Our bodies run on nutrients provided through the food and drink sources we have in our diets. These nutrients are vital to the health and function of the body. Nutrients critical for the body include proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, minerals, vitamins, and water. All these nutrients provide us with energy, help us repair and reconstruct damaged tissue and stimulate growth.
While some helpful nutrients are created and stored within the body, some essential nutrients are found within certain foods and supplements. For instance, B12 is a nutrient not made within the body, so having certain foods or supplements in your diet will help ensure you have healthy levels of B12 for the proper function of the body.
What is B12?
B12 is a water-soluble vitamin that functions to stimulate the production of red blood cells and keep nerve and blood cells healthy while also providing DNA material in all cells. B12 also prevents anemia, a condition of weakness and tiredness due to inadequate red blood cells within the blood to deliver oxygen to the body's tissues. To maintain healthy B12 levels within the body, understanding where you can get this essential vitamin in your diet is important to maintaining proper health and nutrition.
Where to Look for B12
B12 is commonly found in animal and dairy products but can also be taken in the form of a supplement, which can be more suitable with certain dietary restrictions. Foods very high in vitamin B12 include:
- Animal liver and kidneys
- Fortified cereal
- Fortified non-dairy milk
- Milk, dairy products
Supplements are also a useful source to get the essential nutrients from B12 in individuals with low B12 in their diets, such as vegetarians, vegans, or individuals with intestinal issues.
How Much B12 Should You be Getting?
Determining how much B12 you need in your diet relies on several factors, including age, eating habits, medical history, and medication history. According to the National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements, the average recommended daily amounts of B12 for different ages are:
- Birth-6 months: .4 micrograms (mcg)
- Infants 7-12 months: .5mcg
- Children 1-3 years: .9mcg
- Children 4-8 years: 1.2mcg
- Children 9-13 years: 1.8mcg
- Teens 14-18 years: 2.4mcg
- Adults: 2.4 mcg
- Pregnant teens and women: 2.6mcg
- Breastfeeding teens and women: 2.8mcg
Looking at the Benefits
- Reduction in homocysteine: High levels of this amino acid have been linked to heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer's
- Reduce the risk of congenital disabilities: High levels of B12 are needed in pregnant women to have proper brain and nervous system function in the fetus.
- Improve mood and symptoms of depression- B12 plays a crucial role in metabolizing and synthesizing serotonin, a chemical responsible for mood regulation.
- Energy production- B12 can cause an energy boost for those with B12 deficiency but may not provide the same reaction in normal B12 levels.
- Promotion of healthy hair, skin, and nails- healthy levels of B12 are needed within the body to stimulate hair, skin, and fingernail health and growth.
High B12 Intake
As vitamin B12 is not created within the body, we need to consume it within our diets. But, if you are getting too much B12 due to taking B12 supplements or injections along with recommended daily dietary doses, there are several side effects you can be at risk for. These side effects include:
- Mild diarrhea
- Skin rash
- Congestive heart failure
- Swelling sensation
- Allergic reactions in extreme cases
B12 is abundantly available in animal sources, B12 fortified foods, and supplemental forms (pills, injections, nasal sprays etc.). However, in those with dietary restrictions or as individuals age past their 60s, their ability to properly absorb B12 is weakened. This causes B12 deficiency, which can cause harmful symptoms that cause serious and permanent damage if left untreated.
B12 deficiency occurs when the body does not receive proper doses of vitamin B12 through diet or supplementation. This deficiency occurs in individuals who do not have adequate B12 doses in their diets or those whose bodies do not fully absorb B12 from the food they ingest. Individuals who are at risk for B12 deficiency include:
- Older adults
- Individuals with gastrointestinal diseases (celiac disease or Crohn's disease)
- Vegan dieters
- Those on blood sugar medication (metformin)
- Individuals with immune system disorders
- Taking drugs that interfere with B12 absorption
- Vegetarians with limited egg or dairy in their diets
Risks Associated with B12 Deficiency
- Numbness, tingling in hands and lower extremities
- Balance issues
- Inflamed tongue
- Cognitive issues
Because vitamin B12 deficiency can cause incredibly debilitating symptoms, it's essential to see your physician once these symptoms begin to manifest. If not detected early and left untreated, B12 deficiency can develop into permanent nerve damage, stroke, pulmonary embolism, blood clots and cause a decline in normal brain function.
Consider B12 Supplements or Injections
Older people, vegetarians/vegans, pregnant women, and individuals with difficulty absorbing B12 in their diets are at risk of developing B12 deficiency. In these populations, special consideration to B12 supplements and injections to maintain healthy B12 levels is crucial. Supplements provide a simple, cost-effective route to help boost B12 levels without limited side effects. B12 can also be found in over-the-counter multivitamins, often paired with folic acid and other B vitamins. B12 can also be taken in the form of a nasal spray or an injection. They provide another route to boost B12, but these are much more invasive applications to the individual.
Before adding B12 supplements or injections to your regimen, it's important to always speak with your physician if adding supplemental B12 is the best option for you. Understanding the benefits, uses, and possible side effects can help you make a more informed physical health decision.
Maintain a Healthy Diet
For individuals on a vegetarian or vegan diet, getting the recommended daily dose of B12 is not often found in their diet. However, in choosing to use supplements or fortified foods sourced with B12, the individuals get the same essential nutrients from the same source as animals would, as it comes from microorganisms. Being a well-informed vegan or vegetarian at the start of their dietary journey can help them avoid the risk of deficiency and harmful symptoms associated with B12 deficiency.
B12 Against Disease
B12 plays a vital role in the production of red blood cells. These cells bring oxygen to the body's tissues while traveling through the bloodstream. As red blood cells are vital in promoting immune health, maintaining healthy red blood cells within the body helps stabilize the immune system and fight off foreign pathogens.
As your body breaks down the B12 in your diet's foods or supplements, your body absorbs the nutrients from these foods while also providing energy to the body. This energy keeps the body working as it stimulates immune health by reducing inflammation, improving regularity and promoting healthy bacteria.
As certain foods are teaming with B12 nutrients; B12-rich foods are also great sources to improve immune health. For instance, dairy products like yogurt are packed with B12 and proteins that promote healthy bacteria stimulation within the gut, which helps produce healthy cells that fend off harmful pathogens. And just as salmon is a good source of B12, salmon also stimulates inflammation reduction, reducing the risk of inflammation illnesses.
Age, Gender, and At-Risk Groups
While B12 is available in most supplement form, in meats, eggs, poultry, and dairy products, individuals who do not get enough B12 in their diets or have difficulty absorbing B12 from their diet can often fall victim to B12 deficiency. As previously stated, elderly individuals, vegan dieters, and even people with GI diseases are the most "at-risk" groups. As an individual gets older, the body becomes less efficient in absorbing B12 from the foods in their diet. This occurs because elderly individuals develop difficulties with acids and stomach enzymes formulated to break down the vitamin. Risk factors for seniors to develop B12 deficiency include:
- Weakened stomach lining
- Diabetes medications that interfere with B12 absorption (metformin)
- Alcoholism- leads to stomach irritation and poor appetite
- Surgeries involving removal of stomach or small intestine tissue
Vegan and vegetarian dieters pose a dilemma with their diet regimen as it limits or eliminates B12 intake. Though this can lead to symptoms of B12 deficiency, individuals on these diets are more likely to get their recommended levels of B12 through nutritional yeasts or fortified cereals. However, it is important for individuals in these groups to carefully read nutritional labels to inquire on how much vitamin B12 is provided.
Individuals with autoimmune disorders or GI diseases are also at risk for developing deficiencies, even if their diet is rich with vitamin B12. B12 needs certain stomach acids and proteins to provide proper absorption within the stomach. If any step during this process is disrupted, a B12 deficiency occurs. For example, in pernicious anemia, an autoimmune disorder, the body will attack the glands that secrete the proteins used for B12 absorption. Another autoimmune disorder called Crohn's disease can also lead to deficiencies. It causes inflammation within the distal portion of the small intestine, causing ulcers in the GI tract and limiting B12 absorption.
Though daily B12 recommendations are the same for any gender from birth to adulthood, pregnant and breastfeeding women need to slightly increase their B12 intake for themselves and the health of the baby. In pregnancy, vitamin B12:
- Aids in baby's neural tube, brain, and spine development
- In combination with folate, B12 produces DNA and red blood cells
- Improves mood, energy levels and limits stress
- Maintains central nervous system function and health
Because newborn babies get plenty of nutrients in their mother's milk through breastfeeding, B12 levels within the mother need to be healthy to pass these essential nutrients to their baby. If a mother has low levels of B12 with their system, they can be at risk for developing B12 deficiency and, in turn, pass it along to their child. B12 deficiencies in newborns can lead to health risks that include:
- Poor brain or spinal cord formation
- Protrusions of the brain
- Spina bifida
- Brain damage in extreme cases
Think Big Picture
Like any lifestyle change, it's essential to research what can happen to your body before jumping into a significant life change. It's paramount for vegans and vegetarians to understand what essential nutrients an individual can lose with this lifestyle change. However, understanding the best source to replenish those nutrients is vital to maintain proper body function and health.
Aging, however, is an inevitable life change that we have no say in. Changes to the body and how we function are all affected as we continue to grow and develop. From birth to old age, our nutrient needs will change to catch up and coincide with our growing bodies. However, as we age, our ability to absorb nutrients like B12 can weaken, causing harmful symptoms of B12 deficiency if left untreated. In these later years, we need to pay closer attention to how our body feels and how our mind interprets these changes.
Autoimmune disorders, gastrointestinal disease, and certain surgeries will also affect how our bodies absorb B12 properly. In all these cases, speaking to your physician is the best way to determine how to supplement your B12 levels and avoid any negative symptoms of B12 deficiency. Having a clear path and plan to maintain healthy B12 levels will greatly improve energy, mood, and personal health outlook.