If you’ve been feeling more fatigued and had lower energy than usual, it may not be your sleep habits that are the issue; vitamin B12 deficiency is commonly associated with low energy levels and fatigue. Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient that the body needs in order to function properly, and most people obtain the nutrient from animal based products like meat and dairy.
When people do not receive enough vitamin B12, they are likely to experience not only short term health effects like low energy levels and fatigue but also more serious health concerns like an increased risk of certain types of anemia and heart disease. It is important to get plenty of vitamin B12 in order to receive all of the benefits of this essential nutrient, but what is B12 good for?
What is vitamin B12?
Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, belongs to the B-complex family of vitamins. The B-complex family of vitamins includes eight different water-soluble vitamins, all of which are needed to carry out essential functions in the body. Vitamin B12 is specifically involved in the formation of red blood cells, production of DNA, proper functioning of the nerves, and supporting the cell metabolism. Deficiency of vitamin B12 is relatively common, as people have increasing difficulty absorbing vitamin B12 as they age. Women who are pregnant and people who follow plant-based diets, including vegans and vegetarians, are also at an increased risk of experiencing vitamin B12 deficiency. People who have had certain surgeries on the bowels and those who have used antacids for a prolonged period of time are also more likely to experience vitamin B12 deficiency.
What is B12 good for?
Assists in the production of red blood cells
The body needs vitamin B12 in order to produce healthy red blood cells and prevent a type of anemia called megaloblastic anemia. When the body receives enough vitamin B12, the red blood cells in the body are small and round. People who have a vitamin B12 deficiency have red blood cells that are larger and oval in shape, which prevents them from moving efficiently from the bone marrow into the bloodstream. Without enough red blood cells to transport oxygen to the organs and muscles, anemia occurs. Megaloblastic anemia is a type of anemia associated with vitamin B12 deficiency. Symptoms associated with all types of anemia include weakness and fatigue.
Supports bone health
Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient for the support of bone health and bone mineral density. Studies have found that vitamin B12 deficiency is tied to lower than normal bone density, which can lead to conditions like osteopenia and osteoporosis. People with reduced bone mineral density have bones that become delicate and fragile over time, which increases the risk of experiencing fractures.
Supports a healthy mood and minimizes symptoms of depression
Researchers do not fully understand how vitamin B12 contributes to mood, but several studies have linked low levels of vitamin B12 to depression and poor mood. What is known is that vitamin B12 helps with the synthesis and metabolism of serotonin, which is a chemical in the brain that influences mood. Without enough vitamin B12, the body is unable to produce sufficient amounts of serotonin, which can cause symptoms of depression to appear. One study showed that people with vitamin B12 deficiency were twice as likely to experience severe depression as those with normal levels of vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 supplementation may help people with depression receive more relief of symptoms when taking antidepressant medication, as one study showed that people who received treatment for depression from antidepressants and vitamin B12 had an improvement in symptoms compared to those who took antidepressants alone.
Prevents major birth defects
Everyone needs vitamin B12 in order to function properly, but pregnant women especially need to monitor their vitamin B12 levels, as the brain and nervous system of the developing fetus require an adequate supply of vitamin B12 in order to develop properly. Women who are deficient in vitamin B12 at the beginning of their pregnancy are more likely to experience birth defects, such as neural tube defects, and deficiency may also be linked to premature birth and miscarriage. The lower a pregnant woman’s levels of vitamin B12, the more likely her pregnancy is to experience birth defects and other issues.
Supports brain health
As we age, cognitive decline, including memory loss, is common; however, people with vitamin B12 deficiency are more likely to experience brain atrophy, cognitive decline, and poor memory. Vitamin B12 may help to prevent brain atrophy, or the loss of neurons in the brain, which is linked to dementia and memory loss. Supplementation with vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids has been found to slow mental decline in patients with early-stage dementia, and vitamin B12 supplementation has also been found to improve memory performance. Further research is needed, but it appears that vitamin B12 supplementation can help preserve cognitive function, particularly in older results.
Supports eye health
Vitamin B12 helps prevent eye disease, including age-related macular degeneration, and supports overall eye health. Macular degeneration primarily affects central vision and is increasingly common as we age. Age-related macular degeneration is attributed in part to elevated levels of homocysteine, which is a hormone in the bloodstream that is regulated in part by vitamin B12. One study of 5,000 women over the age of 40 found that participants who supplemented their diets with vitamin B12, folic acid, and vitamin B6 were less likely to experience age-related macular degeneration than those who did not supplement.
Boosts energy levels
The B-complex vitamins in general are strongly linked to the support of healthy energy levels because they help the body to produce energy. While B-complex vitamins do not provide energy on their own, the body needs them to create energy. People with adequate levels of vitamin B12 will likely not notice an energy boost from taking a supplement that contains the vitamin, but people with low levels of vitamin B12 are likely to notice a significant improvement in their energy levels by treating the deficiency. Vitamin B12 deficiency is commonly associated with fatigue and lack of energy, so receiving an adequate supply of the vitamin is critical to maintaining energy levels.
Supports healthy nails, skin, and hair
The body needs vitamin B12 in order to produce cells, and without an adequate supply of the vitamin, we do not have healthy nails, skin, and hair. Low levels of vitamin B12 have been tied to dermatological issues such as nail discoloration, vitiligo (the loss of skin color in patches), hyperpigmentation, hair changes, and angular stomatitis (inflamed and cracked mouth corners). These symptoms can be improved with supplementation of vitamin B12 when they are the result of a vitamin B12 deficiency. However, people who do not have a deficiency but are experiencing these symptoms are unlikely to notice an improvement from vitamin B12 supplementation.
Promotes heart health
Although there are many causes and contributing factors for heart disease, elevated levels of homocysteine, a common amino acid, have been consistently linked to an increased risk of heart disease. People with low levels of vitamin B12 are more likely to experience elevated levels of homocysteine, and those who experience a deficiency can lower their levels of homocysteine by increasing their intake of vitamin B12.
What are natural sources of vitamin B12?
Vitamin B12 is most commonly found in animal products and is not found naturally in large quantities in plant products. As a result, people who adhere strictly to plant based diets, such as vegans and vegetarians, are more likely to experience a vitamin B12 deficiency without careful planning. Natural sources of vitamin B12 include:
- fish, especially haddock and tuna
- dairy products, such as milk, cheese, and yogurt
- some nutritional yeast products
Other foods are fortified with vitamin B12 in order to provide an additional opportunity to ingest this important nutrient. Breakfast cereals and certain types of soy milk may be fortified with vitamin B12, as well as other whole grain products. People who do not eat animal products are unlikely to obtain enough vitamin B12 from plant-based sources and should consider taking a dietary supplement that contains vitamin B12.