Best B Vitamins for Athletes

Chicken meat, fish, cottage cheese, yogurt and eggs on white table

 Mike Kemp / Getty Images

Vitamins and minerals are essential for the body to function properly, but there may be a link between B-complex vitamins (including thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, B12, and folate) and sports performance in high-level athletes. B vitamins are micronutrients and are used by the body to convert proteins and carbohydrates into energy. They are also used for cellular repair and production.

Benefits

B vitamins are important for maintaining optimal nutrition and health. They play an important role in converting food into energy—but that doesn't mean that vitamin B supplements will necessarily give you more energy.

Some B vitamins work together in the body to help metabolize carbohydrates, while others break down fat and/or protein. Here's a closer look at the health benefits of some of the most common B vitamins.

Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)

Riboflavin plays a key role in metabolism and blood cell synthesis and helps convert vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) to its active coenzyme form and tryptophan to vitamin B3 (niacin). There is also evidence that vitamin B2 can prevent or treat certain medical conditions, including:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Cataracts
  • Certain types of cancer
  • Dementia
  • Migraines
  • Preeclampsia
  • Seizures

Vitamin B3 (Niacin)

Niacin is essential for proper digestive function and also supports healthy skin and nerves. In addition, niacin may help to reduce stress, improve circulation, and slow the effects of aging. While niacin deficiencies are rare, some people take niacin supplements to help with certain conditions including:

  • Acne
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Arthritis
  • Cataracts
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Migraines
  • Motion sickness
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Premenstrual syndrome

Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine)

Vitamin B6 is known as a "helper molecule" that affects several biochemical processes. B6 metabolizes nutrients and also synthesizes hemoglobin (which carries oxygen through the blood), antibodies (which supports the immune system), and neurotransmitters (which send nerve signals). A deficiency in vitamin B6 affects the body's ability to process fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, as important circulatory, immune, and nervous system functions begin to break down.

Vitamin B6 is often used to help treat a number of conditions including:

  • Age-related macular degeneration
  • Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
  • Cancer
  • Hyperemesis gravidarum ("morning sickness")
  • Kidney stones
  • Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
  • Pyridoxine-dependent seizures in infants
  • Sideroblastic anemia (a form of hereditary anemia)
  • Stroke
  • Tardive dyskinesia (a neurologic side effect of antipsychotic drugs)

Vitamin B9 (Folate)

Folate is used to make deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA), which are the genetic blueprints of every cell in the human body. So, essentially, vitamin B9 is necessary for cell division and growth.

Folate is especially important during the first trimester of pregnancy to prevent neural tube defects, including spina bifida and anencephaly. As such, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires grain and cereal products to be enriched with folic acid (the synthetic form of folate). This move has caused the rate of neural tube defects to drop significantly. 

In addition, some research has shown that folate, when combined with vitamins B6 and B12, may be beneficial for people who experience chronic migraine headaches. Folate may also help prevent a number of health conditions, including:

  • Aging-related macular degeneration 
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Some types of cancer
  • Some cases stroke

Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin)

Many people take vitamin B12 supplements or boost their intake of dietary food sources of B12 to help with a number of health concerns. For example, some research shows that vitamin B12 may help to preserve your eyesight as you age.

Some take B12 to increase their energy or enhance their mood, while others claim that it can help improve memory, boost the immune system, promote quality sleep, and even slow the aging process. However, scientific support for exceeding the recommended daily intake for B12 to reap these purported health benefits is somewhat lacking.

Still, there is some evidence to suggest that adequate B12 consumption may help treat or prevent health conditions such as:

  • Eczema
  • Heart disease
  • Certain types of cancer

Impact of Vitamin B Deficiency

Current research supports the theory that athletes, and those who exercise frequently or at high intensity, may have an increased need for vitamin B2 (riboflavin), with a smaller fraction of athletes exhibiting deficiencies in vitamin B6 (pyridoxine).

A 2017 study published in Nutrients found that insufficient dietary intakes of essential B vitamins can hinder an athlete’s performance and lead to fatigue, injury, and altered concentration. However, the authors note that most of the subjects who participated in the study were able to meet their recommended intake for B vitamins from food sources.

Female athletes, in particular, might be more prone to B-vitamin deficiencies simply based upon the reduced number of calories that many consume. By comparison, male athletes tend to eat a lot of calories and a wider variety of foods, but female athletes tend to monitor their nutrition more closely and often fail to eat enough calories or enough variety of food to replace all the nutrients they need to rebuild muscles and aid recovery.

Older studies have also highlighted the value of B vitamins. In 2006, researchers at Oregon State University found that athletes who lack B vitamins have reduced high-intensity exercise performance and are less able to repair damaged muscles or build muscle mass than their peers who eat a diet rich with B vitamins.

Those most at risk for B-vitamin deficiencies include athletes who are limiting calories or have specialized, consistent, or restricted eating plans. However, it's important to note that supplementation alone does not improve athletic performance. For athletes who are deficient in B vitamins, the best way to boost their intake is through nutrient-rich food sources.

Foods High in B Vitamins

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans provides the following recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) for certain B vitamins. These include:

  • Vitamin B2 (riboflavin): 1.1mg for women and 1.3mg for men
  • Vitamin B3 (niacin): 14mg for women and 16mg for men
  • Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine): 1.3mg for women and 1.3mg for men
  • Vitamin B9 (folate): 400mg for both women and men
  • Vitamin B12 (cobalamin): 2.4mg for both women and men

Health and nutrition experts recommend that healthy individuals get their RDAs for vitamins and minerals primarily through food sources whenever possible. You can get plenty of B vitamins from whole and enriched grains, dark green vegetables, nuts, and many animal and dairy products. The following foods are considered good sources of B vitamins:

  • Vitamin B2: Milk and other dairy products, fortified breakfast cereals, portobello mushrooms, chicken, beef liver, clams, and almonds
  • Vitamin B3: Eggs, fish, fortified bread and cereal, rice, nuts, peanuts, milk and dairy products, chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, and organ meats
  • Vitamin B6: Beans, chicken, fish, and some vegetables and fruits, such as dark leafy greens, bananas, papayas, oranges, and cantaloupe
  • Vitamin B9: Many fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, fortified cereals, and other fortified grain products
  • Vitamin B12: Animal products such as fish, poultry, meat, eggs, or dairy; nutritional yeast; miso, seaweed, fortified cereals, and enriched soy or rice milk

Research indicates that the United States Recommended Daily Allowance (USRDA) for B-vitamin intake may be inadequate for athletes. But unless you are a vegetarian or vegan athlete, you likely get plenty of B12 in your diet.

Supplementation

Although you can get plenty of essential B vitamins in your diet, the foods listed above may not be a part of your eating pattern and supplementation may be necessary. Athletes deficient in B vitamins may benefit from a multivitamin or individual vitamin supplementation. 

Before you add any vitamin supplements to your diet, it's important to do your research on the quality and purity of the supplements. Consulting with a physician or qualified nutritionist can be an effective way to learn more about supplementation. A sports nutritionist can analyze your diet and determine which supplements would be helpful for your unique physiology and which supplements you can skip.

Supplementation may be especially important for athletes who have poor quality diets or those who may be reducing their calories or cutting out entire food groups, such as meat or dairy. However, B6 toxicity can occur in those who exceed their vitamin B6 needs.

A Word From Verywell

Athletes who spend a great deal of time with high-level exercise should talk to their doctor or a qualified nutritionist before making any dietary changes or taking new supplements. A health and nutrition professional can provide you with an evaluation to ensure you are getting the nutrition your body requires.

Because adequate nutrition is critical to athletic performance, and supplements can sometimes be confusing, the bottom line is that it's best to learn what specific nutritional supplementation you might need to perform your best and stay healthy.

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