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Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient that supports the nervous system, red blood cells, DNA synthesis, and more. There are several forms of vitamin B12 and it is widely available from food sources.
What is Vitamin B12?
Vitamin B12 is water-soluble. It needs to be supplied from dietary sources on a daily basis since the body cannot make it.
B12 can be found in several forms. Some of them are active and more readily usable, while others must first be converted in the body to active forms.
- Adenosylcobalamin (active)
- Methylcobalamin (active)
- Cyanocobalamin (needs to be converted)
- Hydroxocobalamin (needs to be converted)
Cyanocobalamin is the most common form of B12 found in nutritional supplements and fortified foods. Deficiency is not common among people who consume animal products but can happen for health-related or other physical reasons, which we’ll discuss below.
Health Benefits of Vitamin B12
- Supports the normal formation of red blood cells
- Promotes healthy neurological function
- Supports healthy DNA synthesis (including in pregnancy for fetal health)
- Acts as a cofactor for the conversion of homocysteine to methionine (supporting healthy methylation and genetic expression, as well as cardiovascular health)
- Supports healthy bones
- Promotes mental health and balanced mood
- Protects against atrophy of brain cells, protecting cognitive health
- Supports healthy skin and hair
Food Sources of Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is found in animal products. Because it is not found in significant amounts in plant-based foods, those who do not regularly consume animal products have a high likelihood of inadequate B12 levels.
Foods high in B12 include:
- Red meat
- Organ meats
- Whole milk
Vitamin B12 Supplements
Vitamin B12 is found in multivitamin supplements, as well as B complex formulas that contain most or all of the B family of vitamins. It is also available as a standalone supplement.
B12 can be found in different forms in supplements, and will always be listed according to what type was used. Cyanocobalamin is the most commonly used form, but in people with genetic variants that decrease the efficiency of their methylation cycle, active forms of B12 may be preferred (methylcobalamin or adenosylcobalamin).
Supplementing with high doses of vitamin B12 may be done under certain conditions, such as treating pernicious anemia. Serious cases of B12 deficiency are best treated with B12 injections. All B vitamins should be taken in balance with each other, as excessive intake of folic acid or folate without complementary B12 can mask signs of low B12 and result in neurological disorders or damage.
Most people in the US get enough B12, but those who may be at risk of low levels include:
- Vegetarians or vegans
- Those who take hormonal forms of contraceptives
- Older adults who have a decreased ability to absorb B12
- People with chronic or digestive disorders
- People who have methylation gene variants (MTHFR and others)
- People with pernicious anemia
- People who have low stomach acid or chronically use antacids
- Those who supplement with high-dose folic acid or folate without B12
- People who take other medications
Signs of low B12 can include fatigue, muscle weakness, headache, mood disorders, and neurological changes like tingling in the hands and feet.
(PPNF Note: Individual nutrients, whether from food or supplements, can have potent medicinal effects and can dramatically impact health. Many people assume that because they are natural nutrients that they are safe from negative effects. Because they have the potential to both heal and harm when used in improper amounts, it’s always important to wisely consider your total nutrient intake—diet and supplements—and consult with nutrition professionals for personalized help.)
Today’s Simple Step
Maybe you already routinely eat these foods, and if so, take your daily step a bit further: track your food for a day and pay attention to how much B12 you’re getting. Also, if you have any signs associated with B12 deficiency above, don’t ignore them just because you eat plenty of animal foods or take supplements. There are other digestive issues that can complicate B12 levels, so consult your healthcare provider for further testing if needed.
Braised Beef Shortribs are a delicious way to get more B12 into your diet. These work as the main dish for a special occasion—or just because you want something hearty to eat! Pair them with your favorite side, like mashed cauliflower or roasted vegetables, for a meal that is sure to satisfy everyone at the table.