Vitamin B2, also called riboflavin, is an important vitamin that also acts as an antioxidant within the body. Because it’s a water-soluble vitamin, like all B vitamins, vitamin B2 must be obtained through a healthy diet and replenished often — ideally every day — in order to avoid vitamin B2 deficiency.
All B vitamins are used to help digest and extract energy from the foods you eat. They do this by converting nutrients from carbohydrates, fats and proteins into useable energy in the form of “ATP.”
For this reason, vitamin B2 is needed for the functioning of every single cell within your body. That’s why vitamin B2 deficiency, or lack of riboflavin foods in your diet, can contribute to a number of serious side effects, including anemia, fatigue and a sluggish metabolism.
What Is Riboflavin?
What does vitamin B2 do? Roles of vitamin B2 include:
- maintaining healthy blood cells
- boosting energy levels
- facilitating in a healthy metabolism
- preventing free radical damage
- contributing to growth
- protecting skin and eye health
- and much more
Vitamin B2 is used in combination with other B vitamins, which make up the “B vitamin complex.” In fact, B2 must be present in high enough amounts in the body to allow other B vitamins, including B6 and folic acid, to properly do their jobs.
All B vitamins are responsible for important functions, including contributing to nerve, heart, blood, skin and eye health; reducing inflammation; and supporting hormonal function. One of the most well-known roles of B vitamins is maintaining a healthy metabolism and digestive system.
Vitamin B2/riboflavin has been shown to act like an antioxidant nutrient. It helps prevent lipid peroxidation and oxidative injury, both of which contribute to chronic health problems, such as cardiovascular disease and neurological diseases.
Vitamin B2 also plays an important role in enzymatic reactions. There are two coenzyme forms of riboflavin: flavin mononucleotide and flavin adenine dinucleotide.
1. Helps Prevent Headaches, Including Migraines
Vitamin B2 is a proven method for dealing with painful migraine headaches. Physicians commonly prescribe riboflavin in high doses of 400 milligrams daily for at least three months as a preventive treatment for headaches or as a remedy for those who regularly experience serious migraine attacks.
Supplementing with riboflavin, especially if you have a known vitamin B2 deficiency, has been shown to be a natural headache remedy and reduce the frequency of migraines. One review of 11 articles concluded that supplementing with riboflavin was effective at reducing the duration and frequency of migraine symptoms with minimal risk of side effects. Another study had similar findings, showing that taking a high dosage of riboflavin cut migraine frequency in half and reduced the need for medications after just three months of treatment.
One type of combination product that contains riboflavin, magnesium and coenzyme Q10, called Dolovent, is now used to manage migraine symptoms when taken in dose of four capsules daily (two capsules in the morning and two capsules in the evening for three months).
2. Helps Support Eye Health
Studies show that riboflavin deficiency increases the risk for certain eye problems, including glaucoma. Glaucoma is the leading cause of loss of eyesight/blindness.
Vitamin B2 can help prevent eye disorders, including cataracts, keratoconus and glaucoma. Research shows a correlation between people who consume plenty of riboflavin and decreased risks for eye disorders that can appear as someone ages.
To treat eye disorders, riboflavin drops are applied to the corneal surface of a patient who suffers from glaucoma. This allows the vitamin to penetrate through the cornea and increase the strength of the cornea when used with light therapy.
3. Boost Heart Health
One of the most impressive riboflavin benefits is its powerful effect on heart health. Riboflavin works by regulating levels of homocysteine, an amino acid found throughout the body. When homocysteine builds up in the blood, it can cause arteries to narrow and skyrocket the risk of heart disease, making it vital to keep homocysteine levels under control.
Several studies have demonstrated the direct impact that riboflavin may have on heart health. One animal model published in Heart International, for instance, showed that riboflavin treatment helped improve heart function in rats with heart failure caused by diabetes. Meanwhile, other studies have also found that riboflavin deficiencies are more prevalent in people with heart disease, and a deficiency could be linked to a higher risk of congenital heart defects.
4. Can Help Prevent and Treat Anemia
Anemia is caused by several factors, including decreased red cell production, the inability to carry oxygen to the blood and blood loss.
When people experience riboflavin deficiency without enough vitamin B2 present in their diets, they become more at risk for developing anemia and sickle cell anemia.
Low levels of vitamin B2 are correlated with both of these conditions that involve an underutilization of oxygen and problems with red blood cell production. These conditions can result in fatigue, shortness of breath, inability to exercise and more.
Research suggests that vitamin B2 is also effective in helping lower high amounts of homocysteine in the blood. This condition occurs when someone is unable to convert the chemical homocysteine present in blood into amino acids for the body to use. Supplementing with vitamin B2 (riboflavin) has been shown to help correct this condition and balance homocysteine levels.
5. Needed for Maintaining Proper Energy Levels
Riboflavin is considered a vital component of mitochondrial energy. Vitamin B2 is used by the body to metabolize food for energy and maintain proper brain, nerve, digestive and hormone function. This is why riboflavin is very important for growth and bodily repair.
Without high enough levels of riboflavin, riboflavin deficiency occurs, and the molecules found in carbohydrate, fat and protein foods are not able to be properly digested and used for “fuel” that keeps the body running. This type of bodily “fuel” is called ATP (or adenosine triphosphate), often called the “currency of life.” The predominant role of mitochondria is the production of ATP.
Vitamin B2 is needed in order to break down proteins into amino acids, fats and carbohydrates in the form of glucose. This helps convert nutrients from food into usable bodily energy that helps maintain a healthy metabolism.
Riboflavin is also needed to regulate proper thyroid activity and adrenal function. A riboflavin deficiency can increase the odds of thyroid disease.
It also is useful in calming the nervous system, battling chronic stress, and regulating hormones that control appetite, energy, mood, temperature and more.
6. Provides Antioxidant Properties and Defends Against Cancer
Studies have found that vitamin B2 intake is inversely associated with with some of the most common types of cancer, including colon cancer and breast cancer. Vitamin B2 benefits the immune system because it acts as an antioxidant that controls the presence of damaging free radicals within the body.
Vitamin B2 riboflavin is required for the production of an antioxidant called glutathione, which acts as a free radical killer and also detoxes the liver.
Free radicals are what age the body. When they go uncontrolled, it can result in the development of various disease.
Vitamin B2 plays a part in defending against disease by maintaining a healthy lining within the digestive tract, where much of the immune system is stored. A healthy digestive system allows the body to absorb and use the most nutrients from your diet that it can. Thus, a riboflavin deficiency can mean fewer nutrients properly being used for bodily energy.
Riboflavin and other B vitamins are correlated in preliminary studies with helping to prevent certain types of cancer — including colorectal cancer, esophageal cancer, cervical cancer, breast cancer and prostate cancer. Although more research is still needed to know the exact role of riboflavin in cancer prevention, at this time researchers believe that vitamin B2 works to minimize the effects of cancer-producing carcinogens and oxidative stress caused by free radicals.
7. Protects Healthy Hair and Skin
Vitamin B2 riboflavin plays a role in maintaining collagen levels, which makes up healthy skin and hair. Collagen is needed to maintain the youthful structure of skin and prevent fine lines and wrinkles.
A riboflavin deficiency can make us look aged quicker. Some research suggests that riboflavin can decrease the time needed for wound healing, reduce skin inflammation and cracked lips, and help naturally slow signs of aging.
8. May Help Prevent Neurological Diseases
Evidence suggests that vitamin B2 may exert a neuroprotective effect and offer protection against some neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, migraines and multiple sclerosis. Researchers posit that vitamin B2 has a role in some pathways that are hypothesized to be impaired in neurological disorders.
For example, vitamin B2 serves as an antioxidant and assists myelin formation, mitochondrial function and iron metabolism.
Uses in Traditional Medicine
English biochemist Alexander Wynter Blyth was the first to observe vitamin B2/riboflavin in 1872 when he noticed a green-yellow pigment found in milk. However, it wasn’t until the early 1930s that riboflavin was actually identified by Paul Gyorgy, the same biochemist credited with the discovery of other B vitamins like biotin and vitamin B6.
Even before vitamin B2 was isolated by scientists, practitioners of traditional medicine systems, such as Ayurveda, recommended foods that were high in B vitamins to improve energy, functioning of the nervous system, and health of the eyes, skin, hair and liver. Vitamin B2 foods, including meat, organ meats like liver, dairy such as yogurt, eggs, nuts like almonds, mushrooms, and green vegetables were viewed as important for slowing the aging process and promoting growth in the young.
These foods are still recommended for people with migraines, anemia, sluggish metabolisms and weakened immune systems.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, vitamin B2 foods are considered essential for dealing with stress and helping your body use other nutrients, including folate and vitamin B12. To maintain healthy levels of red blood cells, prevent fatigue and support the metabolism, it’s recommended that a balanced diet include B2 foods like meats, organ meats, eggs, soybeans (fermented types), spinach, beet greens, broccoli, bok choy, shiitake mushrooms and tempeh.
What foods contain vitamin B2? Although it’s primarily found in meat and dairy products, vitamin B2/riboflavin is found in plant foods like legumes, vegetables, nuts and grains.
Riboflavin and other B vitamins are also usually found in most fortified whole-grain and enriched carbohydrate products, including breads, cereals, granola bars and pastas. Normally these foods are enriched with vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B2 riboflavin, after they have been processed and many of the naturally occurring nutrients have been either removed or destroyed.
Because many people commonly consume packaged and refined carbohydrate products, this is the main reason most adults are able to meet their daily requirement for riboflavin in most situations and avoid riboflavin deficiency.
When you acquire vitamin B2 in this way, you consume a synthetic version of the vitamin that’s been purposefully added to food. Products that synthetically add vitamins and minerals say the words “enriched” or “fortified” on the packaging.
This is unlike unprocessed products that naturally contain B vitamins, like meat, eggs and seaweed.
Here are a few of the top riboflavin foods to add into your diet:
- Beef Liver — 3 ounces: 3 milligrams (168 percent DV*)
- Natural Yogurt —1 cup: 0.6 milligram (34 percent DV*)
- Milk — 1 cup: 0.4 milligram (26 percent DV*)
- Spinach — 1 cup, cooked: 0.4 milligram (25 percent DV*)
- Almonds — 1 ounce: 0.3 milligram (17 percent DV*)
- Sun-Dried Tomatoes — 1 cup: 0.3 milligram (16 percent DV*)
- Eggs — 1 large: 0.2 milligram (14 percent DV*)
- Feta Cheese — 1 ounce: 0.2 milligram (14 percent DV*)
- Lamb — 3 ounces: 0.2 milligram (13 percent DV*)
- Quinoa — 1 cup, cooked: 0.2 milligram (12 percent DV*)
- Lentils — 1 cup, cooked: 0.1 milligram (9 percent DV*)
- Mushrooms — 1/2 cup: 0.1 milligram (8 percent DV*)
- Tahini — 2 tablespoons: 0.1 milligram (8 percent DV*)
- Wild-Caught Salmon — 3 ounces: 0.1 milligrams (7 percent DV*)
- Kidney Beans — 1 cup, cooked: 0.1 milligrams (6 percent DV*)
*Daily Value: Percentages are based on a diet of 2,000 calories a day.
A deficiency in this key vitamin can take a serious toll on many aspects of health. However, riboflavin deficiencies alone are very rare. Instead, riboflavin deficiencies are often coupled with deficiencies in other water-soluble vitamins, such as thiamine and niacin.
Alcoholics are at a greater risk of deficiency due to both a decreased intake and impaired vitamin absorption. Additionally, individuals who don’t consume meat or dairy and those with dietary restrictions may be at an increased risk.
Some of the most common riboflavin deficiency symptoms include:
- Sore throat
- Cracks in the lips and corners of the mouth
- Swollen tongue
- Scaly skin
- Redness of the lining of the mouth and throat
Riboflavin levels are not typically included in routine blood tests, so it’s important to talk to your doctor if you notice any symptoms or are at an increased risk of riboflavin deficiency. Together you can determine the best course of treatment to ensure you’re getting enough riboflavin to meet your needs.
Supplements and Dosage
According to the USDA, the daily recommended allowance of vitamin B2/riboflavin is as follows:
- 0–6 months: 0.3 mg/day
- 7–12 months: 0.4 mg/day
- 1–3 years: 0.5 mg/day
- 4–8 years: 0.6 mg/day
- 9–13 years: 0.9 mg/day
Adolescents and adults:
- Males age 14 and older: 1.3 mg/day
- Females age 14–18 years: 1 mg/day
- Females age 19 and older: 1.1 mg/day
While supplementing with B vitamins can be helpful, keep in mind that it’s always best to still aim to consume plenty of whole foods that naturally contain vitamin B2 and other essential nutrients. By eating a balanced diet that contains a variety of unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods, most people seem to acquire enough vitamin B2 and avoid vitamin B2 deficiency.
If you take a supplement that contains riboflavin, be sure to purchase a high-quality product that is made from real food sources.
Research shows that consuming vitamin B2 along with a meal increases the absorption of the vitamin significantly. This is true of most vitamins and minerals. They are absorbed much better by the body with a meal.
Risks and Side Effects
Because riboflavin is a water-soluble vitamin, there is minimal risk of toxicity as excess amounts are excreted through the urine. In fact, one study even showed that administering 400 milligrams of riboflavin per day to participants, which is over 200 times the recommended daily value, resulted in no negative side effects.
While riboflavin supplementation is available, including more foods high in vitamin B in your diet is typically a better option. Not only do these foods with vitamin B contain a good amount of riboflavin, but they also provide a host of other important vitamins and minerals as well to help improve your health.
If you suspect you may have a riboflavin deficiency, it’s best to talk to your doctor to determine the best course of treatment. Because riboflavin deficiencies typically occur alongside other micronutrient deficiencies, you may require supplementation with other B vitamins as well.
That said, research suggests that taking certain medications may impact the absorption rate of vitamin B2 in the body, potentially causing side effects. While these interactions are only known to be minor, they are something you want to speak with your healthcare professional about if you take any of the following prescription medications:
- Drying medications (anticholinergic drugs) — These can affect the stomach and intestines and can increase the amount of riboflavin that is absorbed in the body.
- Medications for depression (tricyclic antidepressants) — It’s possible that these can decrease the amount of riboflavin in the body.
- Phenobarbital (Luminal) — Phenobarbital might increase how quickly riboflavin is broken down in the body.
- Probenecid (Benemid) — It can increase how much riboflavin is absorbed in the body, possibly causing too much to linger, which can be problematic.
- Vitamin B2/riboflavin is an important water-soluble vitamin that plays a role in many aspects of health, especially energy production, neurological health, iron metabolism and immune system function.
- Vitamin B2 benefits include improvements in heart health, relief from migraine symptoms, protection against vision loss and neurological diseases, healthier hair and skin, and protection against certain types of cancer.
- Some of the top vitamin B2 foods include meat, fish, dairy and legumes. Riboflavin is also found in nuts, seeds and certain vegetables.
- Vitamin B2 deficiency is rare in most developed nations because vitamin B2 foods, such as meat, dairy, eggs, fish, legumes and certain vegetables, are usually available. Although meeting your needs through food sources is preferable, supplementation is also available. Vitamin B2 is also generally present in both multivitamins and B-complex capsules, making it simple to meet your daily needs.