This post looks at the astonishing effects of vitamin B12, an essential, water soluble vitamin which is fundamental to our health and wellbeing. This powerful vitamin plays a role in the metabolism of every cell in our body.
Table of Contents
About Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 cannot be created by our bodies. The only way it can be produced is via certain bacteria or archaea (single celled microorganisms). These bacteria or archaea are found on the leaves of plants which herbivorous animals eat, and once inside the gut, the bacteria or organisms proliferate, producing B12 and forming part of the permanent gut flora within the animal.
When the animal is then killed for human consumption, the human gets the benefit of vitamin B12 in his food. Algae, seaweed derived foods (like nori) and some fermented foods (like tempeh) are also high in vitamin B12 but not with the same bioavailability as in meat, and is generally not considered a healthy source for humans.
Vitamin B12 is water soluble which means that when your body has adequate amounts, the excess will be disposed of in the urine, so it’s difficult to create an overload of B12. This is great news if you’re supplementing because you won’t need to worry about consuming more than you need.
Vitamin B12 can be stored in the body for up to four years, yet deficiency is a common situation, especially in certain groups of people (see below).
It’s one of the 8 vitamins in the vitamin B group and is involved in the metabolism of every cell in the human body. Specifically, the astonishing effects of vitamin B12 are better brain & memory function, more energy and red blood cell production (nerve tissue health, brain function and producing red blood cells).
Why Vegans Need to Supplement Vitamin B12
This is because bioavailable Vitamin B12 is sourced from meat, fish, dairy and poultry so it’s pretty hard to come across a natural source in a vegan diet, eventually leading to deficiency.
Other sources of B12 include fortified products like cereals, nutritional yeast and plant milks.
Animal sources of B12
Animals store vitamin B12 in the liver and in their muscles, as well as it being passed through to their eggs and milk. However, meat, fish and fowl are a better source than eggs as they provide higher bioavailability.
What does Vitamin B12 Do?
Vitamin B12 is crucial to our brain and memory function (and a deficiency has been linked with dementia) as well as helping the body to absorb folic acid and release energy for usage.
Vitamin B12 is involved in the metabolism of every cell in the human body. It is a co-factor in DNA synthesis and the metabolism of fatty acids and amino acids. This means it is involved in the creation of DNA, production of red blood cells, nerve tissue health and brain function.
Simplified, some astonishing effects of vitamin B12 are:
- Increased energy,
- Improved brain function and memory
- Improved nervous system.
Someone without a deficiency won’t become a better athlete or smarter mathematician by supplementing B12, but in the case of deficiency, a marked change can occur after supplementation.
People Who are More Susceptible to Deficiency:
- Over 50s (due to production of less stomach acid, which is necessary for absorption)
- People with bowel disease
- People with celiac disease
- People with any type of medical situation which interferes with absorption from the gut, including leaky gut
- People who have had weight loss surgery
- People taking long term anti-acids
- People taking Meformin for diabetes
- Pernicious anaemia is an autoimmune disease which means that B12 cannot be absorbed due to a lack of intrinsic factor, the necessary protein in the stomach for absorption.
Reasons for B12 Deficiency
One cause for B12 deficiency is lack of availability in the diet, either because of low/no animal product intake because of financial resources, or as a result of choosing a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Additionally, there are several other factors which can result in deficiency. In order to utilise B12 there needs to be acid present in the stomach. The B12 is bound to a protein and hydrochloric acid in the gut releases the B12 from the protein. Without the presence of hydrochloric acid, the vitamin B12 cannot be absorbed by the body. Therefore, long term use of anti acids can result in a vitamin B12 deficiency.
Furthermore, any kind of medical situation which impairs absorption from the gut can block the absorption of B12, meaning that people who suffer from Crohn’s, Celiac disease or other intestinal issues may not be able to absorb sufficient B12 no matter how much they consume. In this case, injections are available.
Vitamin B12 Deficiency and Symptoms
Vitamin B12 deficiency can come about slowly and progressively, making it difficult to recognise. The vast array of symptoms which can occur further add to the confusion and make it easy to pass undiagnosed.
A sub-clinical deficiency can be enough to set up health issues and symptoms and possibly one of the worst aspects is that untreated symptoms can lead to serious and irreversible neurological damage.
At levels just below normal, symptoms may include fatigue, balance problems, memory issues, breathlessness, depression and headaches.
Our bodies produce millions of red blood cells each hour, but without vitamin B12 they cannot multiply properly so the level of red blood cells drops and anaemia can result, presenting symptoms such as shortness of breath, pale skin, lack of energy, weakness and weight loss.
Other neurological symptoms of deficiency are numbness or tingling of the hands and feet, loss of balance, depression, confusion, dementia, memory problems and soreness of mouth or tongue. It can also lead to constipation, loss of appetite and weight loss. Vitamin B12 deficiency can also lead to mania and psychosis.
It’s important to know that folic acid can mask the presence of vitamin B12 deficiency by correcting the anaemia without correcting the underlying neurological issues so it’s essential to get an accurate diagnosis to avoid permanent neurological damage.
Prolonged vitamin B12 deficiency can cause irreversible neurological problems and brain damage, and more susceptibility to develop dementia, mania or psychosis.
These alarming symptoms could fool you into thinking that deficiency would be fairly obvious to spot, but the reality is that it’s all too easy to be deficient in vitamin B12 and think that you’re functioning at a ‘normal’ level.
After correct treatment with supplementation you can suddenly feel the astonishing effects of vitamin B12, literally eradicating problematical things you had previously thought were part of your norm.
That’s why it’s important to supplement and if in doubt, get a blood test done to determine your B12 levels.
Vegan Babies and Breastfeeding
Vitamin B12 crosses the placenta to the baby and is also present in breast milk as long as the mother isn’t deficient, so pregnant women (especially vegans) should ensure sufficient B12 levels and consult a paediatrician for suitable supplementation.
If the mother is deficient, the baby may be born with depleted reserves, resulting in serious neurological damage in the baby. Symptoms could start to show a few months after birth.
When an infant suffers from vitamin B12 deficiency they may have problems with coordination and reflexes, or they may suffer from tremors, irritability and eventually, hindered growth.
It’s crucial to prevent B12 deficiency in your baby to avoid irreversible damage.
Prevention of Vitamin B12 Deficiency
Take a quality vitamin B12 supplement daily and if you have any doubts about it, get a blood test done to check your levels. You could also consult a nutritional therapist who is vegan friendly, to go over your diet with you.
Treatment for Vitamin B12 Deficiency
Treatment for mild or borderline deficiency may include high dose, quality B12 taken orally, but the treatment of choice, especially in high deficiency cases is by injection. This bypasses any issues with absorption and ensures that you get the adequate dose of vitamin.
Recommended Daily Allowance
For adults the RDA is 2.4 mcg for men and women, 2.6 mcg for pregnant women and 2.8 mug for breastfeeding mothers.
This post is brought to you for your interest only and is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. I am not trained in nutritional medicine. I am vegan and if you’re interested in why I think veganism is so important, you can read about what being vegan means to me here.
Where do you get your vitamin B12 from? What symptoms have you every experienced that could be related to deficiency?
Other Important Health Tips
As well as vitamin B12, it’s important to source a quality form of omega 3. While you can take a supplement, once I realised the benefits of flax seed, I started to include it in my daily food. I buy the seeds whole and then grind them at home so that they keep fresh. Whole flax is difficult for us to break down and absorb, so it’s best to take them ground. They taste delicious!
Chia, Hemp, Pumpkin & Sesame Seeds
As well as being delicious, seeds are a great source of vegan protein and have numerous health benefits. These little super-foods can help keep the heart healthy, contain anti-cancer properties, are full of antioxidants and can raise the nutritional profile of your meal substantially.
Get into the habit of sprinkling generous lashings of seeds on top of your meals and you can know that you’re doing yourself a healthy favour.
Hibiscus tea makes a delicious drink, hot or cold. You can drink it as a nice cuppa hot tea or a chilled refreshing summer drink. It’s easy to make and cheap to buy. Buy the whole organic flowers for best results and include this in your day to day living. I don’t have high blood pressure, but for anyone with a tendency to get high blood pressure, this is a golden discovery to bring the blood pressure down. Read about the health benefits of hibiscus tea and make up your own mind, and don’t forget that it’s delicious too!
Finally, if you’re new to veganism, take a look at our guide to starting a vegan lifestyle.
Rest assured, vegans these days have no reason to be deficient in anything. We have everything at our fingertips!