Vitamin B12 and Its Role in Health and Wellness

Published on: May 20 2024

Vitamin B12 in Beets

Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin, also known as cobalamin, this cannot be made in the body and needs to be ingested through food, supplements, or medication. It is essential for red blood cell formulation, keeping your nerve and brain function healthy, production of DNA, and maintaining cell metabolism.

Vitamin B12 is absorbed by the stomach with the help of a protein named intrinsic factor which is a glycoprotein, this protein substance binds to the B12 molecule and aids in the red blood cells absorbing it. Excess B12 can be stored in the liver for future use or excreted through urine.

With more consumers choosing plant based diets or veganism, meeting essential B12 requirements can sometimes be challenging. Unlike many essential vitamins that can be readily sourced from plants, Vitamin B12 is primarily found in animal products, making it difficult for vegans and vegetarians to obtain adequate amounts of through their diet alone. Understanding the role of Vitamin B12 in the body is crucial for maintaining optimal health and wellness.

How much Vitamin B12 do we need and where do we find it?

The Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) of Vitamin B12 is 2.4 micrograms daily for adults and children over the age of 4 years old. Those who are vegetarians, vegans, pregnant and breastfeeding may need to increase their intake slightly or could run the risk of deficiency. Older adults, those with intestinal issues, those who are Pregnant and Breastfeeding, Infants of Vegan and Vegetarian mother’s, Vegetarians and Vegans are all at higher risk for developing a deficiency in B12. It was also reported that 1 in 10 adults over 75 years, and 1 in 20 adults aged between 65-74 years had a deficiency of Vitamin B12.

B12 can naturally be found in foods of animal origin such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, specific examples include animal liver and kidneys, beef, tuna, salmon, broccoli, peas, and brussels sprouts. It can also be added to fortified nutritional yeasts and fortified breakfast cereals. In cases of Vitamin B12 deficiency, it can also administered in the form of supplements and injections.

Vitamin B12 in Red Meats

What happens if we do not have enough Vitamin B12 in our diets?

Insufficient intake of Vitamin B12 can lead to deficiency. This can occur when Vitamin B12 levels in the blood drop, resulting in metabolic abnormalities. These abnormalities lead to the onset of physical and psychological symptoms, such as as nausea, constipation, diarrhoea, metal health issues, low red and white blood cell count, deterioration in walking, vision impairment, and fatigue. The long-term symptoms of include, pernicious or macrocytic anemia, heart conditions, temporary infertility, and issues with the nervous system. If untreated, this can then result in the development of pernicious or macrocytic anemia.

Pernicious anemia is when the immune system attacks the healthy cells within the stomach which results in a lack of absorption of Vitamin B12 in the body. Macrocytic anemia is when the body produces abnormally large blood cells that lack the required nutrients and do not function as they should. Vitamin B12 deficiencies are treated by taking supplements or Vitamin B12 injections (hydroxocobalamin) depending on GP advice and the severity of your deficiency. Supplements/injections may be required long-term if symptoms persist. However, a beneficial start to improving Vitamin B12 levels in the body is to consume a high about of Vitamin B12 rich foods.

The preventative steps we can take to avoid a Vitamin B12 deficiency is to consume foods rich in B12, as listed above. Additionally, a deficiency in Vitamin B12 may not always be due to an inadequate dietary consumption of foods containing B12, it is possibly due to the lack of the intrinsic factor, this is most common among older adults which is associated with an autoimmune disease called pernicious anemia.

 

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How Does Vitamin B12 interact with other Vitamins?

It should be noted that taking Vitamin C in close proximity to Vitamin B12 foods/supplements should be taken with caution as Vitamin C can reduce the amount of B12 in the body, therefore spacing out the consumption of both vitamins is recommended.

Vitamin B12 and Folate (B9) work together to produce a compound that aids in immune functionality, and red blood cell formulation. Therefore, consuming a balanced amount of foods containing B12 and Folate is beneficial for the overall health. It should also be noted that consuming over 1mg of folic acid daily can mask the symptoms of a Vitamin B12 deficiency.

Multivitamin spilling out onto table

Vitamin B12 Production Process and Sustainability:

For those who can’t get enough Vitamin B12 through their diet, supplementing B12 may be necessary. Supplemental Vitamin B12 is produced commercially through a bacterial fermentation process, taking up to two weeks from beginning to final product. It is one of the most complex vitamins to produce beginning with bacteria growing in large vats holding over 100,000 liters, this amount still only produces a small yield of final product. It is not a sustainable process and can be harmful to the environment as it traditionally uses cobalt and cyanide, and the harmful and hazardous surplus is expensive to be disposed of to ensure environmental health measures are not affected.

Research from the University of Kent took place in 2023 to develop a sustainable manufacturing process for Vitamin B12. The team manufactured a strain of E-coli that contains a smaller amount of cobalt that is then absorbed during the production process and there is no surplus cobalt left to be disposed of, therefore it is not a high health or environmental risk and is less of an expense. This is a step in the right direction and is a template that other bacterial processes could benefit from and become more sustainable in the future.

Vitamin B12 plays a vital role in the functionality of a healthy body. Ensuring a holistic diet to include certain meats, dairy products, fish, and certain vegetables will help reduce the risks that come with its deficiency. Increasing the availability of knowledge surrounding the importance of Vitamin B12 and its sources would advocate for a better understanding among individuals. This in turn will reduce the risks associated with lower consumption of this vital vitamin. Additionally, looking towards the future of supplemental B12 production, a long-term plan to formulate a universal sustainable production process of Vitamin B12 would reduce the harmful environmental impact and costs all while benefitting those with a deficiency.

  • Sarah Corcoran, MSc

    Sarah Corcoran previously studied to become a Pastry Chef and worked within the field for a number of years. She was always passionate about the area of health and nutrition and then completed a master’s in Public Health Nutrition in ATU Sligo, graduating in 2022. She also presented some of her research at the Nutrition Society of Ireland conference in Cork University. Sarah has a significant interest in the area of nutritional health and the pathways that can be taken to improve overall health and wellbeing, all while aiming to keep in line with sustainability factors.

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