Wed | Feb 10, 2016

Avoid a vitamin B12 shortage

Published:Tuesday | March 19, 2013 | 12:00 AM

VITAMINS BY definition (vita means life in Latin) are substances that are essential to our health but which the body itself cannot manufacture.

Vitamin B12 is one of the B vitamins that play important roles in the function of every cell. B12 refers to several cobalt-containing compounds known as cobalamins, of which cyanocobalamin is the most popular.

Because it is involved in so many bodily processes, vitamin B12 needs special attention. Research in the United States has shown that 25 per cent of adults were clearly deficient while 50 per cent had only borderline levels of B12 in their blood. In the United Kingdom, 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, numbness, pain, 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 vitamins 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, and if you belong to one of the following categories, your risk of B12 deficiency is increased.

Vegetarians - strict modern vegetarian diets are often B12 deficient. B12 levels are highest in animal food products although only bacteria can make this vitamin. Vegetarians living close to nature may have B12 supplied for them by certain bacteria that live in their gut.

Over-50 age group - 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 a protein called intrinsic factor. Both are necessary for vitamin B12 to be absorbed from your food. If you are 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.

Those 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 as will as high coffee and alcohol consumption may all interfere with your absorption of B12,

Those with 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, as well as surgery to the stomach and intestines, can create a deficiency of intrinsic factor. This would lead to a vitamin B12 deficiency.

High stress/activity levels: Individuals under chronic physical and/or mental stress seem to require and use up increasing amounts of vitamin B12.

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 fermented foods, seafood, organic organ meats and poultry, eggs and raw organic goat's milk. Supplementing with the Cellular Nutrition Programme provides vitamin B12 in a highly absorbable form.

You can also supplement your diet using injections (most effective), sublingual tablets or oral tablets. If you have nervous system problems, I strongly recommend the injections as this creates the high therapeutic levels needed inside 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 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.