If you’ve been struggling with persistent fatigue, problems with memory and concentration, poor mental clarity, or sleep difficulties, a deficiency in vitamin B12 may be to blame. One of the most important functions of vitamin B12 is its role in making DNA (along with its cofactor, folate). This means that every time your body makes a new cell, it needs B12 and folate. This includes red blood cells, which are responsible for carrying oxygen from your lungs to your heart and body tissues.
Let’s look at some other important functions of B12 in relation to energy levels and cognitive function:
- Involved in the health of our central nervous system and supports signaling from the brain down through the nerves.
- Involved in the metabolism of carbohydrates and helps convert them into a usable form of energy.
- Vital to the production of melatonin, which is the hormone our pineal gland releases in the evening that helps us to wind down from our day and allows us to fall asleep.
For these reasons, vitamin B12 has benefits for energy production, memory, cognitive function, sleep, and many other functions.
A severe deficiency in vitamin B12 can lead to pernicious anemia, characterized by anemia, a red beefy tongue, numbness and tingling in the fingers and toes, dizziness, impaired mental function, diarrhea, and eventually death. While severe B12 deficiency is fairly uncommon, mild or subclinical deficiency is more common that you might think.
One article suggests that up to 25% of adults are marginally deficient, and research conducted by Health Canada revealed that of Canadians 19 and older, 10-35% had vitamin B12 intakes below the Estimated Average Requirements.
What does mild B12 deficiency look like? Here are some other common signs of deficiency:
- Persistent fatigue or feeling tired that is not relieved with sleep
- Muscle aches and weakness
- Tingling in the extremities
- Joint pain
- Shortness of breath
- Problems with memory
- Difficulty with concentration
- Low mood or depression, often resistant to treatment
- Anxiety, irritability, or nervousness
- Poor stomach digestion, or low stomach acid
- Yellowish tint to skin, pale complexion
- Blurry or double vision
Vitamin B12 is really only found in sufficient quantities in animal foods – think anything that used to have a face, or anything that came from something with a face (i.e. eggs, dairy products). Dietary sources include beef, poultry, fish, shellfish, cheese and milk products, and eggs. Liver and kidneys are also excellent sources of vitamin B12 as these are the organs where it is stored in the body.
While it is possible to obtain fortified food products with B12, such as in milks or grain products, this type of supplementation is not believed to be as bioavailable as animal products. The superfood spirulina is also another popular vegan source of B12, but it contains very little B12; and like fortified foods, it is also a more difficult form to absorb. For these reasons, you can see where it might become difficult for vegetarians or vegans to get adequate amounts of vitamin B12 in their diet.
Aside from vegetarian or vegan diets, what else impacts B12 levels in the body?
- Inadequate dietary intake
- Impaired digestion and poor absorption of nutrients
- Calcium deficiency – as calcium plays a role in B12 absorption
- Psychological stress or emotional trauma – stress is associated with lower levels of stomach acid, which is needed to properly absorb B12
- Elderly individuals – older people tend to product less stomach acid
- Smokers – nicotine can block B12 absorption
- Excessive alcohol intake – depletes B12 stores in the body (along with other B vitamins and essential minerals)
If you’ve been suffering from persistent fatigue, low energy, difficulties with focus and concentration, or any of the deficiency symptoms mentioned above, it may be in your best interest to pay a visit to your health care provider and ask to have your B12 levels assessed with a simple blood test. Once you know where you’re at, you can take appropriate measures to correct the imbalance by making dietary changes or supplementing with sublingual tablets or B12 injections as needed. (Read on for more information about B12 values and supplementation.)
(As an important aside: B12 and folate work hand in hand when it comes to making DNA and replacing new cells. If you supplement with one, make sure you are supplementing with the other. It’s always best to consult with an educated healthcare provider to make sure you are choosing the right supplements for you and your needs. Remember that what works for one person may not work for another!)