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Everything You Need to Know About B12

Last Updated on January 7, 2021

After finding out how much protein a vegan needs, the next big question on every vegan’s mind is: “Do I need to take vitamin B12?” On one side, you hear dire stories about the health consequences of not taking it; on the other side, people say you’re vegan, so you’re healthy, you don’t need to take supplements. Are you wondering what the truth is? Let’s dig in to find out everything you need to know about B12.

What is B12 Good For?

Well, it turns out that Vitamin B12 is used throughout our body and makes a significant impact on our mental and physical health. It also impacts our mood and ability to cope with the stresses and strains of life.

Here are 7 things B12 is good for:

1. A healthy nervous system

Vitamin B12 plays a crucial role in synthesizing and managing myelin. This is the fatty substance essential for creating the sheaths that protect nerve endings in the brain and peripheral nervous system. These sheaths ensure the fast, effective transmission of nerve impulses. B12 is required to ensure strong sheaths are created.

2. Creating red blood cells

B12 helps our body produce the red blood cells that transport oxygen throughout our bodies.

3. Synthesis of DNA

B12 is vital for DNA synthesis and stabilizing some vital regions of the chromosomes.

4. Managing homocysteine levels in the blood

Homocysteine is an amino acid that contains sulfur. Vitamin B12 aids in the synthesis of homocysteine into methionine which is an essential amino acid.

5. Reducing stress

Vitamin B12’s role in creating a healthy nervous system and lowering homocysteine levels has the beneficial side effect of helping to reduce stress.

6. Alleviating depression

B12 impacts the brain’s chemistry, and taking it will treat depression caused by a deficiency.

7. Combatting fatigue

A B12 deficiency is often accompanied by fatigue and muscle weakness. Restoring your B12 levels will also return your energy levels to normal.

Why Don’t Vegans Want to Supplement with B12?

There is a perception that we can get everything we need from plants. And yes, this is true in most cases; for example, you get all the protein you need from plant foods; however, certain nutrients need to be supplemented; B12 is top of that list.

Do Vegans Need B12?

A factor contributing to the confusion around whether we need to take B12 is that some vegans don’t supplement and have no adverse symptoms. This is because our bodies can store up to 5mg of B12 primarily in the liver for two to four years. So, it can take a while before deficiencies are seen.

Some of the consequences of B12 deficiency are life-threatening–for example heart attacks and stroke–and you might only become aware you need to take it after experiencing them. Another consequence of a deficiency is permanent neurological damage.

So, yes, Vitamin B12 is one of the essential nutrients for vegans to take. Even if you aren’t vegan, it’s a good idea to supplement with B12. The risks of not doing so are too great.

Vitamin B12 ampoules - photo by Vital AdobeStock

8 Symptoms of B12 Deficiency

1. Neuropathy

Vitamin B12 plays an essential role in the creation of the sheaths covering the nerve endings. A deficiency in B12 can lead to neuropathy and associated nerve pain. The first signs of neuropathy are tingling and numbness in the extremities. Once the condition is established, it is seldom curable. However, early detection could halt the deterioration caused by the disease. So don’t ignore it; get your levels checked early on.

2. Higher levels of homocysteine

Elevated homocysteine levels ravage your body leading to inflammation, mental health disorders, and heart disease.

3. Psychological issues

Deficiency of B12 can result in severe and life-changing damage to the central and peripheral nervous system. This can result in various psychological issues including Alzheimer’s and dementia.

4. Complications during pregnancy

Vitamin B12 deficiency in pregnant women can lead to Neural Tube Defects in the embryo. These are birth defects of the spinal cord, spine, or brain. This happens early on in the pregnancy, often before the mother is even aware she is pregnant.

5. Megaloblastic or pernicious anemia

When B12 is not present to manage the production of red blood cells they don’t develop normally, leading to tissues and organs not getting the oxygen they need.

6. Macrocytosis

This is a condition where the red blood cells are larger than normal, leading to circulatory diseases like heart disease and stroke. It is often caused by decreased DNA synthesis from a B12 deficiency.

7. Heart disease

One of the causes of heart disease is macrocytosis and/or raised homocysteine levels.

8. Strokes

A B12 deficiency can cause circulatory diseases, including stroke in people of all ages, even children.

9. Fatigue and muscle weakness

Lack of energy and weak muscles are a symptom of anemia, which can be caused by inadequate B12 intake.

10. Depression

Since B12 is one of the B vitamins producing chemicals in the brain, it has been linked to mood disorders like depression.

How Much B12 Should I Take?

It hasn’t been decided how much Vitamin B12 is assimilated efficiently by the human body, and the ability to assimilate B12 differs from person to person. This can vary between 0.5% for high doses to 50% for low doses, so it is recommended that vegans take between 2,000-5,000mcg cyanocobalamin per week.  

Since B12 is a water-soluble nutrient, mistakenly taking more than we need is not a problem. After the body has replenished its stores, any excesses will be flushed out in the urine.

Our ability to assimilate Vitamin B12 deteriorates as we get older. Our bodies also use more B12 when we are under stress. So higher dosages are required for the elderly or for people who are stressed.

Some people have a deficiency in the ‘intrinsic factor’ which is the protein in the stomach responsible for the absorption of B12. In this case, vastly higher amounts of B12 will be required. Interesting to note: the cure for intrinsic factor deficiency is B12 injections!

Which B12 is Best?

There are two types of vegan Vitamin B12: cyanocobalamin and methylcobalamin.

Cyanocobalamin

Cyanocobalamin is more easily assimilated by our bodies; however, it contains minute traces of cyanide. If you are healthy, these amounts are not harmful to us, even if we took 1,000mcg daily. However, if you have kidney disease, then it should be avoided.

Solgar Vegan B12 (Cyanocobalamin)

Methylcobalamin

Methylcobalamin is another vegan B12. It is made by removing the cyanide from cyanocobalamin; but we need to take substantially more of it to make any impact, and the exact dosage has not yet been determined.

Naturello Vegan B12 (Methylcobalamin) with organic spirulina

Food Sources of B12

Vitamin B12 is created by bacteria and can be found in animal products, including fish, red meat, chicken, dairy, and eggs.

Vegan foods like Tempeh, Nori, and Shiitake mushrooms contain compounds that are similar to vitamin B12, but it is thought they don’t have any vitamin activity. In fact, no plant food has been proven to raise B12 levels in humans.

Summary of Everything You Need to Know About B12

  • Vitamin B12 is essential for a healthy nervous system.
  • We need between 2000-5000mcg of cyanocobalamin per week.
  • As we age, our ability to assimilate B12 reduces, and higher levels of supplementation are often required.
  • A B12 deficiency can lead to many extreme and life-threatening conditions, including permanent nerve damage, dementia, pernicious anemia, birth defects, heart attacks, and stroke.
  • B12 is created by bacteria and can be found in animal products.
  • There is no reliable plant-based food source of Vitamin B12.
  • Vegan B12 is synthetic and comes in two forms: cyanocobalamin and methylcobalamin.
  • The levels of cyanide in cyanocobalamin are tiny and not harmful unless you have impaired kidney function.
  • The dosage for methylcobalamin is far higher than cyanocobalamin and has not yet been determined.

Conclusion

Let me end with a resounding, “Yes, you do need to take B12!” It is a nutrient that is essential for your mental and physical health. Not taking it is just not worth the risk, so please visit your doctor to get your levels checked right away. Not only does it matter to our own health, but we also need to be healthy role models for other people who are thinking of going vegan.

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