Vitamin B-12 is a surprisingly complex vitamin. I didn’t realize what I was getting in to when I decided to start digging.
Let’s start with the basics: This vitamin helps in the formation and health of red blood cells, formation and reparation of DNA, gives us a healthy nervous system, and has the added bonus of lowering levels of the amino acid homocysteine, which has been linked to heart disease. Deficiency in B-12 can lead to pernicious anemia, an auto-immune disease in which the body attacks its own cells, and deficiency-induced dementia.
High levels of folate can mask symptoms of pernicious anemia while exacerbating the condition. Pernicious anemia requires injections of B-12 to reverse itself. Deficiency-induced dementia will also go away after supplementation. Other signs of deficiency are weakness, fatigue, motor and balance issues, and tingling.
Where does B-12 come from? Dirt, of course. This vitamin is the only one to be entirely synthesized by micro-organisms. Bacteria in the soil form a symbiotic relationship with plant roots, and through various processes, B-12 is formed.
Animals root or peck in dirt, or eat plant matter with dirt clinging to its roots, thus absorbing some B-12 through their often-complicated digestive process. At least, they would if allowed to roam. Today’s factory-farming processes require supplementation through vitamin-fortified feed.
Even if humans were to eat the dirt that still clung to our hygienic supermarket vegetables, we would only be taking in very tiny amounts of B-12 — some in a form not useable by us. So, those following a vegetarian or vegan diet, for whatever reason, are advised to supplement with B-12.
This does not mean that omnivores all have acceptable B-12 levels. Persons over the age of 50, people who have had weight-loss surgery or surgery to remove portions of their digestive system, individuals with Celiac Disease, or those suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other intestinal disorders should also closely monitor their B-12 intake. These people often lack sufficient digestive proteins called “intrinsic factor” which must be present for B-12 to be absorbed or damage to their gastric lining is preventing adequate nutrient absorption.
I know, I know. How ridiculously dry is this? Drier than mummy dust (which, presumably, would have some B-12).
What should you take away from this?
1. Supplement. There are plenty of veg-friendly B-12 oral supplements. Or, add nutritional yeast to your snacks, smoothies, sauces, etc. But you’ll be eating a LOT of yeast.
2. Inform your doctor of your dietary choices. Be watchful of any symptoms of B-12 deficiency. A simple urine test can accurately reflect any deficiencies — good news if you’re afraid of needles.
**As always, I am not a medical or nutrition expert. Consult your doctor for diagnosis/treatment, or when beginning a new diet or supplement.**
Office of Dietary Supplements. “Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Vitamin B12”. ODS. Retrieved January 25, 2013 from http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-HealthProfessional.
Trafton, Anne. “MIT Biologists Solve Vitamin Puzzle”. MIT News Office. Retrieves January 25, 2013 from http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2007/b12.html.