Vitamin B12 is a complex and important nutrient. Chemically known as cobalamin, it’s one of the eight known B vitamins, all of which serve similar functions within the human body: they enable the production of enzymes that fuel chemical processes fundamental to life.
What does B12 do inside your body?
Vitamin B12 is used by the body to:
- Create both red blood cells and immune system cells
- Create a protective insulating layer around nerve cells called myelin
- Metabolise certain nutrients; amino acids, and essential fatty acids
Why is it important to maintain healthy levels of B12?
Vitamin B12 is involved in such crucial metabolic processes within the body that low levels can have a major effect on health.
A healthy (what does “healthy” mean?) intake will cut your risk of potentially serious complications like heart disease and osteoporosis. B12 deficiency anaemia can develop if a lack of the vitamin interferes with the production of healthy blood cells: abnormally large, non-functional cells may form instead.
Good levels of B12 have also been linked to better health in old age, reducing the risk of eye and memory problems.
What it means when your levels of B12 change
Changing levels of vitamin B12 can indicate problems with your diet, a decline in your health, or the onset of illness.
Dietary issues that can lead to a fall in vitamin B12 levels include:
- A strict vegan or a vegetarian diet with no compensatory supplements taken or appropriately fortified foods consumed
- Too much alcohol
A number of illnesses can also affect B12 levels, for example:
- Crohn’s Disease
- Coeliac disease
- Lupus and similar autoimmune conditions
Medicines that affect the digestive system can interfere with the absorption of dietary B12.
Aging also affects the absorption of B12, with deficiencies more common in older people.
If your diet is not quite all it could be and you’re receiving inadequate amounts of vitamin B12, you may experience some strange and uncomfortable symptoms. For example:
- Muscular twinges and prickling
- A painful tongue
- Mouth ulcers
- Problems with your eyesight
- A low mood
Low levels of vitamin B12 can also affect fertility in women.
What can you do to ensure healthy levels of B12?
The first step to ensuring healthy B12 levels is straightforward: make sure you eat plenty of foods rich in this vitamin. For example:
- Red meat
- White meat
Supplements containing B12 are the best alternative for vegetarians and vegans. Most popular multivitamins contain cobalamin, and it’s also, unsurprisingly, found in ‘B complex’ products: i.e. containing all eight B vitamins. Single substance B12 supplements are also available for those who wish to focus solely on this key nutrient.
Some foods – for example, bread and breakfast cereals – are routinely ‘fortified’ with B12 and other vitamins such as vitamin B9, also known as folic acid. This is done to help ensure a baseline level of health in the general populace.
Assessing your B12 levels
Testing your vitamin B12 levels is a sensible way to ensure you’re getting enough. You can, in fact, buy a vitamin b12 test to check your B12 levels yourself at home, with a simple-to-use finger prick testing kit. Your sample will receive professional laboratory analysis. And when you receive the results of your B12 blood test you will be able to adjust your diet and supplement use accordingly. Why not enjoy the reassurance of knowing you are doing the best you can to protect your health?
Written by Bev Walton, BSc Nutritional Science
I achieved a First-Class Honours degree in BSc Nutritional Science, Nutrition Sciences from the University of Reading and now have over 35 years experience in all types of cuisine, dietary plans, recipe development, health and nutrition. I have been writing for over 10 years for magazines and websites as well as ghostwriting for ebooks, Kindle and fully published books. I’m also a proud member of the Guild of Food writers.