Vegetarians and vegans are not the only ones who can develop a Vitamin B12 deficiency. Whether you're young or old; a Paleo, gluten-free, or raw foods enthusiast, you too can suffer from this. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, one in every 31 adults in the US, age 51 or older, is deficient in vitamin B12.
What is B12?
Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, is a water-soluble vitamin required for many reactions in your body as well as for the health of your nerves, red blood cells, and DNA. Its most important role is as a methyl group donor, which is a crucial step in many of our main detoxification pathways.
B12 has many forms, and the most common are cyanocobalamin and methylcobalamin (methyl-B12). Cyanocobalamin is commonly found in supplements and energy drinks. However, in order for our bodies to use it, cyanocobalamin must be converted into methylcobalamin.
To make matters more complicated, about 50% of the population is estimated to have at least one mutation at the MTHFR gene and 10% has two mutations, meaning they're less able to methylate B12 or convert cyanocobalamin to methylcobalamin. (I personally have two gene mutations.) In fact, the more mutations one has at this gene, the less able one is to make this conversion, requiring supplementation with Methyl-B12, Folate, and B6.
If ignored, a B12 deficiency can affect the entire body, leading to permanent brain and nerve damage. Sometimes B12 deficiencies can be overlooked and misdiagnosed as other disorders like Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, bipolar disorder, autism, and some cancers.
Best sources of B12
Our bodies do not make vitamin B12, which means that we must get it through our diet or through supplementation. The average adult needs 2.4 micrograms a day, and the best dietary sources of vitamin B12 are animal products such as:
Vegan sources of B12 include nutritional yeast, algae, and seaweed, but studies have shown that these sources have little to no effect on B12 blood levels.
Common Causes of B12 Deficiency:
The absorption, assimilation and methylation of B12 is a very complex process, which leaves many opportunities for error. For this reason, even those who consume sufficient amounts of vitamin B12 in their diets could still have a functional B12 deficiency. Some causes of B12 deficiency are:
Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) and leaky gut
Low stomach acid from prolonged use of stomach acid-reducing drugs
How to test for B12 deficiency:
Complete Blood Count (CBC)
This test, when it reveals the red blood cells to be very large, can indicate megaloblastic anemia, which is caused by a B12 and/or folate deficiency. Note that this doesn't always reflect how well the body is able to use B12—as it doesn't account for individuals with mutations at the MTHFR gene, for example.
MTHFR genetic test
The more mutations one has to this gene, the more they require B12, folate, and B6 for their detoxification pathways and body to function optimally. It's estimated that those with one mutation decrease their ability to methylate by 30% and those with two mutations decrease their ability to methylate by 70%, making it virtually impossible get adequate B12 from diet alone.
Very low or high blood levels of homocysteine can indicate a B12, folate, and/or B6 deficiency.
Methylmalonic acid test
This measures the B12 stored in tissues, which makes it more specific to B12 deficiency than the other blood tests
This is a test frequently ordered by a Functional Medicine physician to determine how well an individual is able processes, methylate and functionally use B12. I use this test most frequently on those with one or more MTHFR mutations.
How do I get more B12?
Eat a diet rich in animal protein
Individuals without dietary restrictions or MTHFR mutations can simply consume more meat, fish, poultry, and eggs in their diets. You may also consider taking a high quality multivitaminwith methyl-B12.
Consume a high-dose oral supplement of methylcobalamin (methyl-B12)
This option is a MUST for those with mutations at the MTHFR gene. This is also recommended for vegetarians, vegans, the elderly, and anyone else with low levels of B12. When looking for B12 supplements in the store, be sure to look for it in the form of methylcobalamin instead of cyanocobalamin. Methyl-B12 is the best form for the body to utilize and will have the greatest impact on your B12 levels.
Take sublingual methyl-B12 drops
A sublingual supplement of B12 is recommended for those with SIBO or other gut issues affecting absorption.
Get B12 shots
These are recommended for those with pernicious anemia or severely depleted B12 levels. Methyl- B12 can be injected directly into the muscle tissue to accelerate absorption and replenish muscle stores.