Vitamin B-12 is an incredibly important nutrient for your body with many health benefits.
Fatigue, mood swings, mental sluggishness, and irritability are all potential signs of a deficiency- something which is, unfortunately, a common occurrence.
Because B-12 is involved in so many functions within your body- from energy and memory to skin and hair health- it’s critical that you get enough of it in your diet. This may be especially challenging for some who follow a plant-based diet but it is not at all impossible.
Here’s an in-depth look at the many roles vitamin B-12 has in your body, signs of deficiency, and how to make sure you’re getting enough of it.
What Is Vitamin B-12? The “Healthy Cell” Vitamin
Vitamin B-12, also known as cobalamin, is a water soluble vitamin. It belongs to the collective B vitamin group and is considered the most important vitamin in that group.
Your body needs this essential vitamin for many different functions but can’t manufacture it. This is why it’s vital to consume it regularly.
B-12 works in complex ways within your body, but one of its most critical functions is keeping nerve cells and blood cells healthy. It’s also involved in the synthesis of DNA, which is the genetic material present in every cell in your body.
To put it simply, vitamin B-12 supports your body at the most basic level. Without it, your nervous system can’t function properly, DNA synthesis may be impaired, and cell division is hindered.
B-12 also plays a major role in creating red blood cells and keeping them healthy. This is important because red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen to every other cell in your body and taking carbon dioxide back to your lungs to be exhaled.
Because vitamin B-12 is so necessary for keeping cells healthy, it’s involved in many crucial processes, as you’ll soon see.
Top Health Benefits of Vitamin B-12
Needed to Maintain Energy Levels
Vitamin B-12 is critically involved in energy production and metabolism at a cellular level. This is why one of the most common symptoms of a deficiency is fatigue or lethargy.
B-12, along with several of the other B vitamins, is needed to convert food (especially carbohydrates) into the glucose your body uses as a primary energy source. Without this conversion process, the carbohydrates would remain in an unusable form.
As mentioned, vitamin B-12 is also needed for the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout your body. This includes carrying oxygen to your muscles, enabling them to keep up with the demands you put on them.
Without enough B-12, you’ll frequently feel tired and will have low endurance for exercise.
Helps Protect Memory and Overall Brain Health
Researchers still aren’t sure how vitamin B-12 contributes to brain health, but there are clear associations between deficiency and a greater risk of neurodegenerative diseases like dementia.
In fact, some research has shown that supplementing with B-12 can be helpful for early-stage dementia when a deficiency is present. One study found that pairing omega-3s with B-12 was even more effective for slowing cognitive decline.
This essential vitamin also seems to be involved in the day-to-day health of your brain.
One fascinating study from 2016 found that concentrations of B-12 on the low end of the normal range were associated with poorer memory and learning ability than concentrations on the high end of the normal range.
This seems to indicate that boosting B-12 may be helpful for cognitive function, even when there isn’t a clinical deficiency. It’s also possible that the amount of B-12 our bodies need is higher than previously thought.
Important for Mood and Nervous System Function
One of the more surprising benefits of vitamin B-12 is its role in lifting your mood.
Not only is B-12 essential for keeping nerve cells healthy and supporting nervous system function, it also has a role in synthesizing serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters that affect your emotions. This is likely one reason why a deficiency is linked to a great risk of mood disorders like depression and anxiety.
Some studies even indicate that supplementing with B-12 can improve the effect of antidepressants.
Protective of Heart Health
Vitamin B-12 is needed by your body to reduce a little known risk factor of heart disease: homocysteine levels.
Homocysteine is an amino acid that appears to be related to artery damage when levels of it get too high. It’s still being researched for its potential role in causing cardiovascular disease but is already considered a risk factor for atherosclerosis, which is a disease of the arteries characterized by plaque buildup.
Some studies even indicate that B-12 plays a role in maintaining healthy cholesterol and blood pressure levels, which is more good news for your heart!
May Support Healthy, Strong Bones
Several different nutrients are involved in bone health. The most notable one is calcium, although it needs vitamin D in order to be absorbed and do its work. Magnesium and vitamin K play supporting roles as well.
It may surprise you to learn that there are also benefits of vitamin B-12 for bone health and bone density.
Several different studies have now shown that low B-12 levels are associated with lower than normal bone density. There’s also indication that it affects women more than men and can contribute to osteoporosis.
One possible theory for these findings is that B-12 is involved in bone formation because of its role in DNA synthesis.
Whatever the reason, it’s especially important that you get enough of this vitamin, along with calcium and other bone-supporting nutrients, as you age.
Essential for Healthy Skin, Hair, & Nails
Vitamin B-12 is an essential nutrient if you want healthy skin, hair, and nails. It plays a major role in cell production, which is especially important for hair and skin because they have some of the fastest growing cells.
Skin, hair, and nail cells also need a steady supply of oxygen to continue regenerating themselves. This is something else B-12 is needed for, since it’s involved in the creation of red blood cells (the oxygen carriers).
In fact, vitamin B-12 is so critical for healthy skin that low levels or a deficiency can lead to dermatological symptoms like acne, hyperpigmentation, and dermatitis. Nail discoloration and brittle hair are also common if your body is low on B-12.
Aids Digestion and Boosts Gut Health
Digestion is yet another normal function of your body that needs B-12 to operate smoothly.
To start with, vitamin B-12 is involved in the production of digestive enzymes. These enzymes are needed to break down food and allow the nutrients to be absorbed and used by your body.
Research also indicates that B-12 promotes healthy bacteria in your gut and may play a role in keeping gut microbes in balance. This is very important because a strong population of beneficial bacteria is needed to prevent the overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria that can cause digestive disorders.
Helps Prevent Anemia
Vitamin B-12 has major benefits for preventing certain types of anemia.
Anemia is a condition in which your body doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells to transport oxygen throughout your body. This leads to symptoms like fatigue, weakness, lightheadedness, and shortness of breath.
Normally, anemia is associated with an iron deficiency, but a B-12 deficiency (typically from poor absorption) is another possible cause. It’s usually called “vitamin deficiency anemia” and occurs when your body can’t produce enough healthy red blood cells.
A vitamin B-12 deficiency can also cause your body to produce large, oval red blood cells instead of the normal small, round ones. This leads to something called megaloblastic anemia in which the red blood cells can’t move into your bloodstream at the right rate.
Getting enough B-12 in a highly absorbable form can prevent both of these types of anemia.
Critical for a Healthy Pregnancy (And Lowering the Risk of Birth Defects)
It’s especially crucial for women to get enough B-12 throughout pregnancy. Not only does it support their bodies, it may also help to prevent some serious birth defects.
Vitamin B-12 is needed for DNA synthesis. This makes it an absolutely critical nutrient for the growth and development of the fetus, especially where the brain and nervous system are concerned.
Studies have shown that low B-12 levels, particularly during the beginning stages of pregnancy, may increase the risk of neural tube defects and other birth defects. Some research puts the risk of birth defects as much as five times higher for women with low B-12 levels.
Vitamin B-12 Deficiency: Signs & Symptoms
Given all the benefits of vitamin B-12, it’s clearly a nutrient your body can’t function without, but a deficiency can be hard to recognize. People often assume their telltale symptoms come from being too busy, not getting enough sleep, etc.
Despite being tricky to pin down, B-12 deficiency is a real problem. Conservative estimates put deficiency in the U.S. at up to 15%, and other estimates put it as high as 39%. The number of people with low or borderline B-12 levels is even higher.
Here are the most common symptoms of B-12 deficiency to be aware of:
- Constant fatigue or lethargy
- Brain fog and trouble focusing
- Muscle aches or weakness
- Loss of appetite
- Memory problems
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
- Frequent mood swings
- Mood disorders, especially depression
- Unexplained weight loss
- Digestive problems
Most At-Risk Groups for Vitamin B-12 Deficiency
Anyone can be deficient or borderline for B-12, but certain groups are more at-risk for this happening.
Older adults tend to absorb B-12 less effectively because of lower amounts of stomach acid. This puts them at higher risk of a deficiency, especially if a digestive disorder is also in the equation.
In fact, anyone who has a digestive disorder is more at risk for a deficiency because nutrient absorption is typically impaired with these types of disorders.
Vegans, vegetarians, and those who follow a plant-based diet may also be more prone to have low B-12 levels. This is because most sources of B-12 come from meat or animal products.
Daily Recommendation + Top B-12 Sources
The amount of B-12 needed daily is measured in micrograms (mcg). For adults 14+, the recommended daily intake (RDI) is 2.4 mcg. The RDI goes up to 2.6 mcg during pregnancy and 2.8 mcg while breastfeeding.
If You Do Eat Meat (Or Animal Products)…
Meat eaters are less likely to have a problem getting enough B-12 because it’s found abundantly in animal products. Grass-fed meat or dairy products and fish like sardines, mackerel, and salmon are all good sources. Eggs are the best non-meat animal source of B-12 with around .6 mcg per egg.
Plant-Based Sources of Vitamin B-12
Two of the best plant-based sources of vitamin B-12 are sea vegetables (also called edible seaweed) and certain types of mushrooms.
Purple laver (often called nori) and green laver are both edible algae/seaweeds with substantial amounts of B-12. One study recommends eating around 4 grams (dried) of either one to meet the RDI for B-12.
Shiitake mushrooms are the best fungi to get vitamin B-12 from. Other mushrooms contain B-12, but it’s usually present in an inactive form that the human body can’t use. To get your entire RDI of B-12 from shiitake, you’d have to eat around 50 grams a day, which is a stretch unless you love mushrooms.
Apart from sea vegetables and mushrooms, other plant-based sources of vitamin B-12 come from fortified foods. This means B-12 is added in instead of being naturally present.
The most popular fortified foods for a plant-based diet are cereal, certain plant milks, and nutritional yeast.
Some fermented foods like tempeh, miso, and sauerkraut may also contain B-12 because it can be manufactured by certain bacteria, but the amount present varies widely.
If you follow a vegan, vegetarian, or plant-based diet, it’s important to understand that the B-12 present in plant sources and fortified foods is often more difficult for your body to use than B-12 from animal sources.
To get the full benefits of vitamin B-12, a good quality supplement may be the answer, especially if you don’t regularly eat seaweed or mushrooms.
Of course, supplements can also be poorly absorbed by your body if they contain cheap or ineffective ingredients, so it’s important that you choose the right one…
The Best Highly Absorbable Vitamin B-12 Supplement
If you have low energy and are concerned about a deficiency, PuraThrive Liposomal B12 is the best easily absorbable supplement to boost your B-12 levels that I’ve found (and personally take).
It contains methylcobalamin, the naturally occurring form of B-12 that is easily utilized by your body. (Other supplements often contain a cheaper form called cyanocobalamin.)
PuraThrive also goes a step further and uses liposomal technology to make sure your body can access the B-12. Some supplements simply pass right through your body, but the liposomes (fat cells) protect the B-12 from stomach acid and make it much more bioavailable.
On top of all that, fulvic acid has been added to the formula to ensure the best possible absorption and the most energy-boosting benefits. In my experience, this makes it far more effective than many other B-12 supplements on the market.
Getting an adequate supply of vitamin B-12 is essential for energy, clear thinking, and so much more. Make getting enough of this essential vitamin a priority, and you will certainly notice a difference in how you feel!