Vegans and B12
Vitamin B12 is a big deal – and for vegans, it can be huge. The thing with B12 is that it is only found naturally in animal products. This means things like meats, cheese, milk, eggs, poultry, and fish – all those things that vegans specifically avoid eating.
But what’s the big deal? It’s just one vitamin, right?
Unfortunately, vitamin B12 is extremely important for your body and your brain. Here’s a quick list of just a few things that vitamin B12 is responsible for:
- B12 is used to maintain the myelin sheathe that surrounds the nerves throughout your body – this is what lets your brain communicate with the rest of your body.
- B12 works with folic acid to lower homocysteine levels – high homocysteine levels can cause dangerous heart and blood vessel problems.
- B12 is required to create new DNA and red blood cells.
- B12 is needed to prevent brain shrinkage and for general brain maintenance.
- B12 is needed for your body to undergo metabolism.
- B12 is required for you liver to function optimally.
And this is just the beginning of what B12 does for you. No matter who you are, you need to make sure you’re getting enough B12, whether it’s from your diet or otherwise.
So Vitamin B12 is Important. Can It Do Anything Else?
Besides being used to make sure your brain keeps working, B12 actually provides even more benefits as long as you stay vigilant on making sure you get enough.
One of the most common and most noticeable benefits people find from improving B12 levels is an increase in energy. B12 is needed for metabolism, and metabolism is what provides your body with energy – meaning that energy levels and the ability to lose weight are both tied to having enough B12. People who go from low B12 to high B12 usually see a sudden increase in their levels of energy.
In the case of going vegan to lose weight, you may end up frustrating yourself if you don’t keep your B12 levels high enough, as it makes it difficult to shed pounds when your body doesn’t have enough to do the process. B12 and weight loss have an interesting relationship, though: increasing your B12 levels does not magically increase your metabolism. Instead, B12 is simply what enables metabolism, so not having enough can make weight loss seem impossible (or for sudden weight gain to occur), but getting enough does not mean you’ll shed pounds effortlessly. Fortunately, B12 can help you get motivation if weight loss is what you’re after.
B12’s most important function (arguably) is keeping your brain healthy. This has upsides both physically and mentally. Speaking physically, there’s a layer of fat that surrounds every nerve in your body, known as the myelin sheathe. This sheathe is what allows your brain to ‘talk’ to the rest of your body, and is very important for things like reflexes and tactile sensations – keeping this sheathe from breaking down is one of vitamin B12’s most important functions. In this sense, B12 lets your brain keep in contact with the rest of your body.
Additionally, keeping your brain healthy can have a huge impact on your mood, with studies showing that high B12 levels can even lower your risk of suffering from depression, anxiety, and mood swings. B12 keeps your brain healthy, and a healthy brain is one that can produce and distribute neurotransmitters much more efficiently, and these little things are what keeps your mood, optimism and motivation up. This also helps to keep your memory strong, and improves focus and concentration.
B12 has a lot of other functions and benefits, too. It works to keep bad cholesterol levels low, it fights off heart disease and replenishes red blood cells, and it can even help in preventing some types of cancer.
And What if I Don’t Get Enough?
You may not struggle with weight. Maybe your mood is fine, and you don’t deal with depression or anxiety. Maybe your reflexes and concentration are just fine. Surely, there’s no issue with you and B12, right?
Unfortunately, not every sign of having low B12 is going to jump out and scream at you.
Some of the signs can be very easy to notice – depression, fatigue, sudden weight gain – and if you notice them, then you should definitely have your B12 levels checked.
Other signs, though, can remain hidden for a long time, or even mask themselves behind other health conditions. Anemia, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and heart disease are all sudden impacts that could occur from years of underlying B12 problems. When your body isn’t getting enough B12, then these more subtle conditions can go on unnoticed for long periods, until the culminate into a devastating disease.
B12 is needed for healthy blood cell development, and without it, you could develop anemia, a condition where blood cells do not fully form and thus cannot perform their intended function. This is problematic when these ‘dead’ cells still try to move through your body and end up clogging your system up and stopping healthy cells from doing their jobs. Additionally, B12 works with folic acid to keep homocysteine levels low. Homocysteine is a dangerous substance that is normally converted to a useful one, but lack of B12 prevents this conversion. When homocysteine levels get out of control, they damage your blood vessels and heart, contributing more to heart problems and blood clots.
B12 also helps to prevent brain shrinkage – a common occurrence in people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Because of this, B12 can help keep prevent these issues from happening, but if they are already present, there is nothing B12 can do to stop them – at best, it can only slow their progress.
Having more B12 means having lower chances for developing these dangerous conditions. Luckily, most early signs of low B12 are easily noticed, but people with vegan diets are at the highest risk of developing a deficiency – it never hurts to stay vigilant and make sure that your levels stay high and prevent a deficiency from ever happening in the first place.
So How Do I Get B12?
Unfortunately, it can be difficult for a vegan to get enough B12 through a regular diet. The options are generally limited to fortified foods such as breakfast cereals and meat substitutes, and these may present more problems than they attempt to solve, B12-wise.
Fortified foods will generally contain both B12 and folic acid, but there is a large disconnect in how well your body absorbs these two substances. Your body has to go through a much more complicated process to digest B12 than any other vitamin, meaning that even people who eat diets that contain naturally B12-rich foods are not immune to B12 deficiency. This can cause a problem when your folic acid levels rise too high in relation to your B12 levels. Having folic acid levels alongside low B12 levels can contribute to anemia, cognitive impairment, and even problems during pregnancy.
For vegans, this can be even more concerning, as you’ll often need to go out of your way to find foods that contain any B12 at all.
There is a myth that because your body doesn’t actually need high amounts of B12, you will be fine if you only eat small amounts, and your needs will be met just fine. As said earlier, your body doesn’t absorb B12 very well, and any condition you’ve ever suffered that lowers the efficiency of your digestive system is going to increase your risk of not getting enough B12.
Instead of trying to get B12 through dietary gymnastics, the better option may be to turn to B12 supplements.
Which Supplement Is Which?
There are a lot of supplements out on the market, even when looking solely for B12. Which supplement will give best you what you need? The short answer is methylcobalamin injections.
The long answer will take a little explaining.
When looking at B12 supplements, there’s a big distinction between methylcobalamin and cyanocobalamin. That cobalamin is just the fancy name for vitamin B12, so you’re essentially looking at the difference between cyano and methyl B12 (there are other forms of B12, but cyano- and methyl- are the most common to find in supplements). The main difference here is that methyl-B12 is the bioavailable form of B12, whereas cyano-B12 is B12 attached to a bit of cyanide and given to your body. The theory behind that is that the amount of cyanide isn’t enough to be deadly, and it works as a quick and easy way to get B12 somewhere.
In practice, this means that your body has to break down cyano-B12, pull out the cyanide, and send it off to be flushed out of your body. Methyl-B12, on the other hand, is already available for your body to use – in fact, methylcobalamin is the naturally occurring form of B12 that’s already found in animals. The methyl-form is much purer, works faster, doesn’t require any effort from your body before it can be used, and also has a lower risk of side effects than cyanocobalamin. The benefit of cyano-B12 is that it is cheaper to create, and thus is cheaper for the consumer – if you need B12 but your wallet is a little tight, then cyanocobalamin may be a fine choice. It just isn’t as powerful as its methyl- cousin.
The other question is figuring out which type of supplement works best. This generally comes down to the question of pills versus injections. The problem with pills is that they run into the same problem that B12 in food has to overcome: poor digestion. Studies have shown that a pill containing as much as 500 mcg of vitamin B12 may only actually provide about 10 mcg after it is digested, simply because of the body’s difficulty with absorbing B12. This is also under ideal digestive conditions – the number will be even lower if you have ever had digestive problems.
This, of course, may not be a huge problem. If your B12 levels are already fairly high or you have only just recently begun a vegan diet, you may be able to use pills to keep your B12 elevated enough to avoid any problems. However, if you have low B12 or a deficiency, then a pill may not provide enough for your body to recover.
Injections are a much more potent version of B12 supplements, solely because they entirely bypass the digestive system. If an injection says you’re getting 1000 mcg of B12, then you are getting 1000 mcg of B12. This number may sound high (mostly because the daily recommended amount of B12 is considered to be excessively low), but anyone suffering from a deficiency will benefit from a high intake of B12, as it helps your body to ‘catch up’ on what it has been missing.
Just Don’t Ignore It
If there’s anything to take away from this, it’s this: if you are vegan, do not ignore your B12 levels.
Vegans are, unfortunately, the highest-risk group for developing a B12 deficiency, and suffering from a deficiency can result in dangerous and life-threatening health conditions. A vegan diet will not typically include adequate amounts of B12, and some will not have any at all – it is important that you find some way to ensure that you’re getting enough of this vitamin to meet your body’s needs.
B12 deficiency is under-diagnosed, and is often ignored until it is too late. Don’t ignore it – supplements are easy to find and use, and can work wonders in ensuring that you get enough B12 to keep your mind and body going strong.