B vitamins are used to convert carbohydrates into energy for our bodies. We specifically need vitamin B12 to make red blood cells, DNA, RNA, and nerves . Since our body does not produce B12 naturally, we rely on food sources and supplements to give our body this necessary energy.
Unfortunately, B12 is only found in animal products like beef, pork, dairy, eggs, fish, and shellfish. For plant-based people like myself, the best option is to receive the B12 through vitamin supplements.
Herbivores are not the only people at risk of B12 deficiency. Elderly people, those that have received weight-loss surgery, and people with conditions that affect food absorption like Crohn’s Disesase and Celiac are also prime at-risk candidates.
While some of people do not consume enough B12 in their diet, others cannot absorb enough. As our bodies age, a decrease of stomach acid production is relatively common. This can create problems, as stomach acid is needed to absorb the B12. Additionally, many of the commonly prescribed medications for heartburn reduce this acid production, therefore putting these people at risk for B12 deficiency too.
What does B12 deficiency look like?
- Numbness or tingling in the hands and feet
- Loss of balance
- Pale or yellow skin
- Confusion, memory loss, and cognitive difficulties
- Paranoia or hallucinations
Who’s at Risk?
- Vegetarians that don’t consume dairy or eggs
- The elderly
- People with eating disorders
- People with HIV
- People with trouble absorbing nutrients from things like medications, Crohn’s Disease, Celiac, Pancreatic Disease, and weight-loss surgeries
How much B12 should you take?
The recommended dietary amounts (RDA) are:
Newborns and infants to 1 year: 0.4-0.5 micrograms per day
Children 1 to 3: 0.9 micrograms per day
Children 4 to 8: 1.2 micrograms per day
Children 9 to 13: 1.8 micrograms per day
14 years and older: 2.4 micrograms per day
Pregnant women: 2.6 micrograms per day
Breastfeeding women: 2.8 micrograms per day
As far as dietary supplements are concerned there are many opinions about the proper dosage. For those that are at risk for being deficient, these doses are generally much higher than the figures above. One thing to understand is that our bodies can only absorb but so much at a time, so eventually the higher doses you take may end up becoming very expensive pee. Because of this, experts have not discovered if there is an unsafe amount of B12 to ingest.
If you are not in the at-risk category a standard multivitamin will likely be good enough to cover your needs as typically contains 6 micrograms.
If you are in the at-risk category, like myself, you will need something more substantial. As a vegan, I have found that 1,000 micrograms per day works great for me. Other sources say that all you need is 250 mcg per day unless you are B12 deficient, in which case you should be taking at least 1,000-5,000 mcg a day.
In more extreme cases of deficiency your doctor can prescribe B12 injections for a period of time to bring your levels back to normal. Of course, if you want to know exactly how much you should be taking, ask your healthcare provider to recommend the proper dose for your body.
Another recommendation is to take Methyl-B12 (methylcobalamin) instead of cyanocobalamin (regular B12). Cyanocobalamin is chemically synthesized in laboratories and does not occur naturally in any living organisms. This is the most common form of B12 because it is the cheapest to produce. Methyl-B12 is what the cyanocobalamin breaks down into inside of your body. It costs a little more but it is definitely worth it. You can learn more about the difference here.
There are some advocates that say you should take B12 sublingually (under the tounge) in the form of dissolvable tablets or liquid B12. They claim that by being absorbed directly into the bloodstream under the tongue your body bypasses the potentially problematic absorption in the small intestine, thus ensuring that your body starts using the vitamin immediately.
There are also B12 fortified foods in grains, cereals, plant milks, and some soy products. The most important thing is to be proactive rather than wait until you are deficient to do something about it!