By Jan de Vries, originally published Spring 2014
Vitamin B12 has always been associated with fighting fatigue and supporting nerve function. However, new research indicates that this complex vitamin with many biological functions extends beyond simple physical wellbeing.
Vitamin B12 has an established key role in the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system as well as for the formation of healthy blood cells. It is also involved in the metabolism of every cell in the body.
For such an essential nutrient it may come as a surprise that the human body is unable to produce its own B12 and is completely reliant on dietary sources. While some may quote authorities who state that our bowel bugs generate some vitamin B12 it has been shown that this tiny trickle is not absorbed from the colon and serves as no real nutritional source. We need vitamin B12, albeit in small amounts, but we have to get it from our diet. Some key dietary sources are described later on but in essence there is no reliable non-animal source of vitamin B12, making it very difficult for strict vegetarians or vegans to obtain significant amounts.
Interestingly, vitamin B12 was initially discovered due to its relationship with the condition pernicious anaemia. This is an autoimmune disease whereby the cells in the stomach responsible for secreting intrinsic factor (IF), which is crucial for the absorption of B12, are destroyed.
Taking vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is often used to treat nerve pain. In most cases, the reported benefit of B12 is related to the injected form of B12 in people suffering from nerve pains in relation to diabetic neuropathy or shingles pain.
There have been some news stories relating to poor B12 absorption in people taking gastric acid blocking drugs. These drugs take effect on the same cells within the stomach that produce IF. In regular users, regular tablets or capsules of B12 will not help much because the absorption of B12 has become impaired as a consequence of the drug action. This is where the suckable/chewable tablets come into their own. Vitamin B12 can be effectively absorbed across the delicate membranes of the mouth in sufficient amounts to readdress any deficiency without the need for injection therapy in most cases.
For those with true pernicious anaemia who need regular injections of B12 every 3 months, a top-up using B12 tablets in the month leading up to the next injection can offer a great ‘lift’ for those who notice a general low energy phase before their next injection. Like chewable and suckable B12 supplements, BetterYou’s B12 oral spray allows this important nutrient to absorb through the membranes of the cheek.
So long as the B12 is in the biologically active form known as methylcobalamin and in a chewable/suckable form dosing up on one tablet per day for a month or so could make all the difference to fatigue or ‘brain fog’. Even if you have not been using the acid-blocking drugs, it may be worth trying a course of sublingual B12 for a month especially if you are over 50 years old or follow a strict vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia and Vitamin B12
Scientific studies into the causes of fibromyalgia (FM) and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) are always interesting, especially when they appear to support what we notice in the clinic. In the case of vitamin B12 many FM/ CFS sufferers report improved energy and overall well-being following a course of high-dose B12 supplementation over 4-6 weeks.
Lending some scientific evidence to this anecdotal observation, a study carried out in Sweden back in 1997 gave support to the use of B12 in FM/CFS cases when it was shown that the fluids surrounding the brain and spinal cord (the cerebrospinal fluid of CSF) was significantly lower in vitamin B12 than expected. Having such a low CSF B12 level was closely associated with increased levels of a metabolite known as homocysteine. This in turn was linked to profound symptoms of fatigue.
The study concluded that these findings were probably contributing to the FM/CFS in their study group. Sadly, since then, little work has been performed in this area of vitamin B12 research but a team from Kings College did provide preliminary evidence of reduced functional B vitamin status in CFS patients. It’s not often practical to perform routine blood testing for B-vitamin status in cases of FM/CFS let alone sampling of the CSF, but in the holistic management of this complex spectrum of disorders, a trial of vitamin B12 or a good vitamin B complex often yields impressive results and is well worth considering.
Enhancing nerve and brain functions with vitamin B12
Following on from the discussion about B12 and chronic fatigue, a team from Germany have just released their study results indicating how vitamin B12 looks to be a vital factor in maintaining healthy brain function.
In their paper, the scientists describe how vitamin B12 deficiency expresses itself by a wide variety of neurological manifestations such as paraesthesias (altered nerve sensations), skin numbness, coordination disorders and reduced nerve conduction speed. In elderly people, a subclinical (not apparent by conventional symptoms) vitamin B12 deficiency can be associated with a progressive brain wasting (atrophy).
The study concluded that in particular, older persons, patients on long-term medication and those with neurological disorders can all benefit from additional vitamin B12 supplements and that cognitive performance can be improved by the use of B12.
Can vitamin B12 be toxic?
To our knowledge, there have been no reports of toxicity involving vitamin B12 supplements but following the publication of the German study we posed the question to the lead author Prof Joachim Schmidt who confirmed that it is generally accepted that vitamin B12 has very low toxicity in humans.
Dietary sources and Supplementation
Good dietary sources for B12 include shellfish, organ meats (especially liver and kidney), eggs, beef, pork and dairy products. There is no B12 in vegetables, pulses or other staples of a vegetarian/vegan diet.
As a supplement, vitamin B12 is considered to be safe and non-toxic. However, if you are using antibiotics it is recommended that you take your B12 at a different time of day than the antibiotics to avoid any interference with the absorbance of the antibiotic medication. Interestingly, this recommendation also applies to a vitamin-B-complex supplement too.
From the Jan de Vries archives
I hope you enjoyed Jan’s article about vitamin B12. If you’re a vegetarian then it’s likely you should be taking a B12 supplement, and if you’re a vegan we can’t stress enough just how important this vitamin is! Vitamin B12 supplementation is so easy with BetterYou’s B12 oral spray – it absorbs directly through the cheek membranes, avoiding the digestive system altogether and ensuring more efficient absorption. Check out our full range of vitamin B12 supplements here.
Keep an eye out for more articles from the Jan de Vries archives, we’ve found so many fascinating ones already and can’t wait to share them with you all!