Vitamin B12’s nickname is the energy vitamin because some claim a surge after taking it, particularly those who may already be deficient. But, the vitamin plays other essential, less touted roles.
- Helps make juicy and efficient red blood cells, preventing anemia.
- Adequate levels of B12 are correlated with higher bone density, so it may help support osteoporosis.
- May help support macular degeneration. Elevated levels of homocysteine, an amino acid, are associated with this eye condition. B12 helps lower the amount of homocysteine in our bloodstream.
- May impact mood. Low levels of Vitamin B12 have been linked with severe depression.
- May mitigate memory loss. Research is preliminary and inconclusive, but combined with Omega-3s, B12 has shown promise in slowing dementia and could even support memory.
- Some studies correlate B12 with weight loss.
How B12 Works: A One-Two Punch
In your food, Vitamin B12 is attached to a protein. So, the first step is your stomach’s hydrochloric acid separates the vitamin from the protein. Next, B12 attaches to a stomach protein called “instrinsic factor” (sounds like the final clue to solve the crime in CSI, but no) which enables the vitamin it to be absorbed.
Greater than 50? Important things to Know about Vitamin B12
As we age, our absorption of vitamins overall decreases. It’s estimated that one in five people over 50 is not getting enough Vitamin B12.
Because Vitamin B12 is water soluble (leaves our body with urine), getting enough is important, but more isn’t more – it’ll just flow through us. Aim for 2.4 micrograms each day.
The vitamin occurs naturally only in animal products so those of us who follow a plant-based lifestyle must consume foods that are fortified with B12. But, beware of B12 imposters! Algae boasts B12 analogs which show up as actual B12 in a blood test, but they do not activate the same benefits in our bodies.
Some common plant-based B12 sources:
- One serving Perennial Daily Gut & Brain Chocolate or Canilla: 1.4 mcg or 60% of the RDA
- One serving Malt-O-Meal High Fiber Bran Flakes: 8.2 mcg
- One serving Kellogg’s Corn Flakes: 2.7 mcg
- One tablespoon of nutritional yeast: 5 mcg
- One serving of Nasoya vegan mayonnaise provides 10% of the RDA
- People either love or hate Marmite, but each serving provides 25% of the RDA of B12!
Could You Be B12 Deficient?
Sometimes low levels of this vitamin are caused by insufficient consumption, other times our bodies are not absorbing the vitamin as they should be.
Vitamin B12 deficiency is observed more often in older adults; people with gastrointestinal issues like Crohn’s or celiac disease; vegans who don’t consume vitamin B12-fortified foods; and users of metformin or proton pump inhibitors.
Older adults may also have less hydrochloric stomach acid than other people which may impede B12 absorption. And, consuming a lot of alcohol can reduce absorption of Vitamin B12, too.
Intrinsic Factor is a factor, too. The stomach protein is essential to Vitamin B12 absorption. Some of us don’t have enough intrinsic factor, and the result is “pernicious anemia.” With pernicious anemia, the issue is absorption – not enough intrinsic factor to optimize even high levels of B12—so in this instance, more B12 may not necessarily be the solution, and it’s best to consult a healthcare provider.
Common Indicators of B12 Deficiency in Older Adults
- Fatigue or reduced energy levels which can indicate anemia caused by insufficient B12 intake or absorption.
- Tingling, numbness and other related symptoms like pain or difficulty in walking, may indicate neuropathy caused by too little B12.
- Memory impairment and irritability. A lack of B12 can damage brain nerve cells. The myelin sheath covering nerves relies on adequate levels of the vitamin.
- Anxiety/depression have many causes, but Vitamin B12 aids neurotransmitter (e.g. dopamine, serotonin) production.
If you have one or more of these symptoms, you may have a Vitamin B12 deficiency. Or not! All are related to other possible causes and conditions. So, how can you find out if a lack of B12 is the culprit?
First, try to ramp up your B12 intake to the recommended daily allowance of 2.4 micrograms for a week or two.
If you don’t see improvement, consider asking your health care practitioner to check your B12 levels. Your provider may order a complete blood count (CBC)—a test that assesses the number, size, and shape of your red blood cells. Vitamin B12 deficient blood cells are bigger and have a different, more elongated shape than those with sufficient B12.
Or, they may conduct a test specifically measuring B12 levels. This will indicate how much of the vitamin is in your blood. Remember, B12 “copycats” found in algae may show up as the vitamin in this test.
A reticulocyte test counts how many young red blood cells you have and if your marrow is making the cells efficiently. Those with pernicious anemia may have low reticulocyte numbers.
For most of us, B-ing mindful attention to daily dietary nutrition is all that’s necessary to meet our Vitamin B12 needs. But, also monitoring our overall wellbeing, with special attention to energy, neuropathy, memory, and mood changes can help us stay on top of potential deficiency.