at vitamins B6, B12 and folate (B9). There is observational study data to suggest a positive link: the higher the B vitamin blood level, the better performance with tests of memory, problem-solving, and word and sentence formation. Interestingly, there seem to be as many studies suggesting no relationship.

As an example, Australian researchers Dr. Osvaldo Almeida and Dr. Andrew Ford reviewed data that combined results from 19 studies focusing on older participants and found no evidence that taking folic acid, alone or in combination with vitamins B12 and B6, improved or decreased declines in cognitive function. However, associations have been reported in other studies that link lower vitamin B12 status with decreased brain volume and increased white matter lesions that indicate an increased risk for developing dementia.

More meaningful studies are those that are called interventional studies. These require comparing a group of individuals that are tested using an intervention (in this case, taking one of the B vitamins, or a combination, on a daily basis for a defined period of time) against those that are not given the intervention, known as control subjects. In one small interventional study, taking B vitamins seemed to decrease the rate of developing brain atrophy, which has been connected to dementia and aging-related cognitive changes.

In a review of 10 separate studies involving supplementation with folic acid plus vitamin B12 (four studies) and vitamin B6 (three studies), and a single study of vitamin B12 monotherapy, results focused on depression in those with mood disorders. Combined, the studies showed no difference in the development of new depression between those who took vitamins and those who didn’t. However, the studies that looked at relapse into depression seemed to support the benefits of vitamin B, specifically taking all three vitamins.

The Women’s Antioxidant and Folic Acid Cardiovascular Study involved 2,009 women aged 65 years or older who were assigned to receive either daily supplements containing 2,500 micrograms of folic acid, one microgram of vitamin B12 and 50 micrograms of vitamin B6, or a placebo (“dummy” pill). After an average of 1.2 years, those taking the B-vitamin supplementation showed no difference in cognitive changes from those taking the placebo. However, in a subset of women with low baseline dietary intake of B vitamins, supplementation significantly slowed the rate of cognitive decline.

In yet another study conducted in the U.S. that included 340 individuals with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s disease, taking daily supplements of 5,000 micrograms of folic acid plus 1 milligram of vitamin B12 and 25 milligrams of vitamin B6 for 18 months did not slow cognitive decline compared with the placebo.

A secondary analysis of a study conducted in Australia (which did not have mandatory folic acid fortification at the time) found that daily supplementation with 400 micrograms of folic acid plus 100 micrograms of vitamin B12 for two years improved some measures of cognitive function, particularly memory, in 900 adults aged 60 to 74 years who had depressive symptoms.

What amounts are recommended for daily intakes of these vitamins?

Typically, the recommended dietary allowance (RDA), which is defined as the average daily level of intake sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all (97 to 98 percent) healthy individuals, is used as a guide. RDAs come from the Food and Nutrition Board at the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies (formerly the National Academy of Sciences) and can be viewed online at: nationalacademies.org. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) nutrient database online (ndb.nal. usda.gov/ndb) lists the nutrient content of many foods and provides a comprehensive list of foods containing vitamins arranged by food name and nutrient content. See the chart on page 28 for some examples.

Is it better to get these vitamins from foods or supplements?

This question has always resulted in considerable debate. For folate, at least 85 percent of a folic acid supplement is estimated to be absorbable when taken with food, but only about 50 percent of folate naturally present in food is potentially absorbable. So, for folate or folic acid needs, supplements are strongly recommended, especially during pregnancy.

As for vitamin B12, some people — older adults, those with pernicious anemia (a condition that causes loss of the production of a chemical in the stomach that helps absorb B12), and those with reduced levels of stomach acidity called hypochlorhydria or achlorhydria, or other intestinal disorders — have difficulty absorbing vitamin B12 from food and sometimes even from oral supplements. Injections of vitamin B12 might be required in this circumstance, something to be determined in discussion with your physician.

With vitamin B6, certain individuals are known to benefit more from taking supplements, including those with poor kidney function (including those on dialysis), as well as those who have undergone a kidney transplant who often have low vitamin B6 levels. People with rheumatoid arthritis often have low vitamin B6 concentrations as well, and vitamin B6 concentrations tend to decrease with increased severity of the disease. Diseases of the gut such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and inflammatory bowel disease tend to cause lower B6 levels, requiring supplement use since foodbased intake is often not sufficient.

Luckily for most of us, dietary sources can work well to provide these nutrients. Check out the sources mentioned for ideas on food that can supplement your vitamin intake – at the very least, they’ll help ensure your well-being and may just boost your brain power.

Food Micrograms per serving Percentage of Daily Value
Common food sources of Vitamin B12*
Clams, cooked, 3 ounces 84.1 1,402
Beef liver, cooked, 3 ounces 70.7 1,178
B12-fortified breakfast cereals, 1 serving 6.0 100
Wild rainbow trout, cooked, 3 ounces 5.4 90
Sockeye salmon, cooked, 3 ounces 4.38 80
Light tuna fish, canned in water, 3 ounces 2.5 42
Double-patty cheeseburger and bun 2.1 35
Haddock, cooked, 3 ounces 1.8 30
Top sirloin, cooked, 3 ounces 1.4 23
Low-fat milk, 1 cup 1.2 18
Low-fat fruit yogurt, 8 ounces 1.1 18
Swiss cheese, 1 ounce 0.9 15
Beef taco, 1 soft taco 0.9 15
Cured ham, roasted, 3 ounces 0.6 10
Hard-boiled egg, 1 large 0.6 10
Roasted chicken breast meat, 3 ounces 0.3 5
Common food sources of Vitamin B6**
Canned chickpeas, 1 cup 1.1 5.5
Beef liver, pan-fried, 3 ounces 0.9 45
Fresh yellowfin tuna, cooked, 3 ounces 0.9 45
Sockeye salmon, cooked, 3 ounces 0.6 30
Roasted chicken breast, 3 ounces 0.5 25
B6-fortified breakfast cereals, 1 serving 0.5 25
Boiled potatoes, 1 cup 0.4 20
Banana, 1 medium 0.4 20
Ground beef, 85% lan, patty, broiled, 3 ounces 0.3 15
Plain waffles, toasted, 1 waffle 0.3 15
Cottage cheese, 1% low-fat, 1 cup 0.2 10
Raisins, seedless, 1 cup 0.1 5
Frozen spinach, boiled, ½ cup 0.1 5
Common food sources of Folic Acid***
Beef liver, braised, 3 ounces 215 54
Spinach, boiled 131 33
Black-eyed peas, boiled, ½ cup 105 26
Rice, medium-grain, white, cooked 90 23
Brussel sprouts, frozen, boiled, 1.2 cup 78 20
Lettuce, romaine, shredded, 1 cup 64 16
Spinach, raw, 1 cup 58 15
Broccoli, chopped, frozen, boiled, ½ cup 52 13
Green peas, frozen, bolied, ½ cup 52 13
Bread, white, 1 slice 43 11
Orange juice, ¾ cup 35 9
Banana, 1 medium 24 6
Egg, whole, hard-boiled 22 6
Fish, halibut, cooked, 3 ounces 12 3
Milk, low-fat, 1 cup 12 3
Ground beef, 85% lean, cooked, 3 ounces 7 2
Chicken breast, roasted, ½ breast 3 3 1