How to Use B Vitamins to Improve Concentration and Get Better Sleep

man taking vitamins

The vitamins B6, B12 and Folate (also known as B9) work together synergistically to support mental function.  They allow something called the methylation cycle to take place in your brain which allows it to make the chemicals necessary to regulate mood, sleep and cognition.

People with ADHD, depression, insomnia, sleep apnea, schizophrenia, alzheimer’s, and bi-polar disproportionately have b vitamin deficiencies, and 90% of b12 deficiency is represented with some sort of neurological symptom.

Your brain’s metabolic pathways overlap a lot, so the underlying mechanisms for all these illnesses have the same common denominator.  For example, it’s been shown that medications for bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia are just as effective in treating depression as anti-depressants.  That’s because any drug that targets the brain is manipulating the same neural circuitry so it’s very likely its effects will affect a wide variety of brain functions and not just a specific illness.

For this same reason nutrients that exert an effect on the brain can have a similar effect and possibly provide a lot of the same benefits without the drawbacks of pharmaceuticals.

Benefits of Using Vitamins Therapeutically

Using vitamins as a first order approach towards treating illness and improving the body has the following benefits over traditional medication:

  • No side effects.  B vitamins are water soluble, which means any excess that you take is simply flushed out.  Do you know there’s never been a recorded overdose for folate, b12, b6, b3, b1, b2 or any other member of the B vitamin family?  It’s literally practically impossible to do any long-term harm to yourself.
  • Treats the underlying probem.  Vitamins by definition are compounds that your body requires to get from outside sources in order for it to survive.  Your body can’t complete the chemical reactions necessary to maintain its own life without vitamins, which is why vitamin deficiencies and malabsorption are an underlying problem with so many illnesses.  Treating yourself with vitamins is akin to re-filling the fluids in your car engine to make sure it keeps running smoothly.
  • Widespread benefits.  Most vitamins affect a wide variety of physiological functions, so in addition to treating a specific condition you’re also providing your body with improved antioxidant capability, a stronger immune system, and so on.  This is almost the exact opposite of medication, which compromises other parts of your body in order to improve something else.
  • Cheap!  Everything that’s going to be talked about here can be had for around $10 or less for a several month’s supply. It’s entirely possible to do this on a string-tight budget.

However the key to actually getting good mileage out of vitamins is consuming them in the right combinations, because no vitamin acts alone, and getting them in the right form, because your body can literally have an affinity that’s 100x higher for superior forms of a vitamin.  The majority of the food supply is not optimized for either of these, so it’s entirely possible to go through life consuming large amounts of fortified foods that technically give you enough of what you need but don’t actually do what they need to do in your body, leaving you in a state that’s called “internal starvation”, where your body is getting what it needs in a superficial sense but doesn’t actually have the capability to put it to good use.

So with that being said, let’s take a look at two easy formulas you can use to help you think better and sleep better, and we’re going to pay very close attention to the dosage you need and the form you should take them in to make sure it has an effect.

(Important:  A common question to these sorts of articles is “do you have recommendations for what I should actually buy?  At the end of the article I’ll provide a table that’ll give you all the options you need for finding the specific supplements to take.  So you can scroll down to the bottom if you want buying recommendations).

vitamins

Formula for Improving Concentration

Take the following pills:

800 mcg folate as L-Methylfolate or 5-MTHF.  Not folic acid. 

800 mcg B12 as methylcobalamin.  Not cyanocobalamin.

50 mg B6 as pyridoxal-5-phosphate.  Not pyridoxine.

25-50 mg B3, as Niacin, although niacinamide will also suffice.

And…..

If you want a little bit of an extra boost take 200mcg of Huperzine A to go along with it.  Adding a little bit of lecithin wouldn’t hurt either.

Take these with a meal, at least 1 hour before you’d like to do serious mental work.

Formula for Improving Sleep

Take the following pills:

800 mcg folate as L-Methylfolate or 5-MTHF.  Not folic acid. 

800 mcg B12 as methylcobalamin.  Not cyanocobalamin.

50 mg B6 as pyridoxal-5-phosphate.  Not pyridoxine.

(If you’re paying attention, yes, this is exactly the same as the memory formula).

100-500 mg of B3 as Niacin.  (No niacinamide in this case).

100-1000 mg of L-Glycine.  (This is optional but can help substantially for treating underlying nutritional deficiences that cause sleep problems).

Take this about one hour before you go to bed.

And……

If you want an additional boost combine this with either 250-500 mg of GABA or Valerian Root.

You probably do not have to take these indefinitely to continue sleeping well or be healthy.  As you load up the effects will eventually taper off.  But it is a good idea to stick with this stack for at least a week or two to give your body time to acclimate itself to the higher vitamin levels and internalize their benefits.

These two stacks are very interchangeable, and you can easily take the same B vitamins daily, and make small adjustments for your desired health goal.  I’ve been using it for the last 2 weeks with very good effect.  In general I’ve noticed that I’m more calm, less impulsive and my sleep is more consistent.  I take the sleep stack before I go to bed (but with 500-1000mg of Niacin) and my sleep is more consistent.  In the past I’ve had a hard time falling asleep at night, and often re-awake several times in the morning in a drowsy fog as I slip into and out of dreams.

With this stack my sleep is more even-keeled.  I fall asleep rather quickly and usually sleep for a straight 8.5 hours before I wakeup with no interruptions.  I also haven’t had a “sleep hangover” when you feel very drowsy when you wakeup in the morning, as if your sleep actually made you sleepier.

Of course your mileage may vary, and it’s possible the effects can taper off the longer you do it since your body eventually adjusts.  This hasn’t happened to me yet, but tapering is pretty common with most supplements so I won’t be surprised if my benefits aren’t as great two months from now as they are today.

With that said, let’s talk about why these ingredients help and the importance of the specific forms I mentioned, so you can rest assured that I know what I’m talking about and am not just another internet crackpot.

Folate and B12

In your brain folate and B12 work together so closely that you can’t discuss one without the other.  They’re like Bert and Ernie.  Bonnie and Clyde.  Milli and Vanilli.  Jordan and Pippen.  What they do is add something called a methyl group to various molecules, particularly homocysteine.  Methylation by folate and B12 is important because it’s the first step in your brain’s methylation pathway, and this methylation paves the way for the creation of other methylated molecules like sam-E, which allows your brain to produce serotonin and melatonin, two chemicals that are responsible for regulating mood and sleep.

Folate and B12 work together so closely that being deficient in one looks like being deficient in the other.  It’s very hard to distinguish folate deficiency from B12 deficiency.  It’s also true that getting a lot of one without the other causes problems as well.  If you want the desired effect you have to have both.

Folate vs. Folic Acid

The vast majority of vitamins and fortified foods provide folate in the form of folic acid.  The two are often assumed to be interchangeable but they are in fact quite distinct.  Folate is the generic term for what your body actually uses and your body has to convert folic acid into folate in your liver.  About one fifth of people don’t possess the enzyme to do this and for these people folic acid is inert, and large amounts of unmetabolized folic acid can eventually be harmful to your health.

Tissues have differing affinities for folate and folic acid, and in some cases the differences between the two can be 100 fold.

Chris Kresser has a great article on the differences between these two molecules and I’d recommend it for further reading on this topic.

On the grocery shelf folate can have the name methyl-folate, L-methyl-folate, or 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF for short).  Any of these will suffice.  The branded versions of folate that are commonly available are called Metafolin and Quatrefolic Acid.

Important:  The distinction between folate and folic acid is probably the most important one in this article.  If you’re picky about one thing it should be this.  I think it’s quite possible that the lion’s share of benefits from these formulas come from getting the right form of folate.

Methylcobalamin vs. Cyanocobalamin

Cyanocobalamin is the most common form of B12 in supplements and fortified foods.  It’s not found anywhere in nature and is made from extracting cyanide from natural forms of the vitamin.

Your body actually uses cyanocobalamin pretty well, but methylcobalamin is the form of the vitamin that reacts with folate in the brain which is why it should be used.

A dose of 800 mcg+ is probably more than you need but it’s hard to find a supplement with amounts less than this.  The dosage for this vitamin is the least important detail you need to worry about.

B6: Pyridoxine HCL vs. Pyridoxal-5-Phosphate

Vitamin B6 is directly involved in the creation of every neurotransmitter in the brain.  Dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and all the other “happy” and “excited” chemicals your brain makes rely on B6 in order to make them possible.

Not surprisingly B6 deficiency is linked to a lot of mental disorders.

Most B6 comes in the form of pyridoxine HCL or pyridoxine mononitrate.  There are actually 8 different forms of vitamin B6, but they all eventually get converted into your liver to pyridoxal-5-phosphate, which is the dominant form in the rest of your body.

95% of the B6 that’s used by your body is in the form of P-5-P.

It’s true that your body converts pyridoxine HCL to P-5-P pretty efficiently but see my points below about the importance of form and dosage.  If your health is suffering the difference can be important.

B3: Niacin vs. Niacinamide.

Here’s where it gets fun.  B3 has two dominant forms:  niacin and niacinamide.  At low doses they do the same things in your body.  At high doses they begin to behave very differently.

Andrew Saul has a great overview of how this works at Doctor Yourself.

It’s niacin and not niacinamide that affects sleep at high dosage levels, which is why I recommend taking between 100 and 500 mg if you want to improve sleep as opposed to the smaller dosages for supporting healthy mental function.  Niacin is also efficacious for treating mental illness at high dosages and is very beneficial for people suffering from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, but not niacinamide.

The Flush

Niacin dilates your blood vessels at high dosages which creates a warm tingly feeling about 15-30 minutes after you take it.  You feel a warmth underneath your skin, and sometimes you begin to turn a little pink and might begin to itch a little bit.

Here’s a picture of me in the middle of a flush after taking 1000mg of Niacin:

niacin flush

I’m a little more pink in the cheeks than usual.

Some people find the flush annoying and prefer to avoid it.  I personally like the flush.  It feels good!  After experiencing it a few times it becomes much more mild and your body builds up a tolerance to it very quickly.  I used to flush at 250 mg of Niacin but now I need about 1250 mg to feel the same effect after two weeks and a mild flush gives me a feeling of warmth and helps me sleep better.

But it’s not for everyone.  However, if you stay at the same dosage the flushing effects will likely taper off pretty quickly.  You can also get slow release niacin, but this is usually in the form of inositol hexanicotinate which might not be as efficacious.

The flush itself isn’t particularly harmful or beneficial for your health.  It’s a sign that your body has more niacin than it knows what to do with.   You might experience some itchiness but this goes away in about 30 minutes and has no long-lasting effect.  If you somehow manage to do harm to yourself by taking a lot of Niacin you’ll be the first person in recorded history in order to do so, so time is on your side.

The best dosage of niacin is probably the area that will require the most experimentation.

Don’t We Get Vitamins Already? (Or Why Form and Dosage Is Important)

A common retort to what I’m saying is that most foods are already fortified with vitamins, the shelves of Walgreens are already stocked with loads of One-A-Days, and there are even some reports that having too many vitamins can be bad for you over the long run.

How can this be true and it still be a good idea to use vitamins for therapeutic benefit?

To properly answer this question requires you to think like a pharmacist.

The way most people consume their vitamins is analogous to using shampoo and conditioner from the same bottle.  It’s convenient and seems like a good idea, but the problem is that the way they benefit your hair is categorically different and using them both at the same time makes each less effective.  Trading a buck for two fifty-cent pieces can sometimes make you worse off.

Most people have vitamin deficient diets and the bulk of their vitamin intake comes from supplementation, either via fortified foods or a multi-vitamin.  However, getting vitamins this way almost guarantees you’re consuming vitamins in sub-optimal form with little regard to how your body actually uses them.  I’ve written before explaining how the very thing that makes multi-vitamins conveient is what makes them ineffective.

People’s needs for vitamins can vary widely.  The RDA is determined by what prevents deficiency, not by what’s optimal for your health.

It’s important to keep the following things in mind when thinking about how and why vitamins can benefit you:

  • Many people suffer from internal starvation.  This is when your body doesn’t use the nutrients it gets, thus requiring a higher digested amount to get the same amount of scratch.  This is especially true for older people and people who suffer from high amounts of inflammation.
  • All vitamins work together.  Sometimes having a deficiency of one particular type of vitamin can negate the abundance you have of others and bring the whole ship down.  Lots of times the big benefit you get from taking a supplement stack is concentrated in one particular compound that you’re not getting enough of.

For these reasons occasional vitamin supplementation that’s targeted with an emphasis on the correct form can do a lot to reset your body.

It’s perfectly true for people that are very healthy taking additional vitamins will do you no good.  What I write here won’t move the needle at all.  However I think for most people it’s a good idea to occasionally use some strategic vitamin dosing because even the most conscientious of us can occasionally not get enough of one thing or another.

And if you’re taking vitamins in the appropriate form and in the right combinations you have virtually no chances of toxicity or long-term side effects.

Supplement Table

Here’s a table that summarizes the different vitamins, the best form, and where to get them.

Vitamin NamePreferred FormDosageOther NamesLink on Amazon
FolateL-Methylfolate, 5-MTHF, Metafolin, Quatrefolic Acid (all names for folate)400-800 mcg800 mcg as metafolin
400 mcg as 5-MTHF(Quatrefolic)
B12Methylcobalamin400-1000mcg1000 mcg
B6Pyridoxal-5-Phosphate25-50 mg50 mg
B3Sleep: Niacin
Concentration: Niacin or niacinamide
Sleep: 100-500mg
Concentration: 25-50mg
50 mg
250mg

References

Stipanuk, Martha.  “Biochemical, Physiological, & Molecular Aspects of Human Nutrition.

Murray, Michael, Pizzorno, Joseph.  “The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine.

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Comments

  1. Great post! Depending on their genetic mutations, some people won’t do well on methyl-b12 and should try hydroxy-b12 or adeno-b12 instead! :)

    • This IS a great post! I’d also like to add some info and ask a couple of questions about these B vitamins. (1) Folic acid/folate supplementation is considered by a number of experts to be a bad move for histadelics like me (i.e., mega-producers of excessive histamine when exposed to any allergens, resulting in histamine hypersensitivity! Insult on top of injury!!). It has been reported by some research that B9 clearly increases the body’s production of histamine and only worsens the histadelia – which I’ve always have BAD, and for which I now take lots of methionine (VERY effective), along with extra B6, B12, AND B9 (is this last just lessening the relief?) to keep the methionine from degrading (under-remethylating) into high levels of homocysteine – supposedly a major factor in developing atherosclerosis! =0 (It seems that every solution comes with a serious caveat.) However, I’ve not yet found out if these research results regarding the worsening of histamine are based on just folic acid or on methylfolate or on both. (Some reports actually use the indiscriminate term “folic acid/folate”!) Wonder if you have found any more specific info on this. (2) I also have failed to find any scale that clearly shows how much P5P is equivalent to how much pyroxidine HCl. My bottle of Schiff’s P5P shows no “% of Daily Value” for the 50mg each pill contains. Thanks in advance for any help with these questions!

  2. amazing article – explained a lot. thanks so much

  3. This post reaaaaaaaaaly chunked all that i needed to know before choosing my b complex , saved me alot of time researching.
    good job

  4. How long did this end up working for you?

  5. Sorry you are incorrect. B9 and b12 can be stored in the liver. I belong to a facebook group who have issues with high b6 levels in their body (b6 is stored in muscles). You need to be careful supplementing methyl b12 or methylfolate because there are certain people who cannot tolerate methyl donors.

  6. I dont know who u are are ( havent had a minute to really research you ;)) and yet I have been desperate enough from sleep deprivation to actually try the b vitamin “stack” before bed to try and help with my YEARS…. And I AM DEAD SERIOUS… FRIGGIN YEARS OF INSOMNIA!! I am almost too afrid to say this BUT…. Suffice to say… I bought the vitmins two days go and started taking them… I cannot tell you how long its been since i slept more thn three hours at night but the last two I have slept for those first three hours ( yep then I woke up like always BUT……. I actually was able to fall BACK ASLEEP FOR 4 MORE!!!!!!!!!! WTF???? This is CRAZY!!!! I owe my NEW LIFE ( hopefully lol) to YOU !!!! I have tried everything- and I mean everything to help me sleep without success… I think THIS B VIT THANG IS MAGIC!! Thank you from the bottom of my heart!!!! Just looking at your FB page I see you also promote healthy living and good whole food choices ( I go by ” if i cant read it I dont eat it… Have done this approach for over 10 years) soooo ya can imagine how frusterating it is when i have severe insomnia lol but NOW I think u just solved THAT PUZZLE!! Again soooo much gratitude to You!!! Keep on shining that light of Yours on all of us out here because it MATTERS AND WE APPRECIATE U!!! Peace!!!- June Pellerin-Lyman

    • Hi, June! Can you tell me the exact dosage you took? I know he has a table, but I am interested in the specific dosage that you used to achieve this, as I am suffering with insomnia for years as well. How much niacinamide did you use? Did you take all at night? Thanks in advance!

Trackbacks

  1. […] These three vitamins work together in a variety of ways and are a good core for many therapeutic purposes. […]

  2. […] It’s better to take L-tyrosine because it’s more selective for your brain.  The process your body uses to make dopamine requires iron, zinc, and the B vitamins B6, B3, and folate.  Read my post about B vitamins on how to take those effectively. […]

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