If you’re eating a vegan diet, it is important that your vitamin B12 levels are at optimal levels.
Very low B12 intake can cause anemia and permanent nervous system damage.
Ten things about B12 you need to know if you are following a vegan diet:
1. What exactly is vitamin B12?
B12 is a vitamin that is produced by bacteria that can be found in the soil and in the guts of animals, including human beings.
Even though as human beings we have bacteria in our guts—all the way from the mouth to the anus—that produce biologically active vitamin B12, most of this B12 is produced in the colon, which is beyond the area of the gut where it can be absorbed into the body.
2. What does the body need it for?
Vitamin B12 is vital for the health of the human body and is required for many functions, including:
>> Brain health
>> Nervous system health
>> Blood production
>> DNA production
>> Energy production
3. The symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency:
Here are the six most common symptoms that your B12 levels are low:
1. Tingling or “pins and needles” feeling in the hands and feet
2. Memory loss
4. Dizziness/loss of balance
5. Personality change
6. Outright dementia
If you wait until you start showing symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency, there is a chance that you can experience permanent damage to your nervous system.
4. Is it just vegans who need to be concerned about it?
It’s not just vegans who need to be aware of this vitally important nutrient.
People who eat animal products can also become deficient in this vitamin.
5. How do we get B12?
People normally rely on getting vitamin B12 through the foods that they eat, such as animal products if you are non-vegan.
As a plant-based eater, you can get your vitamin B12 from fortified foods or by supplementing.
6. What’s the best type of B12?
There are a number of different forms of vitamin B12 that the human body can utilize, including methylcobalamin, hydroxocobalamin and cyanocobalamin.
Cyanocobalamin is the preferred supplemental form of B12 for many physicians due to the amount of studies that have proven its effectiveness.
However, methylcobalamin form of B12 is the most bio-available form of vitamin B12.
Can you get B12 from spirulina, chlorella and fermented vegetables?
Many people erroneously believe that you can get vitamin B12 from sources such as seaweed, algae (including chlorella and spirulina), miso and fermented vegetables.
The problem is that these sources can contain what is called analogue B12, which cannot be utilized by the human body.
What’s more, it can actually interfere with the utilization of “active” or usable vitamin B12.
Relying on these kinds of foods to get enough “active” B12 on a plant-based diet is not a good idea.
7. How much B12 should you supplement with?
If you take a vitamin B12 supplement (which is what we recommend), then you need to be taking at least 2500mcg of the form cyanocobalamin once every week, which is the dosage and form recommended by Dr. Michael Greger, M.D., a well-known vegan, plant-based advocate.
If you rely on getting your vitamin B12 from fortified vegan foods, then you are best testing your B12 levels periodically and ideally also supplementing with a specific B12 supplement.
8. How to test my B12 levels?
Generally, doctors will check people’s B12 levels via a simple blood test.
Desired B12 levels differ from country to country and in the U.S. for example, the low end of the desired B12 range is 200 picograms per milliliter (pg/ml).
These large differences in reference range minimums show us that a good deal of uncertainty still exists with regards to what the healthy minimum level of B12 should be.
Studies have found that deficiencies begin to appear in the cerebral spinal fluid when levels fall below the 550 to 600pg/ml of vitamin B12 in the blood.
In fact, a more accurate way to test your body’s B12 status (though more expensive) is not via a blood test, but instead with what is called a uMMA test (Urine Methylmalonic Acid).
This test can actually measure for a tissue/cellular deficiency of B12.
If you do have analogue B12 present in your diet, such as seaweed, spirulina, bee pollen or something similar, then be aware that your B12 blood test results will also include these analogue B12s, which cannot be utilized by the human body.
In this case, doing a uMMA test is recommended.
Testing for elevated levels of the amino acid homocysteine is another test that can be used to determine if a person is B12 deficient.
However, homocysteine can also be elevated due to other factors such as folate deficiency for example, and so is not as accurate as a uMMA test.
9. What should you do if your B12 level is low?
If you find out that your B12 level is low, then you need to supplement your diet with additional B12.
For people who are very deficient, a course of B12 injections is something that will help to raise their levels quickly.
B12 supplements come in many forms, from skin patches and sprays, and lozenges that you simply place under your tongue and allow to dissolve.
Taking your B12 supplement this way—sublingually—allows them to go directly into your blood stream via blood vessels under your tongue.
If you’re pregnant and are lactating, then you will need to increase your weekly dose of B12 supplement.
Author: Yulia Tarbath
Editor: Lieselle Davidson