VITAMINS ARE substances that are essential to health, but which the body itself cannot make. One of the B vitamins, Vitamin B12 plays many important roles in every cell of the body.
The term B12 refers to several cobalt-containing compounds known as cobalamins of which cyanocobalamin is the most popular.
Vitamin B12 needs special attention because it is involved in so many bodily processes. Research in the United States indicate that 25 per cent of adults are deficient, while 50 per cent have borderline levels of B12 in their blood. In the UK, studies now show that up to 40 per cent of the population are deficient in vitamin B12.
B12 and your nervous system
Our nerves may be compared to electrical wires that are wrapped in an insulating sheath made from a substance called myelin. Vitamin B12 is necessary for the production of myelin and healthy nerves. A damaged myelin sheath leads to short-circuiting and electrical static in our nervous system.
Thus B12 deficiency can produce nerve problems as widespread as depression, fatigue, poor memory, migraine headaches, tingling and numbness, sleep disorders, symptoms of dementia, psychosis, and hyperactivity. It may mimic Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis and cause spinal cord disease, peripheral neuropathy and optic nerve damage leading to blindness.
B12 and anaemia
A lack of vitamin B12 can result in a condition called pernicious anaemia characterised by unhealthy, abnormally large red blood cells. As B12 is needed for red blood cell formation, a chronic lack of B12 will, eventually, lead to anaemia. Left untreated, pernicious anaemia can inflict permanent and severe damage to your body.
B12 and heart disease
A high blood level of a substance called homocysteine is a more important risk factor for heart disease and stroke than a high cholesterol level. Studies show that vitamin B12, B6 and folic acid can reduce your homocysteine levels. Correcting that imbalance with these inexpensive vitamins will decrease your risk for heart disease and stroke.
B12 and cancer
Vitamin B12 plays an important role in DNA production and repair. Damage to DNA is a well-known risk factor for cancer.
Adequate B12 in your cells, along with folic acid, helps to reduce damage to your genetic material. Low levels of B12 are specifically linked to increased risk for stomach, breast and cervical cancer.
B12, pregnancy and fertility
Pregnant women with B12 deficiency have an increased risk of having a baby born with a type of birth defect affecting the infant's brain and spinal cord like Spina bifida. A B12 deficiency is also linked to infertility and repeated miscarriages. On the male side, a low sperm count is associated with a low B12 level that improves with B12 supplementation.
Who is at risk?
If you have any of the problems mentioned above, you should check your B12 status. Belonging to one of the following categories, will also increase your risk of B12 deficiency.
Vegetarians - strict vegetarian diets are often B12 deficient. B12 levels are highest in animal food products although only bacteria can make this vitamin.
Over 50 - age decreases your ability to absorb B12 from your food. As you get older, the lining of your stomach gradually loses its ability to produce hydrochloric acid and an intrinsic factor which are necessary for vitamin B12 absorption from your food. If you're over 50, you are probably not absorbing vitamin B12 optimally. A number of seniors have been wrongly diagnosed with dementia, while they were really suffering from vitamin B12 deficiency.
Taking medication - antacids or anti-ulcer medication, metformin for diabetes, antibiotics anti-psychotics, anti-cancer medications, tuberculosis medications, anticonvulsants, birth control pills, anti-gout medications, cholesterol-lowering drugs, anti-hypertensives, and drugs for Parkinson's disease. These may all interfere with your absorption of B12, as will a high coffee and alcohol consumption.
Stomach problems - indigestion, heartburn, GERD, Helicobacter pylori infections. As indicated above, for B12 to be absorbed, the stomach needs to secrete a special protein called intrinsic factor. These common digestive problems create a deficiency of intrinsic factor. Stomach surgery can also create this very problem.
Testing for B12 deficiency
Blood tests for vitamin B12 deficiency are not as helpful as they are for other nutritional problems. This is because the clinical severity of vitamin B12 deficiency often correlates poorly with the B12 levels in the blood. I still recommend that individuals have their blood tested annually for vitamin B12. Ideally, your blood level of this vitamin should be at the higher levels or above the 'normal' lab levels.
If you have concerns that you are vitamin B12-deficient, it is practical to simply supplement with B12 and see if your symptoms improve. Vitamin B12 supplementation is completely non-toxic and relatively cheap.
Sources of B12
Healthy natural sources of B12 include seafood, organic meats and poultry, eggs, raw organic cows and goat's milk. Supplementing with the Cellular Nutrition Programme provides vitamin B12 in a highly absorbable form.
You can also use injections (most effective), sublingual tablets or oral pills. If you have nervous system problems, I strongly recommend the injections as this creates the high therapeutic levels needed in the nerve cells. A special form of B12 called methylcobalamin may be even more effective in those cases than the regular cyanocobalamin.
You may email Dr Tony Vendryes at email@example.com or listen to 'An Ounce of Prevention' on POWER 106FM on Fridays at 8 p.m. His new book 'An Ounce of Prevention, Especially for Women' is available locally and on the Internet.