Vitamin B12, also called cobalamin, is one of 8 B vitamins. All B vitamins help the body convert food (carbohydrates) into fuel (glucose), which is “burned” to produce energy. These B vitamins, often referred to as B complex vitamins, also help the body metabolize fats and protein. B complex vitamins are necessary for healthy skin, hair, eyes, and liver. They also help the nervous system function properly.
All the B vitamins are water-soluble, meaning that the body does not store them.
Vitamin B12 is an especially important vitamin for maintaining healthy nerve cells, and it aids in the production of DNA and RNA, the body’s genetic material. Vitamin B12 also works closely with vitamin B9 (folate) to regulate the formation of red blood cells and to help iron function better in the body. Folate and B12 work together to produce S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe), a compound involved in immune function and mood.
Vitamins B12, B6, and B9 work together to control blood levels of the amino acid homocysteine. High levels of homocysteine are associated with heart disease. However, researchers aren’t sure whether homocysteine is a cause of heart disease or merely a marker that indicates someone may have heart disease.
Mild deficiencies of B12 are not uncommon in elderly people, either because of poor diet or because they have less stomach acid, which the body needs to absorb B12. Low levels of B12 can cause a range of symptoms including fatigue, shortness of breath, diarrhea, nervousness, numbness, or tingling sensation in the fingers and toes. Severe deficiency of B12 causes neurological damage.
Others at risk for B12 deficiency include:
* Vegans (vegetarians who also don’t eat dairy or eggs)
* People with malabsorption conditions, such as tapeworm infection, pancreatic disease, and conditions resulting from gastrointestinal surgery
* People who are infected with Helicobacter pylori (an organism in the intestines that can cause an ulcer). H. pylori damages stomach cells that make intrinsic factor, a substance the body needs to absorb B12
* People with an eating disorder
* People with HIV
Folic acid (vitamin B9), especially when taken in high doses, can mask the symptoms of a vitamin B12 deficiency, leading to neurological damage. For that reason, anyone planning to take more than 800 mcg of folic acid should talk to their doctor first, to make sure they do not have a B12 deficiency.
Vitamin B12 is used for:
Pernicious anemia occurs when stomach cells are not able to make intrinsic factor, and the body cannot absorb vitamin B12. Symptoms include weakness, pale skin, diarrhea, weight loss, fever, numbness or tingling sensation in the hands and feet, loss of balance, confusion, memory loss, and moodiness. Vitamin B12 supplements in high doses, either given as injections or orally, are prescribed to treat pernicious anemia. Pernicious anemia can be a dangerous condition and should always be treated by a doctor.
Many studies indicate that patients with elevated levels of the amino acid homocysteine are roughly 1.7 times more likely to develop coronary artery disease and 2.5 times more likely to suffer from a stroke than those with normal levels. Homocysteine levels are strongly influenced by B complex vitamins, particularly vitamins B9, B6, and B12.
The American Heart Association recommends that, for most people, an adequate amount of these important B vitamins be obtained from diet, rather than taking extra supplements. Under certain circumstances, however, supplements may be necessary. Such circumstances include elevated homocysteine levels in someone who already has heart disease or who has a strong family history of heart disease that developed at a young age.
A vitamin B12 deficiency causes fatigue. One small study, done a number of years ago, suggested that some people who were not deficient in B12 might gain more energy from B12 injections; however, follow-up studies are needed. One preliminary study indicated that people with chronic fatigue syndrome might benefit from B12 injections, although more research is needed to know for sure.
Although there is no evidence that vitamin B12 alone reduces the risk of breast cancer, some population studies have shown that women who get more folate in their diet have lower incidence of breast cancer. Vitamin B12 works with folate in the body, so it may help contribute to a lesser risk. Another preliminary study suggested that postmenopausal women who had the lowest amounts of B12 in their diet had an increased risk for breast cancer.
Studies suggest that vitamin B12 supplements may improve sperm counts and sperm mobility. However, the evidence is weak. Further studies are needed to determine whether B12 has any real beneficial effect.
Some anecdotal evidence suggests that vitamin B12 injections given by a doctor may help treat symptoms of chronic asthma, although scientific studies are lacking.
Vitamin B12 is found only in animal foods. Good dietary sources include fish, dairy products, organ meats (particularly liver and kidney), eggs, beef, and pork.
Vitamin B12 can be found in multivitamins (including children’s chewable and liquid drops), B complex vitamins, and individual supplements. It is available in both oral (tablets and capsules) and intranasal forms, softgels, and lozenges. Vitamin B12 is also sold under the names cobalamin and cyanocobalamin.
How to Take It:
If your diet includes meat, milk, and other dairy products, you should be able to meet the recommended daily requirements without taking a vitamin B12 supplement. Vegetarians who do not eat any animal protein should take a vitamin B12 supplement with water, preferably after eating. Elderly people may need greater amounts of vitamin B12 than younger people because the body’s ability to absorb vitamin B12 from the diet diminishes with age.
People considering B12 supplements should check with a healthcare provider to find out the most appropriate dosage. Contact the Medical Staff at GEMS (on this web site).
Daily recommendations for dietary vitamin B12 are listed below.
* Newborns to 6 months: 0.4 mcg (adequate intake)
* Infants 6 months to 1 year: 0.5 mcg (adequate intake)
* Children 1 – 3 years: 0.9 mcg (RDA)
* Children 4 – 8 years: 1.2 mcg (RDA)
* Children 9 – 13 years: 1.8 mcg (RDA)
* Adolescents 14 – 18 years: 2.4 mcg (RDA)
* 19 years and older: 2.4 mcg (RDA)*
* Pregnant females: 2.6 mcg (RDA)
* Breastfeeding females: 2.8 mcg (RDA)
*Because 10 – 30% of older people may not absorb B12 from food very efficiently, it is recommended that those older than 50 years meet their daily requirement through either foods fortified with vitamin B12 or a supplement containing B12.
Because of the potential for side effects and interactions with medications, you should take dietary supplements only under the supervision of a knowledgeable health care provider.
Vitamin B12 is considered safe and non-toxic.
Taking any one of the B complex vitamins by itself for a long period of time can result in an imbalance of other important B vitamins. For this reason, it is generally important to take a B complex vitamin with any single B vitamin. As noted earlier, taking folic acid at high doses can mask a vitamin B12 deficiency, so thse vitamins are often taken together. Talk to your doctor before taking more than 800 mcg of folic acid.
If you are currently being treated with any of the following medications, you should not use vitamin B12 supplements without first talking to your health care provider.
Medications that reduce levels of B12 in the body include:
* Anticonvulsants — include phenytoin (Dilantin), phenobarbital, primidone (Mysoline)
* Chemotherapy medications — particularly methotrexate
* Colchicine — used to treat gout
* Bile acid sequestrants — used to lower cholesterol; include colestipol (Colestid), cholestyramine (Questran), and colsevelam (Welchol)
* H2 blockers — used to reduce stomach acid; include cimetidine (Tagamet), famotidine (Pepcid AC), ranitidine (Zantac)
* Metformin (Glucophage) — medication taken for diabetes
* Proton pump inhibitors — used to reduce stomach acid; include esomeprazole (Nexium), lansprazole (Prevacid), omeprazole (Prilosec), rabeprazole (Aciphex)
Antibiotics, Tetracycline:Vitamin B12 should not be taken at the same time as tetracycline because it interferes with the absorption and effectiveness of this medication. Vitamin B12 should be taken at different times of the day from tetracycline. (All vitamin B complex supplements act in this way and should be taken at different times from tetracycline.)
In addition, long-term use of antibiotics can deplete vitamin B levels in the body, particularly B2, B9, B12, and vitamin H (biotin), which is considered part of the B complex vitamins.