Vitamin B12, also called cobalamin, is one of 8 B vitamins. All B vitamins help the body convert food (carbohydrates) into fuel (glucose), which is used to produce energy. These B vitamins, often referred to as B complex vitamins, also help the body use fats and protein. B complex vitamins are needed for healthy skin, hair, eyes, and liver. They also help the nervous system function properly.
All B vitamins are water soluble, meaning that the body does not store them.
Vitamin B12 is an especially important vitamin for maintaining healthy nerve cells, and it helps in the production of DNA and RNA, the body's genetic material. Vitamin B12 works closely with vitamin B9, also called folate or folic acid, to help make red blood cells and to help iron work better in the body. Folate and B12 work together to produce S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe), a compound involved in immune function and mood.
Vitamins B12, B6, and B9 work together to control blood levels of the amino acid homocysteine. High levels of homocysteine are associated with heart disease. However, researchers are not sure whether homocysteine is a cause of heart disease or just a marker that indicates someone may have heart disease.
It is rare for young people to be deficient in vitamin B12, but it is not uncommon for older people to be mildly deficient. This may be because their diets are not as healthy, or because they have less stomach acid, which the body needs to absorb B12. Low levels of B12 can cause a range of symptoms including:
- Shortness of breath
- Tingling sensation in the fingers and toes
Severe deficiency of B12 causes nerve damage.
Others at risk for B12 deficiency include:
- Vegans and vegetarians who do not eat dairy or eggs, since vitamin B12 is found only in animal products
- People with problems absorbing nutrients due to Crohn disease, pancreatic disease, weight loss surgery, or medications
- People who are infected with Helicobacter pylori, an organism in the intestines that can cause an ulcer. H. pylori damages stomach cells that make intrinsic factor, a substance the body needs to absorb B12
- People with an eating disorder
- People with HIV
- People with diabetes
- The elderly
Folic acid (vitamin B9), especially when taken in high doses, can mask the symptoms of a vitamin B12 deficiency. The danger is that without symptoms, someone with a vitamin B12 deficiency may not know it, and could run the risk of developing nerve damage. You should talk to your doctor first if you plan to take more than 800 mcg of folic acid, to make sure you do not have a B12 deficiency.
Vitamin B12 is used for:
Pernicious anemia is a type of anemia that happens when stomach cells are not able to make intrinsic factor. Without intrinsic factor, your body cannot absorb vitamin B12. Symptoms include:
- Pale skin
- Weight loss
- Numbness or tingling sensation in the hands and feet
- Loss of balance
- Confusion, memory loss, and moodiness
Vitamin B12 supplements in high doses, either given as injections or orally, are prescribed to treat pernicious anemia. Pernicious anemia can be a dangerous condition and should always be treated by a doctor.
Many studies suggest that people with high levels of the amino acid homocysteine are almost two times more likely to develop coronary artery disease and 2.5 times more likely to have a stroke than those with normal levels. B complex vitamins, especially vitamins B9, B6, and B12, help lower homocysteine levels. However, researchers do not know whether high homocysteine levels actually cause heart disease.
People who are concerned about heart disease should try to get enough B vitamins from healthy foods. However, in some cases doctors recommend taking B vitamins to lower homocysteine levels. If you are worried about heart disease, ask your doctor whether taking a B vitamin supplement would be right for you.
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD)
One large study found that women who took 1,000 mcg of vitamin B12, along with 2500 mcg of folic acid and 500 mg of vitamin B6 daily, reduced the risk of developing AMD, an eye disease that can cause loss of vision.
Fatigue is one of the symptoms of a vitamin B12 deficiency. One small study suggested that some people who were not deficient in B12 might gain more energy from B12 shots. However, more research is needed. One preliminary study indicated that people with chronic fatigue syndrome might benefit from B12 injections. More research is needed.
Although there is no evidence that vitamin B12 alone reduces the risk of breast cancer, population studies have shown that women who get more folate in their diet have lower risk of breast cancer. Vitamin B12 works with folate in the body, so it may help reduce breast cancer risk. Another preliminary study suggested that postmenopausal women who had the lowest amounts of B12 in their diet had an increased risk for breast cancer.
Studies suggest that vitamin B12 supplements may improve sperm counts and sperm's ability to swim. More research is needed.
If your diet includes meat, fish or shellfish, milk, and other dairy products, you should be able to meet the recommended daily requirements without taking a vitamin B12 supplement. Vegetarians who do not eat any animal products should take a vitamin B12 supplement with water, preferably after eating. Elderly people may need larger amounts of vitamin B12 than younger people because the body's ability to absorb vitamin B12 from the diet declines with age.
If you are considering taking a B12 supplement, ask your health care provider to help you determine the right dose for you.
Daily recommendations for dietary vitamin B12 are listed below.
- Newborns to 6 months: 0.4 mcg (adequate intake)
- Infants 6 months to 1 year: 0.5 mcg (adequate intake)
- Children 1 to 3 years: 0.9 mcg (RDA)
- Children 4 to 8 years: 1.2 mcg (RDA)
- Children 9 to 13 years: 1.8 mcg (RDA)
- Teens 14 to 18 years: 2.4 mcg (RDA)
- 19 years and older: 2.4 mcg (RDA)*
- Pregnant women: 2.6 mcg (RDA)
- Breastfeeding women: 2.8 mcg (RDA)
*Because 10 to 30% of older people may not absorb B12 from food very well, people over 50 should meet their daily requirement through either foods fortified with vitamin B12 or a supplement containing B12.
Because of the potential for side effects and interactions with medications, you should take dietary supplements only under the supervision of a knowledgeable health care provider.
Vitamin B12 is considered safe and nontoxic, however taking any one of the B vitamins for a long period of time can result in an imbalance of other important B vitamins. For this reason, you may want to take a B complex vitamin that includes all B vitamins. Taking folic acid at high doses can hide a vitamin B12 deficiency. So these vitamins are often taken together. Talk to your doctor before taking more than 800 mcg of folic acid.
People with abnormal levels of red blood cells, or abnormalities in their red blood cells, should work with a doctor to determine whether B12 is appropriate for them. In some instances, B12 can be beneficial. But it can be harmful with other health conditions. For instance, B12 supplements can cause serious damage to the optic nerve in people with Leber's disease (a disease of the eye). Again, be sure to work with your doctor.
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