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Is Your Vitamin B Complex Helping Your Hair?

Is Your Vitamin B Complex Helping Your Hair?

Everything you need to keep the hair on your head. If you're into that. Try hims for $5.

When it comes to nutritional supplements, we’re always looking for the "cure" -- to your general apathy about life, your hair loss, your hangover. Why? Because supplements are cheap, relatively safe, and easy to get. In other words, the risks are relatively low, so it doesn’t hurt to try, right?

B complex supplements are often pegged as an elixir, for everything from your bad moods to absent-mindedness. It’s easy to see why they’d be fingered for massive benefits -- B vitamins are massively important for good health. But the role of B vitamins in your health do not necessarily justify spending money on extra B vitamins through supplementation.

We’re not just talking about a single vitamin here -- but eight distinct substances crammed into a single supplement. For that reason, it’s important you know the role each of these unique vitamins plays. We’ll get into all of those specifics below. We want you to walk away smarter. But if you’re only interested in the bottom-line, here it is:

  • There is no solid evidence that taking a B-complex can aid in hair growth or slow hair loss associated with androgenic alopecia or male pattern baldness.
  • For general health, a B complex may make sense if you’re deficient in a B vitamin or at risk for deficiency. This is pretty rare in people eating a balanced diet.
  • There is some evidence that taking a biotin supplement can aid hair loss in men who are biotin deficient, a rarity.
  • Because B vitamins are water-soluble, you’re not doing yourself any favors by taking massive quantities -- your body eliminates excess through your pee. A clear indication of this: bright yellow urine.
  • You’re likely getting enough through your diet. If not, you’re certainly getting enough through a regular multivitamin. Taking a B complex on top of this is a waste.

What Are B Vitamins?

There are eight B vitamins: thiamine (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin (vitamin B3), pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, biotin (vitamin B7), folic acid (folate), and vitamin B12. All are water-soluble and all aid in cell metabolism. Despite being classified together and often found together in foods, B vitamins are chemically distinct, serving unique purposes.

Thiamine (vitamin B1)

Thiamine helps the body metabolize carbohydrates, or turn them into usable energy. This and supporting the brain and nervous system are its primary purposes. Thiamine can be found in eggs, fruit, whole grains, fortified cereals, liver, and peas.

Riboflavin (vitamin B2)

Like thiamine, riboflavin supports the nervous system. But it's also crucial in metabolizing proteins, supporting growth and red blood cell production, and eye and skin health. You can find it in milk, eggs, rice, and fortified cereals.

Niacin (vitamin B3)

Nicotinamide and nicotinic acid are part of niacin-- which collectively make up vitamin B3. It helps cells convert food into energy and is also important in protecting the cells against damage by free radicals.

Pantothenic acid (vitamin B5)

Pantothenic acid is important in converting carbohydrates into energy and supports a healthy cardiovascular system. It is also necessary for the synthesis of coenzyme A, which is required for many life-sustaining chemical reactions. Pantothenic acid is found in chicken, beef, potatoes, eggs, broccoli, whole grains, and tomatoes.

Vitamin B6

Vitamin B6, sometimes called pyridoxine, is important in hemoglobin production, or the transport of oxygen in our blood. Also, like the other B vitamins, it plays a role in converting carbohydrates and protein into energy. Vitamin B6 is found in eggs, milk, peanuts, pork, chicken, fish,whole grains, vegetables, potatoes, soybeans, and fortified cereals.

Biotin (vitamin B7)

Biotin works to turn carbohydrates, proteins and fats into energy. It’s touted as being good for hair, skin and nails. Your body produces biotin in the small intestine, but you can also get it in very small amounts through food like egg yolks, cauliflower, avocado, raspberries, pork, liver and salmon.

Folic acid (folate)

Folic acid, folate, or what is sometimes called vitamin B9 -- because, why not add another name? -- is important in pregnant women to prevent birth defects. But, it’s also used by the body in the production of red blood cells. It’s found in broccoli, brussels sprouts, spinach, peas, asparagus, chickpeas, fortified cereals, and liver.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 supports a healthy nervous system and red blood cells. It’s also important in cell metabolism, to turn food into energy. It is found in salmon and cod, meat, milk, cheese, eggs, and fortified cereals.

B Vitamin Deficiencies

Because all B vitamins are water-soluble, the body does not store the excess. In other words, regardless of how much vitamin B you ingest, your body only uses what it can and gets rid of the rest. Though biotin is created in the small intestine, the remaining B vitamins must be obtained through diet. In severe cases, where intake isn’t enough or where the body is unable to metabolize the B vitamins, deficiency can result.

B vitamin deficiencies are not all that common, and when you’re deficient in one B vitamin, you’re often deficient in others, largely because they’re found in many of the same foods.

Thiamine (vitamin B1)

Thiamine deficiency can happen fairly quickly, according to the Mayo Clinic. Alcoholics, cancer patients, bariatric surgery patients and those on dialysis may be at a heightened risk. Symptoms of deficiency include weight loss, irregular heartbeat, edema, heart failure, and emotional disturbances.

Riboflavin (vitamin B2)

People with alcoholism, liver disease, poor nutrition/absorption, and those on dialysis may be more at risk of riboflavin deficiency. The symptoms can include a sore throat, scaly skin, and redness, swelling, and cracks on the mouth, tongue, and lips.

Niacin (vitamin B3)

Niacin deficiency is often associated with poor nutrition and may be more common among the homeless, obese, those suffering from anorexia, and those eating a diet rich in corn and poor in animal proteins, according to Oregon State University. Severe deficiency is known as pellagra. The symptoms are often referred to as the "three D’s": dementia, diarrhea, and dermatitis.

Pantothenic acid (vitamin B5)

Pantothenic acid deficiency is rare, according to the University of Maryland. But symptoms include: fatigue, depression, insomnia, irritability, vomiting and stomach pains, and burning sensations in the feet.

Vitamin B6

Vitamin B6 deficiency is more common in people with impaired kidney function, autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and celiac disease, and in alcoholics. Symptoms can include cracks at the corners of the mouth, depression and confusion, and impaired immune function.

Biotin (vitamin B7)

Because biotin is made in the small intestine, it’s extremely rare to be deficient. However, people on certain medications or those with absorption disorders like Crohn’s disease may be more at risk. Symptoms include cracks at the corners of the mouth, scaly skin, appetite loss, fatigue, insomnia, depression, and *hair loss. *

Folic acid (folate)

Folic acid deficiency may be more common in heavy drinkers, people with absorption disorders like Crohn’s and celiac disease, those on kidney dialysis, or those taking certain medications. Symptoms may include a smooth and tender tongue, poor growth, fatigue, irritability, and diarrhea.

Vitamin B12

Vegetarians and those who’ve underwent bariatric surgery are most at-risk of vitamin B12 deficiency, largely because animal proteins are the best source of this vitamin. Symptoms of deficiency can include numbness and tingling in the appendages, anemia, balance problems, a swollen tongue, paranoia, weakness, fatigue, and cognitive difficulties.

Vitamin B Supplements and Your Health: The Evidence

A vitamin B complex is a supplement containing all eight of the B vitamins. Food should always be the first choice when looking for good sources of any vitamin. Because these vitamins naturally occur in food, getting them from your diet is relatively simple. Unless you are known deficient or at risk of deficiency, taking maximum doses of B vitamins through a supplement is likely unnecessary.

That being said, some research on B complex supplements have what appears to be positive findings:

  • Vitamin B complex may have positive effects on mood, according to a study funded by Bayer. This study looked at men who took an effervescent drink supplement containing vitamin B complex, vitamin C, and minerals. Participants reported improved mental health, stress, and cognitive performance. It’s worth noting, the supplement tested, Berocca, is made by Bayer. This fact and that the supplement contained more than just B complex makes it hard to lend the study full credence.
  • Several studies have indicated B vitamins are effective at speeding wound healing, according to the University of Michigan. Although many of these studies were done on animals, not humans, a well-designed but small study in 2005 found that supplementing with B complex sped mouth wound healing in men and women with gum disease.

Much of the research surrounding B complex supplementation is specific to treating symptoms of deficiency, making the findings largely useless for men with adequate B vitamin intake and levels.

B Vitamins and Your Hair: The Evidence

The research on B vitamin supplementation and hair loss is not focused on taking a B-complex, rather on the effects of very specific B vitamins.

For example, we know biotin deficiency can lead to hair loss. There is evidence that people who are biotin deficient may improve their hair loss symptoms with biotin supplementation. However, there is no proof that people with adequate biotin levels would benefit from taking the vitamin.

One study found that taking a supplement containing pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) could increase hair growth in women with a specific type of hair loss. However, the study has several shortcomings: It was done solely on women; only 30 women took part; and it involved a supplement containing not only pantothenic acid but other ingredients, making it difficult to pinpoint this B vitamin as the cause for positive results.

There are no sound studies linking B complex vitamin supplements with improved hair growth or preventing hair loss unless you are deficient, which again, is very rare.

Safety, Side Effects, and Precautions

Because B vitamins are water soluble, there is little risk of getting too much through supplementation. When your body has all that it can handle, it expels the rest through your urine.

That being said, extremely high intakes of vitamin B6 can cause nerve problems and high doses of niacin can cause jaundice and liver problems. The intakes needed to reach these problem-causing levels are not likely even if you’re taking a multivitamin with B vitamins and the recommended dose of B-complex.

Supplementing with a B complex vitamin could lead to flushing of the skin and/or upset stomach, both side effects that are only temporary.

The Bottomline

Is your vitamin B complex helping your hair? It’s highly unlikely. There is a small chance that you are biotin deficient, in which case, a B complex -- or any supplement containing biotin -- could help. However, unless you’re experiencing other symptoms of biotin deficiency like cracked mouth, swollen tongue, depression, and insomnia, it’s probably not the culprit behind your alopecia.

Assuming you eat a relatively well-balanced diet and take a multivitamin, there is little reason to take a B complex. Barring other absorption problems, you’re getting enough of your B vitamins through your diet and regular daily vitamin. Any taken on top of this would simply be money down the toilet -- literally.

This article was reviewed by Brendan Levy, MD.

References:

http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/vitamins-minerals/Pages/Vitamin-B.aspx
https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/vitamin-b/
http://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements/thiamine/evidence/hrb-20060129
http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/vitamins/riboflavin#deficiency
http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/vitamins/niacin#deficiency
http://www.umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/vitamin-b5-pantothenic-acid
http://www.umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/vitamin-h-biotin 
https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/vitamin-b12-deficiency-can-be-sneaky-harmful-201301105780
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2885294/
http://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/hn-2922005
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16018750
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2726758/