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Vitamin B12 - cobalamin

Vitamin B12 is an important vitamin B complex. It is crucial for nervous system health, brain function and red blood cell production. Cobalamin is another name for vitamin B12.

Deficiency of this vitamin can occur when the level of vitamin B12 becomes too low to meet the needs of the body. This can cause many symptoms and can even progress to irreversible neurological problems if left untreated.

In the United States and the United Kingdom, about 6% of adults around the age of 60 are deficient in vitamin B12. The rate jumps to 20% in people over the age of 60.

Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin, like all other B-complex vitamins. This means that it can dissolve in water and travel smoothly through the bloodstream. The body can store vitamin B12 for up to 4 years and can get rid of excess vitamin B12 through urine.

Vitamin B12 is the largest and structurally most complex vitamin. It occurs naturally in animal products such as meat and eggs, but can be produced by bacterial fermentation.


Vitamin B12 is crucial for various bodily processes

  • normal functioning of the brain and nervous system
  • cognitive functioning (ability to think)
  • red blood cell production and prevention of anemia
  • helps create and regulate DNA synthesis
  • Prevents any congenital anomalies
  • helps protect the eyes from macular degeneration
  • helps produce energy

Vitamin B12 is essential for blood health. When the body does not have enough B12, this leads to reduced normal red blood cell production (anemia), which impairs oxygen supply.

Megaloblastic anemia, also called nutritional deficiency anemia, is a type of anemia caused by B12 or folate deficiency. Megaloblastic anemia is characterized by impaired DNA synthesis and the formation of large, abnormal, immature red blood cells.


Vitamin B12 intake requirements

The National Institutes of Public Health (NIH) recommends that teenagers and adults over the age of 14 consume 2.4 micrograms (mcg) of this vitamin daily.

Pregnant women should consume 2.6 mcg, and breastfeeding mothers should consume 2.8 mcg.

Excessive intake of vitamin B12 has not demonstrated toxic or harmful properties. However, people should talk to their doctor before starting to add this important vitamin.

Some medicines can reduce the absorption of vitamin B12 from food. These medicines include:

  • metformin
  • proton pump inhibitors
  • H2 receptor agonists commonly used for peptic ulcer disease


Foods rich in vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is found naturally in many animal products. It does not usually occur in plant foods unless processed.

Good dietary sources of vitamin B12 include:

  • beef
  • pork
  • ham
  • poultry
  • lamb
  • fish, especially haddock and tuna
  • dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt
  • Some edible yeast products
  • eggs

In addition, producers fortify certain types of plant-based milk and breakfast cereals with vitamin B12.

Although vitamin B12 is found in a variety of foods, some people are at increased risk of developing B12 deficiency.


Groups of people at increased risk

  • older adults
  • those on restrictive diets such as vegan
  • people with certain health problems, such as celiac disease


Symptoms of Deficiency

Low or deficient B12 levels can cause a number of symptoms, some of which can be very serious. Deficiency of this important vitamin can cause irreparable and potentially serious damage, especially to the nervous system and brain.

According to experts, even slightly lower levels of vitamin B12 than normal can trigger the symptoms described. However, these symptoms are not specific and are not sufficient to diagnose vitamin B12 deficiency.

Symptoms may include:

  • depression
  • confusion
  • memory problems
  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • Mood swings
  • concentration problems

When symptoms worsen, they may include neurological changes such as numbness and tingling in the arms and legs. Some people may have difficulty maintaining balance.

Babies who do not have enough vitamin B12 may show the following symptoms:

  • unusual movements such as shaking of the face
  • reflex problems
  • feeding problems
  • irritation
  • potential growth problems if left untreated

B12 deficiency is to some extent associated with an increased risk of cognitive impairment.

Vitamin B12 deficiency can also cause anemia. The most common symptoms of anemia are fatigue, shortness of breath and irregular heartbeat.

People with anemia may also experience the following symptoms:

  • sore mouth or tongue
  • weight loss
  • pale or yellowish skin
  • diarrhea
  • menstrual problems
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